Ongoing lockdowns and major disruptions to health services during the COVID-19 pandemic could leave 47 million women in low and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to seven million unintended pregnancies in the coming months, according to data released by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and partners.
The agencies estimate that the number of women unable to access family planning or facing unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence and other harmful practices, could "skyrocket" by millions due to the crisis.
"This new data shows the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 could soon have on women and girls globally," UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem said on Tuesday.
"The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health," Kanem said.
As a clear view of the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is only beginning to take shape, experts estimate that the human cost could be extraordinary.
The economic and physical disruptions caused by the disease could have vast consequences for the rights and health of women and girls, the new analysis by the UNFPA and partners noted.
Globally, around 450 million women across 114 low and middle-income countries use contraceptives, the study said.
“Significant levels of lockdown-related disruption over 6 months could leave 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to a projected 7 million additional unintended pregnancies. Six months of lockdowns could result in an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence,” it said.
The pandemic is also expected to cause significant delays in programmes to end female genital mutilation and child marriage, resulting in an estimated two million more cases of FGM over the next decade than would otherwise have occurred.
These delayed programmes, on top of growing economic hardships globally, could result in an estimated 13 million more child marriages over 10 years.
There also will be 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence during the same period, with a further 15 million more cases expected for every three months the lockdowns continue.
These figures – produced in collaboration with partners Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Victoria University (Australia) – are rough estimates. The analysis said while a great deal is still unknown about how the pandemic, and the response to it, will unfold around the world, the projections offer an alarming view of the future that could confront women and girls if efforts are not urgently made to secure their welfare and ensure their rights.
COVID-19 is having an enormous impact on women and girls as health systems become overloaded and facilities close, or provide a limited set of services which they need. At the same time, many women and girls also are skipping important medical check-ups for fear of contracting the virus, the study said.
Disruptions to global supply chains could lead to significant shortages of contraceptives, it said, while gender-based violence – already on the increase due to the pandemic, is expected to rise still further as women are trapped at home for prolonged periods.
The UNFPA is working with governments and partners to prioritise the needs of women and girls of reproductive age during the pandemic.
The agency is focused on strengthening health systems, procuring and delivering essential supplies to protect health workers, ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services, and promoting risk communication and community engagement.
"Women's reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs. The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported," Kanem said.
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