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- The coronavirus will have a globally disastrous impact on women, according to data from the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency.
- If lockdown continues for six months, the UNFPA report forecasts it will result in 7 million unplanned pregnancies and 31 million gender-based violence cases.
- The report also indicates there will be a surge in cases of child marriage and female genital mutilation.
- The UNFPA’s deputy executive director, Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov described the report’s findings as “a catastrophe within a catastrophe.”
The coronavirus will have a devastating impact on women worldwide, according to a report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages nations across the globe, health systems continue to be overloaded — facilities remain closed down or continue to limit the services they offer, including services to women and girls.
The UNFPA report suggests COVID-19 is already having a profound impact on women across the globe, with many women choosing to skip crucial medical checkups through fear of contracting the virus.
However, the outcomes for women and their respective communities don’t stop there.
Speaking with Business Insider, UNFPA’s deputy executive director, Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov said: “Globally, roughly 70% of the health workforce is comprised of women. At the moment, there’s more risk of women being exposed [to the coronavirus] as a frontline worker.”
“These issues aren’t exclusive to the developing world. Inequality is less pronounced in the developed world but it’s still there. It’s a catastrophe,” said Alakbarov. “Women are the first to lose their jobs during these crises, they’re the first to stand up for the family, they take most of the brunt economically. But this report is a catastrophe within a catastrophe.”
The pandemic is having a profound effect on women’s health
The number of cases of women without access to family planning, facing unplanned pregnancies, and gender-based violence could skyrocket by millions in the months to come.
“The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director.
“Women’s reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs,” Kanem said. “The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered, and the vulnerable must be protected and supported.”
If lockdown continues for six months, seven million unplanned pregnancies are expected
Access to family planning is a human right, but it also saves lives and promotes healthier populations: on a national scale, it can bolster the efficiency of both healthcare systems and economies.
As part of social distancing measures, many healthcare facilities have closed. Medical staff usually at the disposal of family planning services have had to rechannel their efforts into other areas of the healthcare system to help battle the pandemic.
In addition, there is understandable hesitation among women to visit those healthcare facilities that remain open, due to concerns about COVID-19 exposure and lack of PPE. It is evident that the pandemic has already hampered women’s access to and continued use of contraception.
As well as the direct impact of social distancing measures on women’s access to contraceptives, global supply chain disruptions may also lead to significant shortages of contraceptives.
It will continue to do so the longer lockdown continues: for every three months the lockdown continues, up to an additional two million women may be unable to access modern contraceptives.
If the lockdown carries on for six months, 47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives — UNFPA projections suggest this would result in 7 million unintended pregnancies.
Alakbarov told Business Insider that unintended pregnancies can have serious repercussions even when family planning is available.
“As well as resulting in an increased risk of abortions, hemorrhages, and miscarriages,” he explained, “unwanted pregnancies effectively raise maternal mortality. Children and households will be left without mothers. It launches up a whole vicious circle.”
The incidence of gender-based violence will soar
Gender-based violence occurs in all countries and economic and social groups.
From domestic abuse to child marriage and female genital mutilation, the UNFPA’s report suggests that, in the next decade, we’ll see a surge not only in the number of cases but also in the levels of gender-based violence.
For every three months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million extra cases of gender-based violence are expected, the UNFPA says.
Were the lockdown to continue for another six months, efforts that would otherwise have prevented many instances of gender-based violence would be thwarted. The UNFPA indicated it would result in 31 million more cases.
2 million otherwise preventable cases of FGM will go ahead
Often a precursor to child marriage, early marriage, and forced marriage, an estimated 200 million women alive today have already undergone FGM.
As well as being detrimental to the health of young girls to the point of being life-threatening, FGM dims their prospects and has hefty economic costs, costing around $1.4 billion annually according to the WHO.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted programs working with the UNFPA against FGM.
Over the next decade, the UNFPA has predicted this delay will result in 2 million female genital mutilation cases that would otherwise have been prevented.
Efforts to prevent 13 million child marriages will be thwarted
Leading up to 2030, COVID-19 will also hinder efforts to end child marriage: the UNFPA has estimated that it could result in an additional 13 million child marriages, depending on how long lockdown continues.
Through challenging social and cultural norms and keeping girls in the education system, many interventions until now have helped reduce the incidence of underage nuptials.
Researchers previously predicted such interventions would have reduced the number of child marriages by almost 60 million in the period between 2020 and 2030. Deferring these interventions by just one year, on average, will reduce the number of child marriages averted by around 7.4 million.
Poverty is a key contributory factor in child marriage — the severe worldwide economic fallout anticipated as a result of the pandemic would translate to poverty levels rising in low-income countries where child marriage is most prevalent.
This spike in rates of poverty is expected, in turn, to increase rates of child marriage in vulnerable communities.
The UN anticipates a surge in other forms of violence against women
The COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to increase levels of violence. There are already indications that the incidence of domestic violence incidence is on the rise.
According to research by Counting Dead Women, in the UK alone, at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children took place in the initial three weeks of the lockdown. As well as being double the average rate, it was the largest number of killings in a three-week period for 10 years.
According to the UNFPA report, research conducted by Avenir Health showed that a delay in prevention efforts will result in another 2 million more instances of intimate partner violence in 2020-2021. This translates to almost 200 million fewer cases of violence being averted by 2030.
In the short term, the main driver of this violence is likely to be the effects of stay-at-home orders and movement restrictions, which may increase women’s contact time with violent partners.
Mounting household tensions and economic stresses may also be a contributory factor.
For an average lockdown duration of three months, projections suggest that if violence increases by 20%, there will be another 15 million cases of intimate partner violence in 2020.
This figure will jump to 31 million cases for an average lockdown of six months and 61 million if the average lockdown period were to be as long as one year.
Developing and developed countries will be impacted
Women’s suffering will have knock-on effects on their communities and entire countries’ economies.
Alakbarov also highlighted that communities outside of developing countries would be affected, saying: “These effects on women will also put pressure on diaspora communities outside of economically developing countries.”
“The map of COVID-19 is a map of poverty, of social exclusion, of lack of investment in social and economic development and its prioritization,” he added.
The UNFPA is working with governments to prioritize the needs of women and girls of reproductive age and to respond urgently during the challenging public health emergency.
Alakbarov said that, in order to tackle the structural inequalities girls and women face, individuals, nations, and businesses all need to reconsider their roles.
“Reprioritization of national budgets is needed,” he stressed. “Governments have to reconsider [their priorities], as well as citizens and private sectors. If we don’t over the next six months, we will see the above projections come to fruition.”
“This crisis has shown us that the true threat to national security doesn’t come from military sources; it comes from underinvestment in basic social goods and social services. Women should be a priority,” Alakbarov said.
“Every dollar invested in women’s education and health brings back three dollars to the economy,” said Alakbarov. “It’s pretty much the smartest investment any government or society can make.”