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The looming threat of a COVID-19 baby boom

International organizations are warning about a possible baby boom due to COVID-19 and restrictions on women’s reproductive girls, which will have significant implications for the world’s economy. In the age of global warming, the pandemic could lead to an additional 7 million unintended births, accelerating the growth of the world population.

A woman’s rights issue

According to the United Nations Population Fund estimates that the pandemic could cause millions of women to lose access to contraception, leading to at least 7 million unintended pregnancies.

The key projection by UNFPA was released in a statement on April 28, 2020:

“47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives and 7 million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur if the lockdown carries on for 6 months and there are major disruptions to health services. For every 3 months the lockdown continues, up to an additional 2 million women may be unable to use modern contraceptives.”

The research, conducted by UNFPA with contributions from Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (USA), and Victoria University (Australia), predicts that the pandemic will also significantly impact current activities to combat gender-based violence, child marriages, and female genital mutilation.

It is clear that the pandemic has caused many countries to restrict women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many are closing down clinics delivering essential family planning health services, especially in Pakistan, El Salvador, Zambia, Sudan, Colombia, Malaysia, Uganda, Ghana, Germany, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka. In total, 5,633 sexual and reproductive health care services have already closed around the world, according to an article by the International Planned Parenthood Association. It further states that the ones that do remain open are facing problems accessing contraception and other essential supplies.

In the United States, conservative politicians also are seizing upon the lockdown measures to cancel abortion procedures. In other countries, such as India, the officials recognize abortion as an essential health service but women cannot seem to access it due to the strict lockdown measures.

The rise of unintended or even unwanted pregnancies, often caused by rape, may also lead to a rise in maternal mortality. After the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, for example, more women died giving birth or delivered stillborn infants.

For women’s rights activists, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on women’s and girls’ reproductive health and rights in an illustration of how such rights are simply not considered important enough for politicians and policy-makers around the globe. Instead of investing in proper healthcare infrastructures, many middle to low-income countries are dependent on NGOs and other types of organizations for family planning. It might be a short-term fix, but the pandemic demonstrates the fragility of this system when a crisis hits.

The upsurge of unintended pregnancies, many of which bourne by underage girls, may also have long-term effects on gender equality. As more girls are forced into motherhood or marriage, women’s literacy and education rates are likely to fall. Furthermore, early pregnancies can cause damage to the bodies of young girls and lead to health problems during and after pregnancy.

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School closures impact girls’ rights

As schools are forced to close down as a health measure, many girls are left without the only place where they felt safe. Domestic violence has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic and sexual abuse can lead thousands of girls to face unwanted pregnancies, without access to specialized health care, and without the option to terminate the pregnancy.

According to a report by Save the Children, the Ebola outbreak had a dramatic impact on the safety of teenage girls:

“Sexual violence against girls was observed to have increased across all districts, and this was stated by both girls and boys. In nearly all of the FGDs where this issue was raised, children could relay a case of rape against a girl in their community, including attacks on girls in quarantine households. Data revealed that the risk of rape was highest when girls went to collect water, traveled long distances to trade in other villages, or when using the bush to go to the toilet.

Reports about fear of rape were mainly voiced by girls aged 15-18, but younger girls also shared their concerns. Boys were aware of this happening to their sisters and friends. Many children also spoke about links between increased abuse and higher teenage pregnancies: “yes, there is more abuse in the community now which has resulted in the increase of teenage pregnancy” – Girl aged 15-18, Kailahun

Telemedicine – a possible solution

As countries across the globe neglect sexual and reproductive health and rights and family planning, national and international non-governmental organizations are trying to come up with new solutions.

In the United States, Planned Parenthood expanded telehealth services to all 50 States. According to TIME, this initiative allows Americans to have access to, among other services:

“[T]esting and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), HIV testing and prevention, emergency contraception, hormone therapy, vasectomy counseling, abortion counseling, and—like the first responder—prescriptions for abortion pills”

The international organization Marie Stopes has also come up with the At Home Abortion Pills initiative and runs a 24/7 hotline for phone consultations. This will allow thousands of women access to abortion services while in quarantine, thus avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

Before the pandemic, many countries were reluctant to allow such services to be provided through telemedicine. But COVID-19 has eased restrictions and allowed organizations to reach beneficiaries with the aid of technology.

There are now organizations providing such services more than ever, and hopefully, the trends will continue in order to reach women and girls who, even before the pandemic, could not access sexual and reproductive care in their own cities or countries.

One such organization is Women First Digital, which provides threefold services through three different websites. While Find My Method focuses on assisting women and girls to find the right type of contraceptive for them, safe2choose offers counseling services to those wondering whether they would like to carry on pregnancies or not. Finally, How to Use Abortion Pill explains, well, just that, in 24 different languages, making sure women and girls can safely terminate unwanted pregnancies at home.