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Putting the brakes on COVID-19: safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Officially, the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened 1,613 people and left more than 62 dead. But the full toll of this catastrophe has been incalculably greater. Health systems have been overwhelmed. Economies have been shuttered. And women and girls have been disproportionately affected, with sexual and reproductive health services being curtailed and gender-based violence on the rise.

Today, 11 July, is World Population Day, a moment to raise awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of people around the world.  This year, UNFPA is calling attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls amid the global pandemic, and the efforts needed to secure their health and human rights.

“No organization or country can do this alone,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s Executive Director, in a statement.

Heightened risks to women

Around the world, women face a variety of heightened risks due to the pandemic.

Front-line health workers – the majority of whom are women – face a direct risk of illness from COVID-19, for instance. But even women and girls outside the health sector can face risks. Those requiring sexual and reproductive health services can face anxiety about exposure to the virus while seeking care, or they may forgo care entirely. Other women are not able to receive care at all due to movement restrictions and curbed health services.

Many hospitals and health centres have reported a decline in the number of women and girls receiving critical sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal services, safe delivery services and family planning care.

UNFPA and partners estimate that six months of significant health service disruptions could result in 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries going without contraceptives, leading to an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies. The number of maternal deaths is expected to increase.

UNFPA is working to sustain continued access to reproductive health services and supplies.

In Sierra Leone, UNFPA and partners are supporting the Government of Sierra Leone to ensure continuity of essential reproductive health services. UNFPA supported the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to preposition reproductive health commodities and supplies to the last mile. UNFPA is also working to promote the utilisation of reproductive health services, through the provision of mama-baby packs to encourage institutional deliveries. Learning from the Ebola epidemic, which led to disruption of maternal health and family planning services, UNFPA is supporting targeted heath facilities, public and private, to maintain the provision of essential reproductive health services.  “Amidst this on-going COVID-19 pandemic, women continue to get pregnant and to give birth. It is our moral duty to ensure that quality reproductive health services are strengthened and sustained to prevent maternal mortality” said Dr. Kim Eva Dickson, UNFPA Country Representative in Sierra Leone.     

Gender-based violence

Rising household tensions, exacerbated by economic pressures and movement restrictions, are sparking violence around the world. Women sheltering at home with their abusers often have nowhere to turn. And new forms of violence may be increasing, including cyber violence.

UNFPA estimates that six months of lockdowns could lead to 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence and an additional 15 million more cases for every three months the lockdown continues.

To make matters worse, access to shelters and in-person counselling has been limited by the pandemic. UNFPA and partners are working to continue services for survivors wherever possible, and to increase remote operations.

In line with our commitment to achieving our transformative goal of zero gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls, UNFPA in Sierra Leone continues to provide support to the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs to strengthen efforts to address gender-based violence. UNFPA is supporting the national dissemination of gender-based violence messages to increase awareness of the issue. With generous funding from Irish Aid, the Government of the People’s Republic of China and UK aid the country office is also supporting the establishment of one stop centres to improve care of survivors of gender-based violence.

The world must redouble such efforts, Dr. Kanem said: “As the global community comes together in solidarity to survive this pandemic, we lay the foundation for more resilient, gender-equal societies and a healthier, more prosperous future for all.”