Why Reproductive Rights Must Be a Critical Part of Our Arsenal to Fight Pandemics

A pregnant woman in Kenya’s North Eastern Province with one of
her children. Overpopulation in the area contributes to poor
maternal health. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

By Siddharth Chatterjee
NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 27 2020 (IPS)

Sexual and reproductive health and pandemics might seem to be
unrelated topics, but large and dense populations are drivers of
the high velocity transmission of COVID-19, and there are lessons
to be learned for the future.

Gains made in women’s sexual reproductive health and rights
just took several steps backward in the midst of the COVID-19
pandemic. Access to contraceptives has been interrupted, resulting
in an increase in unintended pregnancies. With schools closed,
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages are rising.
Globally gender-based violence has risen exponentially, as people
are advised or required to stay home, and women and girls may not
be able to leave an unsafe or violent situation.

The United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA) Executive Director,

Natalia Kanem has said
, “the world needs to do much more to
ensure that the most intimate, yet essential, needs of the
world’s women and girls are met while we battle COVID-19.”

Among the chief immediate concerns is severely reduced access to
sexual and reproductive healthcare while the pandemic rages on. But
diminished women’s rights and services have even greater
long-term implications for the outbreak and spread of future

Africa has yet to see the devastation from COVID-19 that most
developed countries are facing in terms of infections and deaths,
but the virus is already wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of
millions on the continent. With travel bans, curfews and lockdowns,
for countless who depend on daily wages and small informal
businesses, are facing hunger and destitution. Unlike richer
nations, most African countries have little wriggle room in their
budgets to afford meaningful stimulus packages and have social
safety nets.

Some forecasts suggest that in the absence of a considerable
fiscal stimulus, COVID-19 could see Africa’s GDP decline by

over 5% in 2020

So how can the world–and the African continent in
particular–better prepare itself for the next

A good place to start is with the root of recent pandemics.
Zoonosis is the transmission of a disease from animals to human.
COVID-19, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East
Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are all coronaviruses, and all
originated in bats, which are a natural reservoir for viruses.

Such jumps from animals to humans are on the rise for reasons
that include unhygienic and close proximity to animals, bush meat
consumption, wet markets and–crucially–human encroachment into
wilderness and wildlife habitats.

One of the main drivers of such encroachment is the exponential
population growth.

We are exploiting forests at a calamitous rate, eating away into
the traditional buffer zones that once separated humans from
animals, and from the pathogens that they carry. Forest destruction
also drives climate change and soil erosion. In turn, growing
urbanization means higher population densities, providing a ready
route for the rapid and extensive spread of disease.

Long-term preparation must begin with the acknowledgment that
runaway population growth is a driver of modern pandemics.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres observed on the
2019 World Population Day
, “for many of the least developed
countries, the challenges to sustainable development are compounded
by rapid population growth as well as vulnerability to climate

Most African health systems operate in a constant state of
struggle and crisis. There is
only one doctor for every 1,000 people in Africa
, and each must
serve overwhelmingly young, poor and unemployed patient

Family planning and sexual health services are only patchily
available, and cultural pressures mean girls and women may find it
difficult to access them even where they exist. Too often the
result is large families living in poverty and ill-health, and a
worrying predominance of early pregnancy.

Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world, with
50-70% of urban dwellers living in slums. Uncontrolled population
growth, crowded and unhygienic conditions, and destruction of
natural ecosystems combine to create a perfect storm for the next
pandemic, whose speed, scale and virulence may well surpass COVID

Urgent action needed now

In such circumstances there is a central need for bold global
leadership. That is why policymakers, led by the US, must
reconsider the Mexico City policy, often known as the
global gag rule
. The recently expanded global gag rule now
applies not only to comprehensive sexual and reproductive
healthcare and safe abortion, but also to programmes that include
HIV, water, sanitation and hygiene.

In Kenya we are already seeing the domino effect of the global
gag rule with increased
teenage pregnancies and a spike in unsafe abortions
. Almost

one in five girls aged 15-19
is either pregnant or already has
a baby. Adolescent girls in the worst affected parts of Kenya have
lost their ability to make informed choices. It is a crisis of
health, education and opportunity, made far worse by COVID 19.

It should concern all leaders that reduced resources for such
programmes have led to more poor women suffering the effects of
unplanned pregnancies, contributed to higher rates of maternal
mortality and to an increase in unsafe abortions. Goals for
programmes such as the Family Planning 2020
(FP 2020)
launched by Melinda Gates, which includes giving 120
million more women and girls access to contraceptives by 2020, will
remain unfulfilled as the deadline approaches. FP2020 is based on
the principle that all women, no matter where they live, should
have access to lifesaving contraceptives.

Today, Africa has the world’s highest fertility rates. On
average, women in
sub-Saharan Africa have about five children over their reproductive
, compared to a global average of 2.5 children.
Africa’s population is expected to grow from the current 1.1
billion to 2.3 billion people by 2050 while the global population
is expected to reach 10 billion at that time.

If Africa accelerates structural reforms, some believe the
continent can emulate China’s rapid rise of the last 50 years.

McKinsey predicts $5.6 trillion in African business opportunities
by 2025
. If Africa succeeds, it could be a poster child for
Sustainable Development Goal 1-ending poverty by 2030, as well as
become a stable and prosperous economic partner for the rest of the

At the top of the reforms must be safeguarding the primacy of
reproductive health and rights. With a median age of 19 years, for
Africa to benefit from the demographic dividend its
youthful population could offer, family sizes must fall
drastically. Smaller households link directly to improved health,
education and living standards, which in turn translate into
investment, employment, and economic growth. This can only happen
if programmes that increase access to family planning are widely

We must look at strategies to stabilize the global population
with renewed urgency. Political and religious, globally must show
courage, responsibility and vision through a robust commitment to
ensuring that every person, everywhere, has access to affordable
contraception and is able to exercise their sexual and reproductive

To help stave off the havoc of the next pandemic, the world must
unite behind UNFPA’s mission “to ensure that every pregnancy is
wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s
potential is fulfilled.”

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident
Coordinator to Kenya. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1.
This opinion piece originally appeared in CNBC Africa.

This story was first issued by CNBC Africa

The post
Why Reproductive Rights Must Be a Critical Part of Our Arsenal to
Fight Pandemics
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Why Reproductive Rights Must Be a Critical Part of Our
Arsenal to Fight Pandemics