West Africa: How Covid-19 Affects the Reproductive Health of Young People

Pregnant women wait to be attended to at a health centre (file photo).
11 August 2020

Johannesburg — The reproductive health of adolescents in West Africa, like so many regions, is being negatively impacted by Covid-19 with maternal mortality being the second cause of death among adolescents in Senegal. allAfrica's Sethi Ncube interviewed Christine Sarr, one of 25 young change-makers from around the world gathered by SheDecides 25x25.
Sarr leads Gender Based Violence amongst young SRPF ambassadors in Sénégal, whom she represented at the International Conference on Family Planning in Kigali, 2018. She's also the women’s leader of AFRIYAN/girls in Senegal, and her passion in life is volunteer work, and as a volunteer for Corps Africa Sénégal she has been assigned to remote regions within to help women and girls in local communities with their most urgent needs.
Emphasising that reproductive health is a necessity for development, Sarr is calling on governments in both Senegal and the wider region to prioritise and commit funding to this essential service.

What does your work at SheDecides 25x25 entail?

At SheDecides 25x25 we believe in the empowerment of women, we believe that women have a role in society and their rights should be respected. We advocate for the consideration of the needs of young people, especially on reproductive health. We promote access to information for young people and we have organized a camp for young people to train them with the goal of reaching 5,000 young people in December 2021.

Governments are trying to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and its impact, and then neglecting essential services around reproductive health. What do you suggest your government should do to prevent the long-term effects of this?

Women are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of contracting the virus, children are no longer vaccinated because rumours say that the vaccine would be tested in Africa, and again hospitals limit the number of visits per day, knowing the strong demographic growth of our countries, we are facing at least 8 pregnant women who do not access the services of primary loads. I think that our governments should make efforts in this direction and put a helpline for pregnant women and other complicated cases. Hospitals should be better equipped for reproductive health needs, especially with regard to contraception.

Even in normal times, accessing care for sexual violence can be extremely difficult due to stigma and other reasons - what should women who find themselves in such situations do during the pandemic?

Sexual violence has become a very frequent scourge in Sénégal, in 2019 women's organizations fought for action to be taken, and today in Sénégal we are finally talking about the criminalization of rape (Ed's note: Under the current law in Senegal rape  is considered only a minor offence) . This is a step forward, but that is often not the problem.
The biggest challenge is to denounce these despicable acts, and today - for fear that the society rejects you or that we look at you differently - families prefer not to denounce. Others, for lack of means to take care of victims, leave them to face their fate, which has serious consequences.
And for those who have the courage to denounce, many services have been closed because of the pandemic, legal proceedings have become longer, and it is difficult to win a case very early on, so some people have given up the fight.

Is anything being done to help, for example, sex workers during the pandemic?

In our countries, sex workers are very stigmatized, they are not listened to and yet today with the pandemic they are the most exposed. We recently saw a press release saying they need the support of the state in this time of pandemic and everyone shared this. But with the aim of laughing, and yet these are citizens who are just claiming their right to protection. In this time of the pandemic, the protection of all human beings is a priority and the state should indeed prioritize sex workers. In compliance with barrier measures, social distancing is strongly required, yet the job requires some contact and unfortunately, in most cases, there are no protective measures. If we say we have to adhere to all the regulations, then sex workers have to be better considered.

In most countries health structures are usually not adequately equipped for sexual reproductive health services, do you think there's anything that can pressure governments to do better during this difficult time?

Today we are fighting against the consequences of the coronavirus, the spread of the virus in our countries. But what will happen tomorrow when we are faced with an unwanted pregnancy rate, problematic births because the needs have not been taken into account before, the government must promote communication so that the population can better attend health structures so that their needs are taken care of very early. The state should take an interest in reproductive health problems and heads of hospitals reflect on how specialized services in reproductive health are allocated.

The media's attention has been fully diverted into reporting on the virus, how do you think we can best shift our attention from the virus to other issues of equal importance?

Today nothing can be done without the media, we receive information through the media and this should be a force for civil society to collaborate more with the media to denounce the scourge of violence in our countries. Journalists in our countries must be more sensitized on gender issues in general. Figures must be put on the front page to explain - for example, how many cases of rape have been recorded in our countries - through the newspapers, to sensitize the population on vigilance, and on the importance of taking care of the victims. It would also be interesting to talk about consequences to better reach readers. If we all do it, we can eradicate the virus and avoid the consequences of not taking in account reproductive health needs.

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