Lilongwe — As countries around the globe commemorated World Population Day, leaders and decision makers were challenged to whip up support for women and girls to have access to sexual and reproductive health services and to deal with the after-effects of lockdowns due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic which has been described as the largest global public health threat is slowly but steadily pushing back the SRHR gains realised over the years of ending Gender-Based Violence and increasing knowledge on and access to sexual and reproductive health care in southern Africa in particular and everywhere around the globe.
Last year, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD 25) nations agreed to obtain political reaffirmation of the importance of the ICPD agenda and its contribution toward Agenda 2030 and garner financial and political commitments to advance implementation of the ICPD agenda
They also agreed to create robust links to UNFPA's strategic plan to end unmet need for family planning, end preventable maternal deaths and end harmful practices against women and girls and reinvigorate a multi-stakeholder SRHR coalition and movement to finish the unfinished business of Cairo. With COVID-19 in the picture these commitments are at stake.
Commenting on COVID-19 and women's rights, Colleen Lowe Morna, Chief Executive Officer of Gender Links is quoted as saying: "Africa is a continent of resilience. The not-so-secret essence of that resilience are the powerful African women who defy all odds to raise families and nations. Let not COVID-19 roll back the precious gains we have made for women's rights. No virus can stop the march to #Generation Equality. Aluta Continua!"
While governments in Southern Africa and across the globe are taking measures - including lockdowns - to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 - these unprecedented measures must begin to address the needs of girls and women in the context of sexual and reproductive health services.
According to UNFPA, "the pandemic has already severely disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services. It is worsening existing inequalities for women and girls, and deepening discrimination against other marginalized groups. Sexual and reproductive health and rights is a significant public health issue that demands urgent and sustained attention and investment."
In April this year UNFPA said more than 47 million women could lose access to contraception, leading to 7 million unintended pregnancies in the coming months.
In its research findings UNFPA warned that as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the number of women unable to access family planning, facing unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence and other harmful practices could skyrocket by millions of cases in the months ahead.
"This new data shows the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 could soon have on women and girls globally. The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health," said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director at the time.
"Women's reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs. The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported."
World Health Organisations (WHO) said as COVID-19 continues to spread across Africa there are concerns its impact on girls and women.
According to WHO equally worrisome is recent study by UN Women found that reports of violence against women, and particularly domestic violence, have increased in several countries.
Leaving no stone unturned.
George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN) says amidst COVID-19 a lot of attention has been diverted from other equally health conditions or issues putting more girls and women at increased risk.
"Ever since the pandemic was declared we have seen a lot of resources being channelled to the fight against COVID-19. The resources include health workers and funding. Some of the health surveillance assistants are working at port of entry [border posts] and others are doing the good job of tracing contacts of those who have tested positive. Some health workers have been employed to help deal with the pandemic.
"In the course of fighting COVID-19 some of the health services that are affected include reproductive health. There is need to integrate on COVID-19 with other services. When health workers are doing tracing contacts tracing, they should also provide family planning and other reproductive health services to communities. The integration with
COVID-19 fight and reproductive health services should include messaging, health talks as well as provision of supplies," Jobe said.
He added that the health budgeting should still maintain attracting attention of communities - girls and women. Jobe warned that if the population of Malawi is left to grow at the current rate, the health sector will greatly be affected as "resources will never be enough and Malawians will anguish in abject poverty.|"
Jobe said: "Knowing that personal protective equipment (PPEs) are important in the fight against COVID-19, and knowing that the pandemic is limiting people's movements, it would be to consider some reproductive health supplies as part of the essential package.
Government can also consider supplying these supplies in communities in lockdown and consider removing Value Added Tax and duty. That can increase women's accessibility of the commodities Some of the development partners that are making donations should consider including these in their packages."
He explained that while some girls and women are recipients of COVID-19 directed interventions a good number of them are vulnerable to gender-based violence and other challenges. He said unlike men, a lot of girls, young mothers and widows struggle economically and have no access to economic activities like jobs and businesses to buy essential products such as sanitary pads.
"We can do better as a country to protect girls and women from the impact of COVID-19. In spite of the pandemic, it is possible to create a better environment for girls and women to live in by providing them with the necessities in their daily lives," Jobe said.
*Joseph Kayira is a journalist from Malawi. This story is part GL News Service