United for women’s health in the face of COVID-19
The 18th International Dialogue focused on ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights in a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on the sexual and reproductive rights of millions of people, including on their access to sexual and reproductive health services. Ways to safeguard both access and rights during and after the current pandemic were at the heart of the International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development in 2020.
On 28/29 October 2020, the 18th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development brought together around 100 selected experts from 30 countries to discuss the challenges posed on people´s sexual and reproductive health and rights by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the current global health crisis, delegates met online for a virtual conference instead of travelling in person to Berlin, the location of the previous 17 International Dialogues. Like the earlier Dialogues, it was hosted by Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, International Planned Parenthood Federation and KfW Entwicklungsbank, in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Bayer AG.
Strong and resilient health systems must be at the core of COVID-19 responses
In her opening remarks Dr. Maria Flachsbarth, Parliamentary State Secretary of BMZ, stated: ‘Building back better, especially building stronger health systems, will be essential during and after the pandemic’. If the targets set by the 2030 Development Agenda are to be achieved, she said, access to sexual and reproductive health services must be guaranteed. This point was expressed by delegates time and again throughout the conference: Strong and resilient health systems must be at the center of response to the current global health crisis.
Using interactive formats ranging from bilateral conversations and breakout groups to a virtual fishbowl and a panel discussion, the two-day conference offered delegates valuable opportunities for joint reflection and exchange on how to manage the impact of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
47 million women may lose access to modern contraceptives
Due to the corona crisis in many countries’ health systems are overburdened, supply chains are interrupted, and many health facilities are closed. The options for women and girls seeking sexual and reproductive health services have become alarmingly limited. Approximately 47 million women are at risk of losing access to modern contraceptives due to the pandemic. At the same time, the crisis has forced many vulnerable women and girls into forced confinement with perpetrators of gender-based violence – often family members -, and the incidence of gender-based violence has increased accordingly. In addition, the loss of employment and income has pushed many families into financial hardship, resulting in increases in early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation as well as sexual exploitation and abuse.
We need to think beyond the health sector
To truly realise sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, ‘we need to think beyond the health sector’ said Birgit Pickel, Head of BMZ’s new Directorate Global Health, Pandemic Preparedness and One Health. Frank Strelow, Vice President Sustainability of Bayer AG supported this position, stating that ‘access to sexual and reproductive health and rights does not only mean access to contraception and reproductive health services. It also means access to education, safe spaces, food and healthy nutrition.’
COVID-19 could be a turning point
COVID-19 has presented enormous challenges, but it has also created new opportunities: Using innovative approaches such as telemedicine and selfcare, for example some providers have been able to maintain access to their sexual and reproductive health services. In doing so, they have made their health systems more resilient and sustainable. Jan Kreutzberg, Executive Director of Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, noted that ‘if we learn from this crisis, exchange ideas, embrace new ways of working and act together, COVID-19 can be a turning point for the realisation of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all’. He appealed to all delegates and the organisations they represent to use the current window of opportunity ‘to act fast and united’ in order to ‘promote the full realisation of sexual and reproductive health and rights’.
We believe in the power of partnership
Throughout the conference, speakers and delegates at the conference emphasised that tackling the impacts of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health and rights required governments, international agencies, development partners, civil society and the private sector to work together. ‘We believe in the power of partnership”, said Diene Keita Deputy Director of UNFPA ‘and we can only achieve results by working together’.
Acknowledging the crucial roles the two multilateral partners United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation have to play for achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services, Dr. Maria Flachsbarth announced an increase from 40 to 70 million EUR to UNFPA’s and from 12 to 15 million EUR to IPPF´s annual funding.
Standing together – no matter the distances
According to Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights & Member of the IPPF Board of Trustees, ‘we are together in our resolve to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights - no matter the circumstance, no matter the crisis, no matter the distance.’ The 18th International Dialogue set an example for solidarity and cooperation in difficult times.