One of the most significant advances in human rights in recent history stands at grave risk due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the world gears up to respond to the rapidly spreading disease, access to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS) and care have been severely curtailed, threatening to derail the gains made, particularly for women and young people.
Global efforts to advance Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) have produced significant results since the ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994.
Today, one in three women in East and Southern Africa uses a modern contraceptive method compared to less than one in 10 in 1994. A woman’s risk of dying due to complications of pregnancy or childbirth has dropped from a 1 in 20 chance in her lifetime to 1 in 55.
Many countries have criminalised gender-based violence (GBV) and have outlawed child marriage and female genital mutilation. New HIV infections have declined by 28 percent while Aids-related deaths have
decreased by 44 percent since 2010.
Despite good progress, the promise of the ICPD Programme of Action remains to be fulfilled for millions of people in Africa. On the continent, 45 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
In East and Southern Africa, the likelihood of a woman dying due to pregnancy or childbirth in this region is twice the global average. One in three girls is still being married by age 18. Of the 1.7 million new HIV infections in 2018, about 50 percent (800000) were from the East and Southern Africa region.
Only six months ago, the majority of East and Southern African governments were at the Nairobi Summit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ICPD and pledged to address its unfinished SRHR agenda—
especially for the young people between the ages of 10 to 24 years who make up a third of the region’s 600 million strong population.
The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to divert attention and already limited resources away from SRHR. During
the last Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, disruptions in essential SRHS and changes in health-seeking behaviour killed nearly as many people as the disease itself.
If these services are not embedded as part of the national and local Covid-19 planning and response, even healthy, uninfected women
and girls will fall victim to the virus. Within the coming weeks and months we will see a rise in unintended pregnancies, including high-risk teen pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal and newborn mortality, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and GBV. In addition, the social and economic pressure created by the Covid-19 pandemic, will worsen existing gender inequalities and vulnerabilities, increasing risks of mental, physical and sexual abuse.
Any backward trend will not only devastate the lives of millions of women and girls but also slow down the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
But we can counter the adverse impact of Covid-19, which is why we are making an urgent appeal to all countries, as follows:
l Ensure continued access to quality essential and integrated SHRS including modern contraceptives, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Be alert to evidence of sexual and gender-based violence, and other harmful practices.
l Antenatal, childbirth, newborn and post-natal care, and management of unintended pregnancies are critically important.
l Prioritise safety of frontline healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups, including inclusion of women and young people in Covid-19 preparedness and response decision-making processes.
l Prioritise the collection of accurate and complete age and sex-disaggregated data to understand how Covid-19 impacts different segments of population.
l Identify alternatives to ensure minimum disruption to provision of comprehensive sexuality education, counselling and services for infertility, prevention and management of reproductive cancers, and sexual health including menstrual health.
We urge our partners to fully consider the WHO, UNFPA and broader UN system advice and guidelines while developing and implementing their Covid-19 preparedness and response plans.