OPINION: Access to sexual and reproductive health services for women, girls very crucial at this time of crisis
By Dr Manala Makua
Globally women have been at the receiving end of the unprecedented challenges that Covid-19 has brought forth. Access to and availability of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, like many other services, has been hit, causing distress, anxiety and fear among women and girls.
The result of this unforeseen and unprecedented burden is not yet fully known, but as we wade through this crisis, we must not forget SRH services are essential, critical, often time-sensitive but are geared to save lives – often those of a mother and baby.
We at the national Department of Health remain strongly committed to increasing young people and women’s awareness, knowledge, and access to critical SRH services.
These services include access to family planning and termination of pregnancy (TOP); prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cervical and breast cancer; and prevention of unsafe traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and violence against women.
According to many global statutes on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), such needs of the population must be met throughout the course of life – this means a comprehensive approach to respond to beneficiaries’ health needs must be available from the moment they are born, through the teenage years, and into adult life and old age.
However, a high rate of unintended pregnancies, HIV infection among young women, and cervical cancer indicate that not all women are able to access this care. Several barriers to care are responsible for this, including misinformation and stigmatisation.
To ensure women can demand services that are available to them, they must be equipped with knowledge and information on potential benefits of these services, and know exactly why, when and where they can access them.
To make this a reality, we have embarked on a journey that uses a rights-based approach to create demand for and increase access to SRHR. This involves educating communities on available services and their right to access them.
To that end, implementation is under way to increase SRHR across all life stages through an integrated and comprehensive service framework. This will further affirm choice, patient confidentiality, and individual agency in a non-discriminatory manner for all individuals at the community level in health facilities.
Another purpose of this framework is to provide evidence-based SRHR training to health-care workers and other relevant stakeholders on these issues. As part of this, we are working to increase the number of trained health workers and improve their skills and attitude towards SRHR, particularly towards under-served groups. The framework also aims to provide integrated SRHR services.
In this, SRHR services, including HIV services, will be integrated with all other service delivery platforms at the community, primary-care (including school health) secondary, and tertiary-care levels. This will see the state apparatus delivering comprehensive, evidence-based SRHR services and reaffirming its national commitment to reducing gender and other inequalities borne from health disparities.
We are stronger together, and so we must all work to increase advocacy, public education and awareness regarding comprehensive SRH services, including family planning and safe TOP services. As Covid-19 continues to throw new challenges at us every day, we must not weaken our resolve to achieve health for all.
Dr Manala Makua is the chief director of women’s, maternal and reproductive health at the national Department of Health.