OPINION: Covid 19 and Reproductive Rights of Girls and Women

Poonam Muttreja
7 April 2020 3:48 pm

Today, as we observe World Health Day, it is ironic that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nations to prioritise health at the risk of economic turn down. The ripple effect caused by COVID-19 has underscored the catastrophic damage lack of access to quality healthcare information and services can do. As the world diverts majority of their funds for battling  COVID-19, other health needs, particularly of the vulnerable population, including women and girls, are at risk of being significantly compromised. The shrunken access to reproductive and maternal health care during the Ebola crisis and the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus – MERS-CoV) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreaks posed a serious risk to the lives of mothers and infants.

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the emergency response to COVID-19 also means that resources for sexual and reproductive health services may be diverted to deal with the outbreak, contributing to a rise in maternal and newborn mortality, increased unmet need for contraception, and increased number of unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections. 

For decades, Indian women have borne the brunt of gender disparities in healthcare delivery, which will be worsened in the existing scenario. There is rarely a crisis or calamity that doesn’t impact violation of women’s rights, a phenomenon that is not specific to India.

According to the WHO, violence against women, specially refugees or those living in conflict-affected areas, particularly tends to increase during emergencies or epidemics. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been increased instances of domestic violence in China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries. In Jingzhou, a city in Hubei Province of China, the number of reported domestic violence cases reported at a police station tripled in February 2020, compared to the same period the previous year. Violence against women can have serious and long-term implications on women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health.

Maternal and reproductive health services are also at risk of being severely compromised, with the unforeseen burden on the health facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government policies, guidelines and public health initiatives have not addressed the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks. Sanitary napkins, contraceptives and several other hygiene products are not listed under essential goods, leading to supply issues in several states. While some states, such as Telangana and Karnataka have listed these products as essential items, the central government must list these goods as essential goods across the country.

These circumstances place women and girls at grave risk  and violate their reproductive health and rights. India already has a huge unmet need for family planning, with 30 million women (calculated from Census 2011 data basis the unmet need data obtained from NFHS-4, 2015-16)wanting to use contraception but not being able to do so due to various reasons. The COVID-19 outbreak will lead to an even greater unmet need and we must prepare ourselves to overcome such a situation.

There is an urgent need to spread awareness on how a woman’s access to health information and services is her fundamental right. We must simultaneously work towards empowering women to exercise their choice, especially in matters relating to their own reproductive health and rights.

We should remind ourselves of the need and right to access accurate information and health services at the individual, systems and societal levels, which is losing priority in our daily lives due to lack of health literacy, awareness and apathy. As a consequence, our battle today is not restricted to COVID-19, we are also fighting misinformation, myths, misconceptions and superstitions. Changing mindsets through behaviour change is critical which is only possible by adopting innovative communication strategies pertaining to health.

The time to act is now. Government and civil society organisations must come together and ensure access to accurate health information and care to enhance women’s safety, dignity and rights. We hope that the world will unite to ensure that women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are safeguarded – we should not have to wait for the COVID-19 vaccine for the world to become a better place.

This guest blog was written by Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director of  Population Foundation of India.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Amnesty International India.