For almost a year, the world has been living with the coronavirus. It is now clear that the pandemic, and the efforts being made to stop the spread of infection, are hitting different groups differently. But as in many previous crises and disasters, there is one group that is particularly vulnerable: the teenage girls. Especially when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
"We fear that a whole generation of girls will never return to school," said Bhagyashri Dengle, Plan International's regional director for Asia. According to her, the work for girls' rights has lost 20 years of development since the pandemic broke out. The positive trend with fewer child marriages and more girls going to school has thus been broken and massive efforts are needed to break the negative trend.
Even before Covid-19, violence against girls and women was classified as a pandemic. With the shutdowns of society, which led to isolation in the home, however, the situation has worsened further, which has led the UN to instead speak of violence as a "shadow pandemic". As a global children's rights organization with a focus on girls' rights, we also see an increase in child marriage, genital mutilation and unwanted teenage pregnancies in the wake of the pandemic.
The girls who are not visible
In crises, such as the one we are currently in, teenage girls are often forgotten when the efforts are instead directed at younger children or adult women. As a result, teenage girls often end up between the chairs and their special needs and vulnerability are not prioritized. When the schools close, what is for many girls the only safe place disappears at the same time as the health care system changes to meet the new challenges with COVID-19.
Deteriorating care affects hundreds of thousands of girls
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are crucial for girls' development, but young people in low- and middle-income countries have for generations lived without, or with inadequate, access to both sex education and care adapted for young people. Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute from 2019 show that 43 percent of teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who want to avoid becoming pregnant do not use or have access to contraception. It is estimated that each year leads to 10 million involuntary pregnancies and 5,7 million abortions, the majority of which are unsafe. Of the 12 million teenage girls who give birth each year, 4 million are without maternity care, maternity care and newborn care.
With COVID-19, these problems grow even further. We have not yet decided, but the Guttmacher Institute has calculated how the pandemic can strike young people's SRHR in 132 low- and middle-income countries, and how reduced access to different types of care risks affecting girls aged 15-19. There are several reasons why access to maternity care, contraception and sexual education decreases during the pandemic. Plan International - as well as other organizations, authorities and actors - have had to restructure our operations to continue supporting girls and young women during the corona crisis. This is not least because countries with already strained healthcare systems have been forced to cut back or completely change healthcare in order to be able to focus on the pandemic. In addition, closures of communities, travel bans and other restrictions have led to severely limited opportunities to go to clinics and seek existing care. In some areas, it is also not possible to obtain contraceptives as deliveries have been affected. In places where health systems are particularly weak, and where girls' mobility is restricted, Plan International has therefore worked with mobile clinics to reach girls in rural areas with, for example, contraception, HIV testing and antiretroviral drugs.
In addition, school closures lead to children and young people not being able to receive sex education or youth-adapted care through school. That is why we have invested in digital solutions to reach out with information - via, for example, chatbots, WhatsApp and SMS solutions and support for hotlines where young people can call for support and advice on care.
As mentioned earlier, the economic crisis that followed the pandemic and the closure of societies has led to increased violence, especially against girls and women. Efforts during the pandemic must therefore provide support to survivors and continue to prevent child marriage, violence in close relationships and female genital mutilation. We do this together with children and young people, parents, traditional and religious leaders, schools, healthcare institutions, authorities and decision-makers, worldwide.
Finally, it is important to point out that young people are not a homogeneous group. In addition to girls, the pandemic hits marginalized groups particularly hard, such as young people who identify as LGBTQI, young people with disabilities, migrants, refugees and the homeless, and it is important to ensure that interventions are tailored and accessible to all young people.
We've seen it before - support girls in time
During the Ebola crisis, we saw in black and white how serious the consequences can be if countries focus only on the disease itself and not on the effects the disease had on society. The number of child marriages increased, as did teenage pregnancies and maternal mortality, while access to youth clinics and maternity care decreased. We must counter the setback against girls who are exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
Prioritize sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Sweden's efforts during the pandemic must clearly prioritize sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women, and work for the same within the EU and the UN. Sweden must also pay attention to the importance of access to both sex education and care, including contraception, even during the ongoing crisis. Support and care after sexual violence must also be included. This applies to both humanitarian and long-term work.
Fight violence against girls
Sweden can contribute to counteracting violence against girls and women through its own development cooperation, but also by acting within the EU and the UN. During the crisis, extra support is needed for organizations that support girls and women exposed to violence, but also the preventive and long-term work of changing structures and preventing men's violence against girls and women must be a priority. Efforts for survivors must be age-appropriate and include both SRHR services and access to safe places, psychosocial and legal support.