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A Critical Need: Addressing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Seema Jalan
Mar 24 · 5 min read
In February, UNFPA delivered essential hygiene and medical supplies to support frontline health workers and their patients in Hubei Province, China. UNFPA is one of many UN agencies working to support outbreak mitigation efforts around the world. © UNFPA

We are living in a new reality. As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, sweeps through the world in what the World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized as a pandemic, health systems are racing to keep respond and countries and communities are taking unprecedented measures to contain the spread of the virus. The WHO is leading the global effort to detect, prevent, and respond to the pandemic, helping countries — especially those most at risk — prepare with essential supplies, guidance, and data, while helping accelerate worldwide efforts to develop vaccines, tests, and treatments.

While this pandemic affects us all, girls and women face unique challenges. When crisis strikes and health care systems falter, inequalities are compounded, our specific needs are deprioritized, and we face additional barriers to care, particularly sexual and reproductive health care. These impacts will be magnified for the millions of girls and women around the world who already live in crisis or conflict zones, and for those are already marginalized. We are also critical in the response: Women represent 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally. We must protect the health and rights of frontline women health workers while ensuring we do not leave the most vulnerable of us behind. The UN system, together with global NGOs and care providers, is working to meet girls’ and women’s specific sexual and reproductive health and rights needs in the midst of the outbreak, including by:

Supporting maternal care, pregnancy, and breastfeeding: The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN agency dedicated to reproductive health, has been working hand-in-hand with the broader UN system to address COVID-19 and the specific impact on girls and women, including those of reproductive age and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. While there is limited evidence on specific risks for pregnant and breastfeeding people, UNFPA has issued guidance for pregnant people to follow all the same preventative actions as adults, as recommended by the WHO, and for breastfeeding parents who may be symptomatic to continue feeding but take special precautions, such as wearing a mask. UNFPA continues to be a leading — and in some cases, the only — provider of reproductive health care in 150 countries, including those impacted by existing humanitarian crises which will be exacerbated by the pandemic.

“While fear and uncertainty are natural responses to the coronavirus, we must be guided by facts and solid information,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA. “We must stand together in solidarity, fight stigma and discrimination, and ensure that people get the information and services they need, especially pregnant and lactating women.”

Ensuring continued contraceptive access: Globally, more than 214 million women want to prevent pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. In addition to impacting access to health care for contraceptive counseling and procurement, the pandemic is also disrupting the supply chain for contraception, experts say. DKT International, one of the largest providers of family planning products in the world, reports that many contraceptive manufacturers in China are not back to full capacity after shuttering factories or reducing hours during the height of the country’s infections. Supply of raw materials, like progesterone, a critical hormone used in many contraceptive options, are also impacted, and some manufacturers are now forced to source from new suppliers. DKT has already seen stock-outs of contraceptive implants in Myanmar, and is anticipating a condom shortage in Mozambique, for example.

The UNFPA Supplies Programme, which supports countries in strengthening their contraceptive supply chains, is working rapidly to ensure a secure and reliable supply of reproductive health commodities, including contraception but also sanitary items and personal protective equipment for health workers. UNFPA Supplies is working with country focal points to identify and propose solutions to specific weaknesses in the supply chain and assist governments securing necessary commodities to serve girls and women in their communities.

Protecting hygiene, dignity, and safety: Just as pregnancy doesn’t pause in a pandemic, neither do periods. But hygiene and dignity needs are often overshadowed by efforts to fulfill other essential needs like food, water, and shelter — and, in a health crisis, access to care. In Hubei Province in China, the epicenter of the virus, UNFPA has delivered critical medical supplies and sanitary items — such as sanitary napkins and diapers — for frontline health workers, girls, and women and their children to protect their health and maintain their dignity in the midst of response.

Meanwhile, pandemics exacerbate existing gender inequalities and vulnerabilities, and girls and women are likely to have an even greater need for protection from gender-based and intimate partner violence, according to CARE, which saw similar needs spike during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. But, support for those experiencing violence may also be cut off. As part of its COVID-19 response, UNFPA helps national partners and health workers effectively address the increased risk of gender-based violence, including how to respond with sensitivity and respect and how to navigate shifting referral pathways as access to care evolves with the outbreak.

“The protection needs of women and girls must be at the center of response efforts. Part of why we are doing this is to ensure there is a focus on sustaining the accessibility of vulnerable women and girls to quality sexual and reproductive health services as part of the response,” said Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, UNFPA Representative in China.

And this is all just the tip of the iceberg — we know that the gendered implications of the COVID-19 pandemic extend beyond sexual and reproductive health, and that the full scope of impact is just beginning to reveal itself. As health systems around the world come under unprecedented strain, and the consequences of the pandemic continue to unfold, we must support governments, NGO partners, and the UN in including the specific needs of girls and women in their response.

No one country can fight the COVID-19 pandemic alone: Now, individuals and organizations can join the fight through the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which supports the WHO’s efforts to track and understand the spread of the virus; ensure patients get the care they need and frontline workers get essential supplies and information; and accelerate efforts to develop vaccines, tests, and treatments. As WHO Chief Dr. Tedros said, “We are all in this together. And we can only succeed together.”

Learn more about the Universal Access Project and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.

Seema Jalan

Written by

Executive Director, Universal Access Project — empowering girls & women by improving their access to reproductive health and family planning services globally.

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