Africa: Opinion - There's Only One Way to Protect Women and Children From the Pandemic: Cooperation

opinion

Report shows the health of women and children improving over the past decade, but the climate crisis and the pandemic threaten progress

Good news first: more than a billion children were vaccinated over the past decade. Maternal deaths declined by 35 per cent since 2000. Deaths of children under five reached an all-time low in 2019, a year when more girls were attending school than ever before.

The progress was not universal, of course. Women and children living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia accounted for over 80 percent of under-5 deaths and maternal deaths.

Then, in just a few short months, the COVID-19 pandemic set back this progress, reversing hard-won advances in maternal and child health, women's rights, and poverty reduction - by decades.

The fragility of the gains has left women, children and adolescents vulnerable to a wide range of devastating impacts. As resources and attention are focused on the pandemic, other vital social structures and systems have been constrained and extreme poverty is surging.

The ability of children and adolescents to survive and thrive is threatened by school closures, lack of sufficient or quality food, and sharply limited access to basic and critical health services. Women's lives are upended by the same challenges, with many also at greater risk of domestic violence as families are forced inside cramped living spaces and despair increases from job losses.

Inequality is widening and becoming more firmly entrenched in many societies because the most vulnerable and discriminated against always experience crises more deeply.

They are often the ones at greatest risk of exposure to the virus. They are the ones dying in conflict-ridden areas. They are the ones suffering higher levels of morbidity because the burden of air pollution and environmental degradation is not evenly shared. In most countries, the economic hardships created by COVID-19 responses are the most sudden and severe in generations.

But opportunities can often be found in the depth of crises. And while the full extent of the COVID-19 crisis is impossible to predict, we must consider it a catalyst for change moving forward, a wake-up call for how we support, care for and respect the most vulnerable and an opportunity to reassess the cracks in our society and to address the imbalance.

Every Woman Every Child (EWEC) has been fighting for the health and well-being of women, children and adolescents worldwide for a decade. The movement was founded to harness the collective strength of international organizations, governments, the private sector and civil society to end all preventable deaths of women, children and adolescents. The bedrock of EWEC is the belief that a broad coalition of partners can tackle some of the world's most intractable issues and reach the most vulnerable women and children, wherever they live.

The Protect the Progress: Rise, Refocus, Recover report published on Friday provides evidence that the founders of the movement were right. Committed leadership, global cooperation, wise investments, and innovative financing mechanisms can and have changed the trajectory of millions of lives. Building global partnerships to prioritize the health and well-being of the world's most vulnerable people has led to substantial and lifesaving progress.

COVID-19 has simultaneously illustrated the weaknesses within the multilateral system and demonstrated its exceptional value. As the UN Secretary-General recently stated: "As countries go in different directions, the virus goes in every direction." The stakes for international solidarity for women, children and humanity could not be higher.

Together, we need to fight the crises of conflict, climate, and contagion. Conflicts have shown us that without sustained peace, we will never reach the goal of ending all preventable maternal and child deaths. The climate movement has revealed that environmental justice must be central to any plan for a better future. And the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interdependence of our world, as well as the fragility of our systems.

More than ever, we need models of international cooperation and solidarity to address each of these without delay. Every Woman Every Child offers one such model. EWEC is familiar with these and other burdens carried by the most vulnerable, as its very existence is based on finding solutions to overcome hardships and improve lives. Through its emphasis on accelerating progress, reducing inequities and highlighting the world's collective accountability for the health and well-being of women, children and adolescents, the movement can help lead a transformation in the way we invest and work together to '"build back better" for every woman, every child, everywhere.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vivian M. Lopez is Executive Coordinator of Every Woman Every Child, an initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General

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