Remaining Vigilant about SRHR during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Traci L. Baird

This article originally appeared on the Global Health Council blog.

As I write this, governments, health systems, healthcare professionals, communities, institutions, and individuals are working to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Such crises often exacerbate systemic challenges, such as gender inequality and the lack of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Throughout the COVID-19 response and recovery, EngenderHealth will work to ensure SRHR priorities are not set back by the crisis, and that in fact we continue to make progress for women’s and girls’ health and rights.

Providers with client

Providers with client. Photo credit: EngenderHealth/Robin Wyatt

As the COVID-19 situation has evolved rapidly in recent weeks, I have marveled at how quickly, thoughtfully, and strategically the EngenderHealth team has responded. Throughout that response, every individual in every part of the organization has worked with the recognition that during a crisis we must remain vigilant about our mission: supporting SRHR and expanding gender equality.

Previous public health and humanitarian crises have taught us about the consequences we may see if SRHR services are not protected. During crises, access to contraceptives may be interrupted, resulting in unintended pregnancies. When schools are closed, as is the case in many countries now, pregnancy among adolescents may increase. There is increased incidence of gender-based violence (GBV) in the midst of a crisis and in its wake, and when people are advised or required to stay home, they may not be able to leave an unsafe or violent situation. At the same time, resources are pulled away from routine health services. Women and girls assume a heavier caregiver burden and, in turn, face increased risks to their physical and mental health.

The COVID-19 response could undermine progress the world has made on SRHR over a quarter century since the ICPD Programme of Action (1994, Cairo) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), and more recently toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We must work to ensure continuity of SRHR services, sustain what we have gained, and continue on the path of progress.

Provider discussing oral contraceptives with client

Provider discussing oral contraceptives with client. Photo credit: EngenderHealth/Zeleman Production

At EngenderHealth, we have supported SRHR progress for more than 75 years. We know from our experience that SRHR are completely and inextricably intertwined with gender equality. We also know that marginalized groups—such as girls, women, and gender minorities; adolescents and youth; people with disabilities; economically disadvantaged groups; and rural and other hard-to-reach populations—are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory practices that can prevent them from leading healthy lives. But that can change. We believe that if all people are empowered and engaged; and if they live in supportive communities where systems and institutions provide high-quality, gender-equitable sexual and reproductive healthcare; and if policies, laws, and process are supportive; then they will exercise their rights to gender-equitable SRHR services and participate as equal members of society.

Our vision calls us to work toward a gender-equal world where all people achieve their SRHR. To reach this vision, our strategic plan sets a path for working to advance gender equality both in and through SRHR programming. Advancing gender equality in SRHR means working to transform SRHR services from the inside out, accounting for underlying gender assumptions to ensure that our services can truly contribute to transforming harmful gender norms. Advancing gender equality through SRHR programs means ensuring that our programs recognize and address the social and structural inequities that contribute to health disparities and help transform the communities and systems we serve to be more gender equitable. Our programs aim to support health services that help people claim their own power to strive for their best lives.

We provide technical assistance across a wide spectrum of SRHR services: comprehensive sexuality education; contraceptive counseling and service delivery; comprehensive abortion care; maternal healthcare, including fistula prevention and treatment; prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections; prevention and detection of cervical cancer; and prevention, screening, counseling, and related services for GBV survivors.

As we strive to advance these efforts in the midst of the COVID-19 response, we call the global health community to stand with us. Together, we must continue to promote SRHR, advance the progress made since the ICPD Programme of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action, and improve health and gender equality for all, as the world called for in the SDGs.