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COVID-19 pandemic has sickened 11 million people and left more than half a million dead. But the full toll of this catastrophe has been incalculably greater. Health systems have been overwhelmed. Economies have been shuttered. And women and girls have been disproportionately affected, with sexual and reproductive health services being curtailed and gender-based violence on the rise.

Today, 11 July, is World Population Day, a moment to raise awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of people around the world.  This year, UNFPA is calling attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls amid the global pandemic, and the efforts needed to secure their health and human rights. 

“No organization or country can do this alone,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s Executive Director, in a statement. 

 Heightened risks to women

Around the world, women face a variety of heightened risks due to the pandemic.

Front-line health workers – the majority of whom are women – face a direct risk of illness from COVID-19, for instance. But even women and girls outside the health sector can face risks. Those requiring sexual and reproductive health services can face anxiety about exposure to the virus while seeking care, or they may forgo care entirely. Other women are not able to receive care at all due to movement restrictions and curbed health services.

Many hospitals and health centers have reported a decline in the number of women and girls receiving critical sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal services, safe delivery services and family planning care

UNFPA and partners estimate that six months of significant health service disruptions could result in 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries going without contraceptives, leading to an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies. The number of maternal deaths is expected to increase. 

In Rwanda, UNFPA is working with partners to support National Guidelines for COVID-19 Control and Case Management that ensure integration of continuity of Sexual and Reproductive health (SRH) essential services. UNFPA is supporting Rwanda’s continued joint monitoring of the supply chain of family planning commodities and maternal health lifesaving medicine to ensure availability at the last mile and minimize stock outs.

UNFPA Rwanda procured various types of PPEs to ensure frontline health workers responding to COVID-19 across treatment centers and those providing continued SRH health services have the protective equipment they need to stay safe.

“We commend the Ministry of Health’s efforts to both assess continuity of SRH services under the COID-19 response, and leverage strong community platforms thru recent Maternal & Child Health Week to promote SRH information & services during these challenging times.” said Mark Bryan Schreiner, UNFPA Representative to Rwanda.

Gender-based violence

Rising household tensions, exacerbated by economic pressures and movement restrictions, are sparking violence around the world. Women sheltering at home with their abusers often have nowhere to turn. And new forms of violence may be increasing, including cyber violence. 

UNFPA estimates that six months of lockdowns could lead to 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence, and an additional 15 million more cases for every three months the lockdown continues. 

To make matters worse, access to shelters and in-person counselling has been limited by the pandemic. UNFPA and partners are working to continue services for survivors wherever possible, and to increase remote operations.

In Rwanda, UNFPA and the One UN sister agencies are supporting national partners in gender-based violence prevention & response through public awareness raising activities using multi-media platforms, and strengthening referral networks including in humanitarian settings through the use of a free hotline by community members.

Against my will’ Campaign in Rwanda

UNFPA has joined hands with partners across Rwanda in a 2-week campaign to raise awareness on the importance of ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially for women and girls.  The campaign focused on defying GBV and Teenage Pregnancy, localized as “Ntibiri mu bushake bwanjye: ihohoterwa rishingiye ku gitsina no kwangiza abana, kuko  byangiza  imibereho y'abagore n'abakobwa bikabangamira uburinganire mu Rwanda” kicked-off with launch of UNFPA’s global flagship report The State of the World Population 2020 on 30th of  June. 

The campaign has engaged the general public in Rwanda, and Youth in particular, through series of virtual webinar, social media outreach, and public media events on radio and television across the country, culminating in the celebration of World Population Day on 11 of July.

“On this World Population Day, we call attention to the vulnerabilities and needs of women and girls during the COVID-19 crisis; ending the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence is essential.’’ proclaimed Mr Schreiner.

“Positive public messaging around gender equality and challenging gender stereotypes can reduce the risk of violence.  And in this, men and boys can and must be key allies and champions.”  Mr Schreiner added.

This year's World Population Day highlights that the world must redouble efforts, Dr. Kanem said: “As the global community comes together in solidarity to survive this pandemic, we lay the foundation for more resilient, gender-equal societies and a healthier, more prosperous future for all.”