The full toll of COVID-19 catastrophe has been incalculably greater. But officially, the pandemic has sickened 12 million people and left more than half a million dead.
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.
On July 11, the World Population Day, there was a moment to raise awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of people around the world.
This year, the United Nations Population Fund (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.
UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, in a statement, says, “no organisation or country can do this alone.”
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 women and girls outside the health sector face serious risks, too. Those requiring sexual and reproductive health services may face anxiety about exposure to the virus while seeking care – or they may forgo care entirely. Others have lost access to care altogether due to movement restrictions and curbed health services.
Many hospitals and health centres are reporting declines in the number of women and girls receiving critical sexual and reproductive health care, including antenatal services, safe delivery services and family planning.
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 also expected to increase.
UNFPA is working to ensure continued access to reproductive health services and supplies.
In the Gambia, for instance, where the pandemic has reduced the number of women seeking health care, UNFPA is providing protective gear to health workers, improving community-level communications about the disease, and ensuring the continuation of family planning and midwifery programmes.
Fatou Joof, a midwife at the UNFPA-supported Serrekunda Health Centre outside Banjul, expressed relief that she is able to continue providing maternal health care while using protective measures including face masks.
“When the women come to the facility, we make sure they wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. We also make hand sanitizers available for use,” she said.
“The work I do here brings me so much joy. This is who we are as midwives and this is what we do – we save lives.”
Circumstances are even more harrowing in humanitarian settings.
In Venezuela, shipments of medical supplies have been necessary to bolster the health system, which was already in crisis before the pandemic erupted.
Humanitarian support was also essential for 19-year-old Afra Muhammad, in Syria, who faced life-threatening pregnancy complications in the Rukban displacement camp.
UNFPA and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent arranged emergency transport for her – a process that took two weeks of planning and two more weeks of travel. Finally, Afra arrived at the Family Planning Hospital in Homs, where she delivered a daughter via Caesarean section.
Though she is relieved to have had a safe delivery, she remains fearful about COVID-19. “I am so worried about my baby, and especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” she told UNFPA.
Elsewhere in Syria, women are reporting heightened levels of gender-based violence – echoing a phenomenon seen globally.
“During the curfew period, I have met a lot of women who face violence by their husbands,” said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association.
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.
“On social media, there is a lot of bullying and violence directed at women in the light of the coronavirus crisis”, Ms. Bulad told UNFPA.
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.
But even this can be fraught.
In Ukraine, experts say phone-based services are not enough. “A phone call to the hotline itself can prompt partner aggression,” said Alona Krivuliak, who runs a domestic violence hotline supported by UNFPA.
Counsellors are finding new ways of working, including through silent platforms such as Viber and Facebook Messenger. “Now some clients even tell us that this way of work is more suitable for them than visiting us, and they want to continue in such way even after quarantine ends,” psychologist Tetyana Franchuk said.
UNFPA programmes are also engaging men in the promotion of gender equality.
The world must redouble all such efforts, Kanem says: “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.”