Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry

By Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry (Regional Director, IPPF Africa Region)

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world causing untold suffering and misery. The world has been turned upside down within a few months. Millions of people, particularly the elderly, have fallen critically ill; and thousands more, including health workers, have died after contracting the deadly virus. The world economy has literally been brought to its knees with businesses collapsing, destroying livelihoods and pushing many people into extreme poverty. 

It is still unclear how the new coronavirus, also known as virus SARS-Cov-2 virus, is being transmitted in Africa. For now, the virus appears to be spreading at a much slower rate than in Europe and USA. But this may largely be due to lack of widespread testing.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the current lower rate of transmission on the continent will most likely translate into a more prolonged outbreak over several years. And as African countries start easing restrictions including lockdowns and curfews, infections rates are expected to rise sharply in the coming weeks.

From fears of contracting and dying from the infection, financial worries, to job losses, and feeling of helplessness, the deadly disease has affected all aspects of life. Women, to a large extent, are more adversely affected than men by the crisis due to existing patriarchal norms, traditional gender roles, and deep-rooted inequalities.

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry

They bear the heaviest burden of the outbreak because in their traditional roles as homemakers, mothers, and wives, they are responsible for ensuring that life goes even as everything around them is falling apart. In their nurturing and caregiving roles, women have to take care of sick family members; and as the majority of health workers in hospitals; they are disproportionately exposed to the deadly virus.

And when all available medical resources, including midwives, are deployed towards addressing the coronavirus  outbreak, women face enormous difficulties accessing essential life-saving sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and maternal health services, putting them at greater risk of unintended pregnancies, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, unsafe abortion and even death during childbirth.  And equally distressing is the reported increase in cases of gender-based violence.

Yet the pandemic is more than a medical emergency. It is also a social and economic crisis. Over 75% of women in Africa eke out a living from the informal economy as street food vendors and market traders. Many can no longer provide for their families as their small enterprises have been affected by containment measures such as quarantines, lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing.

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry

In many ways, the pandemic has magnified persistent gender inequalities in society. And sadly, significant progress in advancing gender equality and women’s rights, including hard-won gains for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) over the past decades, is being reversed. This underscores an urgent need to safeguard these gains by addressing the disproportionately negative impact of COVID-19 on the health and well-being of women and girls.

In an effort to ensure human rights, gender equality and SRHR for all are not neglected during this crisis and in its aftermath, three international NGOs committed to advancing the enjoyment of human rights for all without discrimination – International Planned Parenthood Federation Africa Region (IPPFAR), Amnesty International, and Women's Link Worldwide – developed guidelines to help national and local government authorities and agencies, as well as sub-regional and regional organizations, better understand the obligations they must fulfil with regard to women and girls' rights during the pandemic.

The “Guidelines for African States to Protect the Rights of Women and Girls during the COVID 19 Pandemic,” launched on 7 May 2020, provide a roadmap for governments and regional organisations for taking the necessary measures to protect the rights of women and girls, who are often disproportionately affected in crisis situations.

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry

They also highlight states’ obligations to guarantee the right to live free from discrimination and violence and calls on governments to ensure access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information during the pandemic.

The guidelines revolve around five key pillars: The rights to live free from violence and to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment; access to sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information; access to justice; women and girls in the context of migration and human mobility; and women and informal economy.

Clearly, collective and coordinated mitigation and recovery interventions will only succeed if women’s voices are included; and their fundamental rights are respected and guaranteed. This is a prerequisite for building a healthier, more equitable, fairer post COVID-19 future for all.

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry is the Regional Director, IPPF Africa Region based in Nairobi. E-mail: me.petrus.barry@ippfaro.org  

Read this article in French here.

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