COVID-19 is endangering the safety of women and girls by cutting off access to contraceptive care

The effects of the current health crisis are far-reaching and are still unwinding. But it’s clear that the most marginalised will be the hardest hit.

Reproductive freedom is not a reality for many women across the globe. For too many women, access to quality family planning still depends on where they live and how much money they make.

Yet everyone has the right to lead a safe and dignified reproductive life, free from harm and discrimination during a crisis and always.

A serious shortage of contraceptives and reproductive health supplies

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated by the Guttmacher Institute that a 10% decline in short- and long-term reversible contraceptive use would result in an additional 49 million women with an unmet need for modern contraception in low- and middle-income countries and an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies. This would lead to more unsafe abortions and other negative outcomes.

The measures taken to respond to COVID-19 have seriously impacted the production of condoms and contraceptives in countries such as as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, the main providers of supplies. Some manufacturers were also prohibited from exporting products containing progesterone, a critical hormone used in many contraceptives. Issues at the source are exacerbated by delays in shipping, regulatory approvals and general business slowdown.

To add to this, the closure of borders is also further negatively impacting the shipping and distribution of contraceptives.

But can women and girls even access available supplies?

During public health emergencies, resources are urgently diverted from routine healthcare towards responding to the crisis. This means that many women, especially those in already vulnerable situations, are not able to access sexual and reproductive healthcare, including family planning.

If governments don’t recognise sexual and reproductive health as being essential, women’s safety and wellbeing is in danger.

Mobility restrictions further aggravate the situation as women are not able to easily seek out contraceptive care. Women also tend to have the most precarious jobs and the less well-paid ones which can put them in the difficult position of having to choose between contraception and other essentials.

What can European donors do to lessen the burden put on women and girls?

European donor governments must prioritise sexual and reproductive health care as essential and life-saving in this crisis.

European donors should ensure inclusion of sexual and reproductive services in basic packages of health services within programmes and support their inclusion in national governmental responses to COVID-19.  

They should further mobilize adequate resources and take coordinated action to strengthen supply chains to ensure continued provision of essential sexual and reproductive health commodities, including contraceptive (and emergency contraception), menstrual hygiene, obstetric and other reproductive and primary health care commodities.

This effort should include increased collaboration with key stakeholders in this space, including the UNFPA Supplies programme, the largest provider of donated contraceptives. Funding for family planning commodities was already in crisis before the COVID-19 outbreak, with UNFPA Supplies reporting needs for an additional 168 million Euros for 2020 to sustain its work and continue to serve growing target populations. The UNFPA COVID-19 Global Response Plan sets out important interventions, including for ensuring the supply of contraceptives and other RH commodities, which donors should support.

Finally, Europe needs to continue to prioritize global solidarity, by maintaining sufficient levels of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding and supporting partner countries to respond to the crisis in a comprehensive manner, including by strengthening health systems and access to SRHR as part of Universal Health Coverage.

Without sexual and reproductive health care, women and girls’ health and wellbeing, will be jeopardised.