Health advocate Harriet Kamashanyu on why sexual and reproductive health services are essential during pandemic response.
“Let us remember and prioritize women whose uteruses too need to be protected for the good of the nation.”
The COVID-19 global pandemic is wreaking havoc on almost every area of society. Global headlines herald the health, economic, agricultural, and social impacts of the novel coronavirus. Yet, often unmentioned and even ignored, is how the virus could decimate the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for women across the globe.
I am the founder of Rhythm of Life Uganda, an organization that provides health and education services to women and girls living in the red light district of Kampala, Uganda. I grew up in this district, and my childhood there exposed me to unbearable challenges including insults, unfair judgments, a dearth of opportunities, and most striking: a lack of access to healthcare. Now, as an activist and advocate, I am committed to helping women and girls speak up and stand up for our rights through all times.
In the era of Coronavirus, I am becoming increasingly fearful of the impact this virus will have on our sexual and reproductive rights. Already, most static clinics that provide sexual and reproductive health services are closed. Mobile clinics and health outreaches that are often conducted in the community have been shut down. Healthcare system capacity is reduced, and the economic slowdown has meant reduced financial resources for many. Of course during such public health emergencies, human and financial resources are diverted from various health programs to respond to the infectious disease outbreak, but delivery of sexual and reproductive health care among women and girls in Uganda has come to a halt.
I call on the government of Uganda, policymakers, providers, and advocates to put at the center of current and future policies the connection between our national outbreak response and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.
We know that access to effective contraception is one of the most cost-effective interventions to reduce maternal mortality through preventing unintended pregnancy. Everyone must be able to access contraceptive information and services during this pandemic to protect both physical and mental health and to reduce avoidable pressures on the health system that will stem from unintended pregnancies.
Uganda’s lockdown began in late March 2020, and even now that it is beginning to ease, SRHR services are limited. There is a real worry about a post-COVID-19 baby boom season due to more time at home and less access to contraception. Thousands of women who are keeping indoors with no protection measures are likely to have several unwanted pregnancies.
As the coming weeks and months unfold and we look ahead to a post-COVID-19 era, we will begin to understand the effectiveness and impacts of our outbreak response. Outbreaks heighten vulnerabilities of various population groups, accentuate gender inequities, and lead to the neglect of the needs and rights of the most marginalized, including women and girls, refugees, migrants, people living with disability, and people living with HIV.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses particular threats to poor and marginalized women who face greater difficulty in accessing the SRHR services, resources, and access to quality health and social services. Women’s societal roles as caregivers, wives, and mothers places them at greater risk of exacerbated impact of the pandemic.
We are witnessing the social and economic pressures that are leading to increased domestic and gender-based violence and sexual exploitation, and the pressure on health services disrupting routine maternity, access to contraceptives, abortion, and other sexual and reproductive health services.
As much as we appreciate the government for the stringent measures put up against the spread of this pandemic, it is critical that responses to this crisis recognize that sexual and reproductive health services are essential. People must have the right to make decisions about their bodily autonomy and integrity.
We cannot postpone any longer essential access to sexual and reproductive health services. This time round, let us defy history, work toward international co-operation, and pull together to develop inclusive, global views on how to learn from, resolve, and come through this latest threat to health for all.
As we are quarantined in our respective homes, let us remember and prioritize women whose uteruses too need to be protected for the good of the nation.
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