The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spell disaster for women’s rights around the world.
It says lockdowns and school closures designed to contain the spread of COVID-19 could critically undermine progress made in family planning, as well as cause an increase in child marriage and female genital mutilation.
"It's a catastrophic situation," UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem told Euronews.
"Given that women and girls were already at a disadvantage when it came to contraception, now that we've layered the COVID pandemic on top of that, we are calculating that millions of women and girls around the world are going to be at risk of violence.
"They're going to be at risk of unintended pregnancies, and unattended pregnancies without a midwife, as well as things like child marriage, as the pandemic rages on."
UNFPA, the U.N. agency focused on sexual and reproductive health, examines how lockdowns are disrupting access to family planning, health services and prevention programmes that make a major difference for women in low- and middle-income countries.
As many countries restrict movement to fight the spread of COVID-19 - and the crisis heaps social and economic stress on families - the United Nations has warned of a "horrifying global surge in domestic violence."
It says that the number of women and girls facing abuse has increased in almost all countries, and that in the next six months alone over 30 million women will suffer violence as a result of COVID-19 confinement measures.
"This during a lockdown is very disturbing. You're trapped in a physical situation, and if you are overpowered, you may not be able to get out of it. This is why UNFPA is emphasising things like hotlines. We're emphasising no disruption in the services that women and girls need in times of crisis," Kanem said.
Contraception out of stock
The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting family planning in several ways, says UNFPA. A number of health facilities are limiting their services, while women are refraining from visiting them because of movement restrictions or because they fear catching the virus.
Meanwhile, supply chain disruptions are limiting the availability of contraceptives. Clinics in more than a dozen of the world's poorest countries expect to go out of stock within the next six months.
In that context, the UNFPA estimates that for every three months of lockdown disruptions:
- Between 13 million and 51 million women who otherwise would have used modern contraceptives will be unable to.
- This could result in at least 325,000 unintended pregnancies in the best of scenarios – and up to 15 million unintended pregnancies if major disruptions go on for a year.
- There will be an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence – and up to 61 million if lockdown restrictions remain in place for a whole year.
Girls at risk of mutilation and child marriage
More broadly, the UNFPA expects the fight against COVID-19 to delay by up to two years the launch of community programmes aiming to prevent child marriages and female genital mutilation.
It now estimates that:
- Two million women and girls will suffer female genital mutilation over the next decade, when such practices could have otherwise been averted
- There will be some 13 million additional child marriages over the next decade that also could have been prevented
The economic fallout from the pandemic is also to blame for these projections. The International Monetary Fund has already warned that the world now faces its worst economic drop since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"This economic downturn will likely have a large impact on poverty levels in low-income countries where child marriage is most prevalent. Because poverty is a key driver of child marriage, these economic impacts are anticipated to increase rates of child marriage in vulnerable communities," said UNFPA.
As a whole, it warns that the coronavirus pandemic could "critically undermine" the progress made towards achieving the United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Goals of ending unmet need for family planning, ending gender-based violence including FGM and child marriage, and ending all preventable maternal deaths.
Working without US funding
The United States suspended funding for UNFPA in 2017, claiming it supported a programme of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation in China. The agency has repeatedly refuted the claim, saying all of its work "promotes the human rights of individuals and couples to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination".
The move came after the Trump administration reinstated a controversial policy, also known as the "global gag rule" that prohibits organisations receiving U.S. government funding from facilitating or providing information about abortion.
Asked how the funding cut had affected the UNFPA's work and what advice the agency would have for the World Health Organization, which now finds itself in a similar position, Kanem hailed the WHO's "extraordinary job" holding together a "fractionated world".
"At this time, multilateralism has led the way in saying we must stick together, swim together and not sink together. So it is disturbing when funding is withdrawn. However I believe that goodwill and our activities and actions on the ground is what makes the case," Kanem said.
In the case of UNFPA, the funding cut meant the agency had to close some of its clinics.
"I just reviewed our programme in Yemen – a humanitarian situation of great, tragic importance – where we had to close over 100 of our clinics where we save maternal lives, where we give contraception to women who do not wish to become pregnant under a pandemic or any other circumstance," Kanem said.
"But I believe that people of goodwill are seeing now the difference that it makes when women are catered to, when women lead, when the prospect of peace is on the table. Women have a lot to offer, and I do hope that that will be persuasive for anyone that's in doubt that it will take anything less than all hands on deck. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the world."