COVID-19 is spreading. So is gender-based inequity.

By Isabella Fan


“Look, everything has been diverted to COVID. But after COVID, another catastrophe will be women’s health, unless something is done right now.” [1]

Across the globe, women are becoming increasingly vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV) as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Restrictions on movement, economic concerns, and confined living spaces create challenging environments that are conducive to intimate partner violence. [2] Women who are older, have disabilities, or have recently immigrated are particularly disadvantaged. Youth are also affected as school closures lead to a reduction in comprehensive sex education.[3] Not only do girls and women lose the opportunity to be empowered by a rights-based education, some must now also stay at home under increasingly abusive environments. During this time, access to GBV services is essential but also compromised. Shelters, crisis centres, hotlines, and protection services are under enormous strain, which limits more and more women from accessing these resources.[4] As they are turned away, the impact of domestic violence will manifest into adverse physical, mental, and sexual and reproductive health consequences.

This leads to the overarching issue surrounding the availability of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, including services for contraception, safe abortions, and maternal and newborn health. While achieving equitable access to SRH services has been a longstanding global challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed additional barriers for women in need of this essential care. To respond to the pandemic, resources are being diverted, thus resulting in a shortage of health workers and facilities that offer SRH services.[3] Other SRH programs may also lose funding and are facing a scarcity of SRH supplies as the pandemic disrupts major supply chains.[3] On a broader scale, politics are becoming an additional barrier that is especially burdensome for women in particular geographic areas. Amidst this pandemic, certain US states have acted to ban abortion services, deeming this time-sensitive service as non-essential.[5]

However, professional associations have responded that such services should remain available for women, as this access is a human right.[3,6]

“COVID-19 provides us with an opportunity for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives.”[2]

Funding is foundational to the maintenance of essential health services. As violence against women increases during this time, there is a role for policymakers to include surge funding for women’s shelters and crisis services. Moreover, new solutions to increase the availability of SRH services should be explored. This could include expanding contraception counselling and provision beyond healthcare facilities into pharmacies and mobile platforms.[7] Health professionals also have a role to create arrangements that will optimize access to essential services for especially vulnerable groups of patients. This could mean promoting telehealth and other avenues to deliver reproductive health education, screening, and counselling.[8] Finally, community awareness and support for women is vital when other essential health services are not immediately available. It is only when all stakeholders work together that the barriers to essential health services can be overcome.

  1. Anna C. Lockdown means millions of women can’t reach birth control. AP News [Internet]. 2020 April 9. Available from: https://apnews.com/ca31728c40ddadb03d14f7bd41a03ced
  2. Mlambo-Ngcuka P. COVID-19: women front and centre. UN Women [Internet]. 2020 March 20. Available from: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/3/statement-ed-phumzile-covid-19-women-front-and-centre
  3. International Medical Advisory Panel. IMAP statement on COVID-19 and sexual and reproductive health and rights. IPPF [Internet]. 2020 April. Available from: http://www.familyplanning2020.org/sites/default/files/COVID/imap-covid.pdf
  4. World Health Organization. COVID-19 and violence against women. WHO [Internet]. 2020 April 7. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/331699/WHO-SRH-20.04-eng.pdf?ua=1
  5. Abrams A. COVID-19 could permanently make abortions harder to access nationwide. TIME USA [Internet]. 2020 April 7. Available from: https://time.com/5816530/coronavirus-abortion-clinics-access/
  6. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Joint statement on abortion access during the COVID-19 outbreak. ACOG [Internet]. 2020 March 18. Available from: https://www.acog.org/news/news-releases/2020/03/joint-statement-on-abortion-access-during-the-covid-19-outbreak
  7. World Health Organization. Contraception/family planning and COVID-19. WHO [Internet]. 2020 April 6. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/contraception-family-planning-and-covid-19
  8. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. COVID-19 FAQs for obstetrician-gynecologists, gynecology. ACOG [Internet]. Available from: https://www.acog.org/clinical-information/physician-faqs/covid19-faqs-for-ob-gyns-gynecology

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