Pregnancy doesn't stop during a pandemic - neither do human rights

Dr Asa Torkelsson 

COVID-19 is the unprecedented disruptor that has triggered unforeseeable stressors. The ‘global village’ is in chock trying to adapt and flatten the curve of the spread of infection, and so is Bangladesh.

Extraordinary bravery and innovation have come to show, manifested in the wholehearted service of people navigating into unchartered territory, with its unknowns, united in the collective aim to save lives.

It is this our common enemy, which gives us the chance to join as friends in curbing its spread, in flattening the curve, and in shared urgency to build back better, fast.

Bangladesh has shown its usual strength; resilience, adaptability, agility, perseverance and humanity, keeping up, full of its usual heart, and the courage needed to put a break to the pandemic.  

Hidden below the common headlines, the pandemic is taking an enormous toll on women and girls around the world as health systems struggle to respond. Lockdowns, mobility constraints, and the sidelining of sexual and reproductive health services are deepening the vulnerabilities of women and girls. As the crisis rages across the world, women struggle to reach health clinics to give birth and are deprived of access to family planning services, resulting in unintended pregnancies and projected increased preventable maternal deaths. Gender-based violence is also increasing, globally, and in Bangladesh.

The gains in maternal health made in Bangladesh over decades need to be safeguarded. However, COVID-19 has impacted the maternal healthcare systems at all levels. Use of contraception has also decreased since March 2020 in comparison to previous months, and anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in the cases of gender-based violence. It is also projected that child marriages will increase as a result of the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19.

This is just the current snapshot; the future of what we call the “shadow pandemic” could be much worse. UNFPA projects that COVID-19 will slash by at least one third global progress towards ending preventable maternal deaths, ending unmet need for family planning and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls in this decade.

Working closely with development partners, UNFPA is supporting the Government of Bangladesh in the response to and recovery from COVID-19. As the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, our advocacy at all levels is to ensure the health rights and protection of women and young people across Bangladesh, including the Rohingya and host communities. 

On this World Population Day, we must come together to amplify our messages to put the brakes on COVID-19 and to safeguard the health and rights of women and girls now, more than ever. Access to quality maternal healthcare and family planning information and services is a human right, and we must ensure that no one is deprived of this, despite COVID-19.

To ensure the right of the mothers and get maternal health back on track, the following is needed: 

  1. Pregnant mothers must continue visiting health facilities for maternal care

    Every mother has the right to safe birth and to access family planning. This is why we urge pregnant mothers to continue visiting health facilities for maternal care and family planning information by professional and trained healthcare workers. While visiting health facilities, women and girls must follow the precautionary measures of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining physical distancing. At the same time, women need to be safe and confident that staff and health systems are equipped, even in the pandemic.

    UNFPA works closely with the Government of Bangladesh to ensure infection prevention and patient triage systems are strengthened at health facilities so that mothers can continue receiving quality healthcare services. Midwives and maternal healthcare workers are provided with PPE and are trained on using it effectively, and our roving team of midwives are available where assistance is needed most across Bangladesh.

  2. Wearing masks and practicing physical distancing saves lives

Putting the brakes on COVID-19 means preventing the virus from spreading. Pregnant mothers too must follow the precautionary measures of wearing a mask, frequently washing hands, and practicing physical distancing, especially when accessing health facilities.

Three-layered masks can be made at home, and the DGHS approved guidelines on how to do so have been made available to the public. We must advocate this message strongly at all levels to ensure prevention and control of the virus. UNFPA is working closely with other UN agencies and partners to raise awareness on how to correctly wear a mask and how to make your own mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

  1. If you experience or witness violence or harmful practices, report it.

During emergency situations, women and girls are at increased risk of violence. The lockdown and restrictions in mobility due to COVID-19 exacerbates the situation, leaving women and young people feeling helpless as some are constrained to their homes with their abusers. Efforts to stop child marriage are also disrupted due to the pandemic, and increased community-level interventions are required to raise awareness on this harmful practice against girls.

UNFPA continues its combat against gender-based violence and child marriage in Bangladesh by ensuring the availability of remote case management and psychosocial counselling services. We are strengthening referral systems through the national emergency helplines 999 and 109, and are working closely with the police and legal sector to provide support to survivors of violence. We are working to co-create with multiple partners, innovative solutions to ensure that the rights of women and girls continue to be protected in these extraordinary circumstances.

Finally, on this World Population Day, let us come together to ensure that the health and rights of all women and girls are upheld in Bangladesh, despite the global pandemic. Physical distancing does not mean distancing from our advocacy efforts towards achieving universal sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ending gender-based violence. 

In the first year of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we must not allow the coronavirus to further worsen inequalities, including gender inequality. Assisting people affected by humanitarian crises is not only the right thing to do; it is the wise thing to do. Failure to respond may result in countless lives lost.

Pregnancy doesn't stop during a pandemic. Neither does childbirth. Nor do human rights. On World Population Day, we reaffirm our commitment to act on our collective resolve with the Government of Bangladesh, to secure sexual and reproductive health and rights, and protection for all women and girls in the country.

Dr Asa Torkelsson , UNFPA Representative in Bangladesh.