Nepal | August 04, 2020

Putting the brakes on COVID-19: Safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls

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KATHMANDU: The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened 16,649 people and left 35 dead in Nepal as of July 10. But the full toll of this catastrophe has been incalculably greater. The health system has been overwhelmed and the economy has been greatly impacted. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected, with sexual and reproductive health services being curtailed and gender-based violence on the rise.

Today, 11 July, is World Population Day, a moment to raise awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of people. This year, UNFPA is calling attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls amid the pandemic, and the efforts needed to secure their health and human rights.

“No organization or country can do this alone,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s Executive Director, in her opening statement.

Heightened risks to women

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 even women and girls outside the health sector can face risks. Those requiring sexual and reproductive health services can face anxiety about exposure to the virus while seeking care, or they may forgo care entirely. Other women are not able to receive care at all due to movement restrictions and curbed health services.

Many health facilities in Nepal have reported a dramatic decline in the number of women and girls seeking critical sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal servicessafe delivery services and family planning care since the COVID-19 outbreak.

UNFPA and partners led by the Family Welfare Division, Ministry of Health and Population, have been meeting on a regular basis to ensure the continuity of essential reproductive health services and to put in place systems that offer remote information, counselling and referral services including to women and girls in quarantine centres and temporary shelters. Nepal has one of the highest maternal mortalities rates in the Asia Pacific region, with an estimated 1,200 maternal deaths per year and the disruption in services will lead to a rise in the number of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion and maternal deaths unless concrete and innovative measures are taken to safeguard reproductive rights.

The reproductive health partnership has contributed to developing and currently rolling out new guidelines for the provision of integrated services for mothers and children from pre-pregnancy to delivery, the immediate postnatal period, and childhood, using alternative service modalities including helplines and teleconsultations. Health care providers will need to use clinical judgement in identifying women and girls who are at risk and may need to visit a health facilities, based on the protocols that have been established under lockdown. The response has also included provision of PPEs and reproductive health commodities and supplies including for safe deliveries, clinical management of sexual violence.

Gender-based violence

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.

UNFPA estimates that six months of lockdowns could lead to 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence globally, and an additional 15 million more cases for every three months the lockdown continues.

To make matters worse, access to shelters and other support services for victims and survivors of gender based violence have been limited by the pandemic. A broad range of partners in Nepal are making a concerted effort to coordinate an effective response which includes remote services, health care, legal support, psycho-social counselling, and access to shelters and safe houses however the needs far out stretch the available resources.

The world must redouble such efforts, Dr. Kanem said. “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.”


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