Addressing Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Global COVID-19 pandemic is changing our lives and lifestyles in countless 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 many 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 supplies, stigmatisation, 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 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, PPE, and drug supplies. 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, 60 students between 14-15 years old were reported pregnant in June.

Additionally, the pandemic has disrupted education and the outcomes so far are worse 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.

At the same time, the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have in many cases 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 explored telemedicine, which is not easily accessible by young people, especially in rural communities.

With all that considered, it is critical that government programs and nonprofit organizations increase their focus on providing quality, affordable, and accessible SRH services, especially for young people. Civil society actors already play an important role in addressing the SRH needs of young people. They have been quick 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 have shed light on SRH rights abuses and violations. Therefore, they ought to deemed essential service providers.

There is no doubt that this pandemic has taken a toll on young people’s 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 adolescents. The data should be used to craft innovative measures that ensure access to quality SRH education and youth-friendly SRH services 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.

Young mothers during a group meeting in Kyankwanzi.

Young people attending a data collection activity by SRH in Kyankwanzi district.

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