COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially in low- and middle-income countries. This is due to the de-prioritization and disruption in the provision of SRHR services as well as mobility restrictions and changes in health-seeking behaviors. This has impacted directly and indirectly the lives and health on millions of people, since SRHR services are essential, time-sensitive and often lifesaving.
The pandemic has worsened existing inequalities, for women and girls, young people and discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities, LGBTIQ+, elder people and those in extreme poverty. Governments and international community must make sure that sexual and reproductive health and rights are and will be emphasized during and after the pandemic. Without protecting everyone’s sexual and reproductive health and rights we cannot achieve SDGs by 2030.
Harmful practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and gender-based violence have increased since the COVID-19 outbreak. This is e.g., due to a grown economic insecurity, lockdowns and school closures. For example, according to UNICEF 10 million additional girls are at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19. In addition, two million girl who would otherwise been safe from the FGM are believed to be at risk over the next decade as a direct result of the pandemic.
Even before COVID-19 one in three women experienced physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. However, the pandemic has intensified violence against women and girls. According to UNFPA COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender-based violence by 2030. In addition, life-saving care and support to gender based violence survivors (i.e., clinical management of rape and mental health and psycho-social support) may be cut off in the health care response when health service providers are overburdened and preoccupied with handling COVID-19 cases.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Family Planning
Access to family planning is a human right. It saves lives and promotes healthier populations, more efficient health systems and stronger economies. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, lifesaving family planning services have been closed due to a lack of resources as sexual and reproductive services are not seen as important as other health care services. Clinical staff occupied with the COVID-19 response may not have time to provide services or may lack personal protective equipment to provide services safely. In addition, due to a movement restrictions and/or fear of exposure on COVID-19 women have limited visits to health facilities.
Supply chain disruptions have limited the availability of contraceptives in many places. This has weakened women’s decision-making over their own body as they are unable to use modern contraceptives and led to a rising number of unintended pregnancies. The disruptions caused an estimated 2.7 million unexpected pregnancies in the pandemic’s first year.
COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted on abortion services. Lockdowns and lack of health care resources has hindering access to abortion services. In addition, some countries are using pandemic as an excuse to tighten abortion laws. This caused an estimated 1.2 million unsafe abortions only in the first 6 months of the pandemic.
There are a range of social impacts that have detrimental effects on adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. First, due to school closures millions of young people are lacking comprehensive sexuality education. Second, lockdowns have distrupted contraceptive supply chains and the ability to travel to health facilities, putting young people at greater risk of unintended pregnancy by reducing their access to information and contraceptive services. Third, the economic crisis has driven increases in gender-based violence, child marriage and other human rights violations that threaten young people’s health and well-being.
The anti-gender movement
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has given a new platform to the opponents of SRHR to use the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to promote their own agenda that is much wider than only to oppose SRHR. It can be seen as an alternative political and social system which is against human rights, multilateralism and civil society. According to IPPF survey opponents of SRHR are using different kind of tactics e.g. spreading misinformation, framing the pandemic as an opportunity to reinforce traditional values, increasing discrimination against vulnerable populations, pushing for regressive measures against SRHR and blocking progressive debates on SRHR laws and policies.