Why is that something that is so fundamental to Women end up being the most controversial in the Developmental agenda?
Joyce Banda (Former President of Malawi)
Women’s bodies continue to give birth to all of civilization and yet have been neglected for centuries. The situation has been worsened by the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic. Around the world, women face a variety of heightened risks due to the pandemic, be it health instability, economic instability or lack of social protection. The Sexual and Reproductive Women’s Health sector has undeniably been affected and calls for immediate measures to curb the situation.
Although WHO issued its guidance to continue giving the essential services across the globe, the sexual health sector often goes unacknowledged. Many health care centres are shut down imposing a threat to safe delivery care services. Reduced antenatal visits and follow-ups, diversion of the healthcare professionals and resources to response efforts, and doctors fearing the risk of infection threatens to exacerbate limited access to care and negatively impacts women’s health. As witnessed during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2016, the use of reproductive and maternal healthcare services plummeted so much that maternal and neonatal deaths and stillbirths indirectly caused by the epidemic outnumbered direct Ebola-related deaths.(1)
The situation has been compounded by deprioritisation of important services like safe abortion and access to contraception services. Natalie Kanem, the executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), predicts that there could be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide because of the crisis, with potentially thousands of deaths from unsafe abortion and complicated births due to inadequate access to emergency care.(2)More unsafe births, less access to contraceptives and increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases can escalate the number of active HIV cases, and cervical cancers, thus adding to the burden.
Travel restrictions imposed by the governments, shortage of medications, clinicians and resources, lack of awareness and credible information, fear of taking public transportation in the midst of a pandemic seem to be major obstacles in seeking reproductive healthcare particularly in low income societies. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women experience sexual violence which has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.(3) In South Africa, a national hotline that receives reports of sexual violence saw a three-fold spike in calls after the country-wide lockdown took effect.But while there was an increase in reports, there was a simultaneous decrease in clinic visits for accessing care for sexual violence.(4)
The COVID-19 pandemic should not be treated as an excuse to restrict women’s access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Safeguarding basic healthcare rights should be an integral part of the pandemic response efforts. There must be a more equal distribution of the decision making power in the healthcare system. Telemedicine and strengthening comprehensive sexual education can be used to expand access to sexual and reproductive health services. Women’s healthcare rights need to be protected, now and always.
“Dispel the Ignorance, Act with Prudence.”
(1). Khalid F. Implications of Covid-19 on maternal health: Lessons from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. DAWN.COM. https://www.dawn.com/news/1560822. Published 2020. Accessed August 27, 2020.
(2).https://www.unfpa.org/press/new-unfpa-projections-predict-calamitous-impact-womens-health-covid-19-pandemic-continues. Published 2020. Accessed August 27, 2020.
(3). COVID-19 intensifies ‘brutal crime’ of sexual violence in conflict. UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1066712. Published 2020. Accessed August 27, 2020.
(4). Women and girls face greater dangers during COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors Without Borders – USA. https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/news/women-and-girls-face-greater-dangers-during-covid-19-pandemic. Published 2020. Accessed August 27, 2020.