The global COVID-19 pandemic is changing our lives and lifestyles in several ways. Governments and non-government actors alike are rethinking programs, processes and policies across all areas of work. The pandemic has devastated livelihoods and significantly impacted communities, including access to and utilization of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.
The situation is notably worse for young people who, before the pandemic, faced several barriers to using SRH services including stock-out of SRH supplies, stigmatisation of those living with HIV, drug abuse, ignorance about SRH services and inadequate sexual education among others. The pandemic and its interventions are fraught with complicated consequences, specifically factors that have motivated and multiplied the abuse of SRH rights. It is, therefore, crucial for the various actors to understand the context and impact this pandemic has on young people’s SRH and rights to respond effectively.
As health systems are being overwhelmed with preparations to handle COVID-19, they are also being exposed as poorly structured and inadequately supplied with health workers, PPEs, and drug supplies — especially impacting SRH services. In Uganda, the number of schoolgirls getting married and having unplanned pregnancies has sky-rocketed since the first COVID-19 case was detected in March of this year. In Kaliro District over 60 learners between 14–15 years were reported pregnant in June.
Additionally, the pandemic has disrupted education, and the outcomes so far are worse off for girls than boys. Gender-based violence has predominantly affected girls and women in droves with over 3,000 cases registered by police since March 2020. The chances of girls who were in school before March going back have drastically reduced, and in the long run, their social, economic and political participation is compromised. Save the Children estimates that over 10 million girls worldwide might not go back to school after the pandemic is curbed.
The measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have also devastated the efforts of young people to access SRH services. High transport fares, curfew hours, and social distancing protocols prevent young people from going to health facilities, limit the time within which SRH services can be accessed, and limit the number of people who can be served. Most of these issues go unnoticed, as SRH services have also been considered non-essential within health facilities’ COVID-19 responses, focusing more on emergency cases. In an effort to adjust to these unprecedented times, many SRH services have been forced to resort to telemedicine, which is not easily accessible by young people, especially in rural communities.
With all that considered, it is critical that government programs and organizations increasing their focus on providing quality, affordable and accessible SRH services, especially for young people. Civil society actors have been and still are key actors in addressing the SRH needs of young people.. They have been very fast to respond by working with donors and partners to realign their planned activities and budgets to support young people in need of SRH services. They have also provided substantial support to young people and contributed to altering SRH rights abuses and violations. Therefore, they ought to be listed under the essential service providers by government.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has taken a toll on young people and access to quality and affordable SRH services. Moving forward, governments need to invest in collecting gender-disaggregated data to understand better the SRH needs and risks of girls and boys. The data should be used to craft innovative measures that ensure access to quality SRH education and youth-friendly SRH services in the face of this scourge, in both urban and rural settings. Now is the time for government and non-state actors to increase access to social protection programs to support young people holistically.