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Gender, SRHR & Covid-19

Written by Kerigo Odada, human rights lawyer who specialises in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and currently serves as a Board Member of The Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. Click here to open the article in a new webpage.

For many adolescent girls and young women around the world, adolescence marks not only the commencement of puberty, but also a time where statistically, the risk of facing human rights abuses such as sexual violence, exploitation, and other adverse outcomes of sex increases. However, despite this high predisposition to abuse, adolescent girls and young women still face multiple barriers in accessing information on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Discriminatory cultural values, laws, and policies that are driven by the stigma attached to sexuality have made it challenging for members of this social group to enjoy full access to much needed SRHR information.

As of April 2020, about 1.725 billion students worldwide were forced out of learning institutions due to COVID-19. Although the closure of schools and other lockdown measures were strategic in controlling the spread of COVID-19, this situation unfortunately meant that many adolescent girls and young women were now confined in homes where they were, and still are, at a heightened risk of prolonged sexual abuse, exploitation and negative outcomes of sex.

Although lockdowns, quarantines, and other isolation measures have had a negative impact on the lives of countless adolescent girls and young women worldwide,  it is not COVID-19 that is responsible for more than one girl being raped during the first 17 days of quarantine in Peru. It is not COVID-19 that is responsible for “a daily average of 48 cases of violence against children, including sexual assault and rape since the beginning of the lockdown in Bolivia”. It is not COVID-19 that is responsible for approximately 4,000 school girls being impregnated in Machakos County, Kenya within the first 4 months of lockdown, nor is it responsible for impregnating around  2,300 schoolgirls and marrying off around 128 of them in Uganda. These are the consequences of pre-existing gender inequalities that are driven by androcentric systems of justice, health care and education -systems that are oftentimes designed to protect perpetrators while leaving adolescent girls and young women exposed.

Denying adolescent girls and young women the opportunity to freely access SRHR information during this period is a failure on the part of governments because they have a duty to ensure all persons can fully enjoy the right to health.  This approach does not take into consideration the lived realities of many adolescents and young women, nor their evolving capacities.  SRHR information empowers members of this social group with essential knowledge, skills, and values such as critical thinking, communication,  negotiation, decision-making and assertiveness all of which empower them to navigate a world where they are highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse, child marriage, unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions,  HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

Several organisations working on adolescent girls and young women’s SRHR, have called upon governments to ensure we do not have a repeat of what was witnessed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak where teenage pregnancies increased by 65%. These organisations noted that measures taken to respond to epidemics often leave adolescent girls and young women vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation because they are usually isolated from people, systems and resources that can help them safeguard their SRHR. Therefore, preventative measures such as uninterrupted access to SRHR services and information must be ensured to safeguard the health and well being of members of this social group.

Keeping communication channels open, informed, and supportive of adolescent girls and young women play a key role in ensuring this social group acquires practical knowledge that will help protect them from abuse and other negative outcomes of sex. It is therefore imperative that governments, in collaboration with the media, develop and implement a framework for engaging with adolescent girls and young women on matters relating to SRHR.

Engaging the Media

Media has one of the greatest potentials to advance SRHR globally. Given its “ability to disseminate information in a broad, timely, and accessible manner”, strong partnerships and collaboration with journalists and social media activists at the global and local levels are essential in safeguarding adolescent girls and young women’s SRHR.  Governments, in collaboration with organisations working on SRHR, should invest in creating and sustaining the interest of the media in reporting on SRHR issues because this will ensure adolescent girls and young women have uninterrupted access to SRHR information. This also involves strengthening the capacity of the media to engage in the topic. Virtual trainings, workshops, and webinars should be organised to educate the media on how to report on SRHR issues. Helping journalists get a deeper understanding of the issues will ensure that they are motivated to report on them.

A good collaboration with the media can lead to the production and dissemination of quality campaign and educational materials such as movies, radio shows, songs, posters, stickers, and online campaigns. For example, in  Burkina Faso, a partnership with the National Coalition for the Abandonment of Child Marriage saw the training of 30 national journalists on child marriage, while in Niger, radio ‘Voix du Sahel’ and nine private radio stations worked together to air a soap opera that successfully raised awareness on child marriage in the region.

Nevertheless, in as much as using media will be essential in ensuring SRHR information is accessible to adolescent girls and young women, stakeholders must also ensure that they put in place measures to protect this group as they engage with these media platforms. This is especially relevant for online models of communication, such as social media. According to UNICEF, children now spend a lot of time online either for school, or when socialising with friends which consequently puts them at risk of online sexual exploitation and misinformation. In a report released in April, UNICEF noted that, since the pandemic started, internet usage had increased by up to 50% in some parts of the world as life became more and more digitalised. With fewer physically accessible activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are spending more time browsing the internet. In Canada, for instance,  Cybertip.ca, an online sexual exploitation of children tip line, reported a 66% increase in reports in April following the implementation of lockdowns. In India, there has been a 95% rise in traffic searching for child sexual abuse content,  while in Europe, Europol (The European Union police agency) has sounded the alarm over significant increases in activity relating to child sexual abuse and exploitation on both the surface web and dark web during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

Governments should partner with other stakeholders such as civil society organisations, and community-based organisations to develop strategies to engage the media, both mainstream and social media. This engagement should ultimately lead to the development of a framework to educate the youth on SRHR and should be part of the educational programs rolled out in various countries. Forming partnerships will be instrumental in bringing together a diverse range of people and organisations, thereby facilitating the exchange of information, skills, experience, and materials while providing peer support, encouragement, and motivation. Partnerships, especially with grassroots organisations, help in getting community buy-in which is vital in addressing issues related to young women’s access to comprehensive SRHR information.

For example, technical, financial, and logistical support could be given to initiatives such as InfoAdoJeunes, a mobile app developed in Togo to help youth access credible SRHR information during this time of COVID-19. Another successful initiative is U-Report, an SMS-based peer counselling service in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, that was developed to support continuous training and answers to young people’s questions and concerns on SRHR. U-report equipped mentors with mobile access that reaches over 200,000 adolescents with youth-friendly information mainly on child marriage.

The pandemic has exposed the fact that sexual exploitation of adolescent girls and young women, despite being a gross violation of human rights, is deeply woven into the tapestry of many societies. A situation that is further worsened by either lack of access to information on SRHR, or if access is there, the information is confusing or conflicting. When this group lacks knowledge on their SRHR, they are left vulnerable to sexual exploitation, coercion, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, unintended pregnancies, and unsafe abortions. It is therefore of paramount importance that we provide adolescent girls with comprehensive information on SRHR that prepares them for a safe, productive, and fulfilling life.  To continue denying adolescent girls and young women access to this information under the pretext of protecting them from immorality is discriminatory and a violation of their rights.

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