By Nyaradzo Nyere
Zimbabwe has been urged to prioritise sexual and reproductive health rights in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic as the disease outbreak has left women and girls more vulnerable.
Activists say the national lockdowns to slow down the spread of Covid-19 have compromised the rights of women and girls.
Covid-19 induced restrictions are limiting women’s access to family planning information and services around the world, particularly in low-income countries and marginalised communities such as Zimbabwe.
Talent Jumo, Katswe Sistahood director, said girls and women from low-income communities were the most affected as most of them came from households that relied on the informal sector for survival.
Zimbabwe’s informal sector, which is a source of income for most of the population, has been the hardest hit by the Covid-19 restrictions.
“When their income is affected, it means that women and girls’ needs such as sanitary wear, or family planning needs cease to be regarded as a priority,” Jumo said.
“We are likely to see an increase in unintended pregnancies as a result.
“The rates of unsafe abortions are also likely to go up due to limited access to contraception.
As Covid-19 ravages health systems around the world, forcing decision-makers to reallocate resources and sometimes shutter facilities, provision of family planning services and contraceptives have been disrupted.
According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the pandemic has compromised health care systems, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health.
“While those with access to sexual and reproductive health services historically delay childbearing in times of fiscal uncertainty or crisis, disruptions in supply of contraceptives in combination with lockdowns are predicted to result in a sharp rise in unplanned pregnancies for the most vulnerable,” the report says.
UNFPA research conducted in March found out that an estimated 12 million women experienced disruptions to family planning services.
“Against this backdrop, many countries are expressing growing concern over changing fertility rates.
“Historically, alarmism over fertility rates has led to abrogations of human rights,” the report added.
“In places with rising populations, harmful policy responses have included coercive family planning and sterilisation.
“In others, access to contraception may be restricted.”
The UNFPA urged governments to prioritise reproductive health and rights for all through access to information and services in the face of fertility and demographic shifts.
“During the pandemic, disruptions in sexual and reproductive health services are aggravated where such services are deemed inessential,” it added.
“There are fears that the crisis could be exploited as an excuse for restricting or failing to support women’s and girls’ decision making, agency, freedom of movement or access to health services.
“Ultimately, women must be empowered educationally, economically and politically to exercise choice over their bodies and fertility.”
Natalia Kanen, UNFPA executive director, said sexual reproductive health rights must not be treated as optional during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Covid 19 pandemic has persuaded some people to postpone childbearing,” Kanem said.
“For others, disruptions in health care have led to unintended pregnancies and this has provoked alarmist concerns about baby booms and baby bursts, but the real cause for alarm comes when people cannot exercise their sexual reproductive health and rights and choices because of disruptions in health services.
“The pandemic may influence choices but the right to decide when and if to have a family doesn’t change nor does the responsibility of health systems to uphold that right.”