Although the full picture of the impact of COVID-19 on the reproductive rights of women and girls in Nepal is still unclear, it is anticipated that there has been significant increase in unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and preventable maternal deaths during the peaks of the pandemic, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

"Since the COVID-19 outbreak, what we have seen around the world is that the pandemic in certain contexts has resulted in couples having to postpone childbearing, whereas in other contexts, it has resulted in a rise in unintended pregnancies, mostly due to disruption in the provision of reproductive health services," said UNFPA Country Representative to Nepal, Lubna Baqi.

She said this in her statement today on the occasion of this year's World Population Day. The theme this year is "Rights and Choices are the Answers: Whether baby boom or bust, the solution lies in prioritising the reproductive health and rights of all people" which aims to raise awareness of the impact of COVID-19 on women's and girl's reproductive rights and choices.

"The utilisation of family planning and maternal health services dropped drastically across Nepal due to several reasons during the COVID lockdown periods,"

Baqi said. The reasons include the diversion of financial and human resources to fight the pandemic, lack of capacity among health providers to deliver reproductive health services safely, mobility restrictions, and the fear of COVID-19 transmission.

The impact of COVID-19 has been greater on vulnerable and marginalised groups, including adolescents and youths, when you take into account the closure of schools and higher learning institutions, loss of in-person contacts with their peers and support networks, and fear and anxiety of what the future holds for them. "However, the pandemic has also shown the innovation and resilience of young people - their ability to adapt and find creative ways of moving forward with their goals and supporting their family and friends," noted Baqi.

Calling on the youth networks and activists to advocate for the rights and choices of all women and young people, she said the pandemic would stay until there is universal access to the vaccines, and while COVID-19 may influence the decisions people make, they must be able to exercise their reproductive rights and choices.

The health system must uphold this right. "In any crisis situation, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, reproductive health services must be recognised as essential services. And young people should continue to have access to adolescent-friendly health care and comprehensive sexuality education."

In 2019, the Government of Nepal made a strong pledge at the Nairobi Summit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development to protect reproductive rights and accelerate action towards achieving the ICPD agenda, including in humanitarian contexts.

"All of us have an important role to play in ensuring that these commitments are fully realised," Baqi said, calling for the continued positive collaboration among youth groups and activists that are paving the way forward for the realisation of the ICPD vision and Sustainable Development Goals and standing up for the rights and choices of all women and young people.

A version of this article appears in the print on July 14 2021, of The Himalayan Times.