Kerigo Odada is a human rights lawyer based in South Africa, specialising in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights-University of Pretoria. She currently serves as a Board Member of The Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights
The Novel Coronavirus, known as COVID -19 has disrupted normal life and operations across the globe. It has interfered with political, social and economic activities globally, including access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services. However, for many young people, especially adolescents, COVID-19 has not introduced any new barriers when it comes to accessing SRHR services. COVID-19 has exacerbated the pre-existing structural barriers that have continually abridged young people’s SRHR worldwide. The pandemic is exposing young peoples’ unmet need for contraceptives that has been perpetuated over time by discriminatory policies, ignorance and stigma.
Young people, including adolescents, have unique SRHR needs. These needs were largely overlooked in many countries long before the situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictive policies, and structural barriers such as requiring parental authorisation to access SRHR services, lack of adolescent or youth-friendly services, criminalisation of consensual sexual activity between adolescents of similar ages, prohibiting access to comprehensive sexuality education amongst other things, characterise young people’s lived realities. As a result, members of this social group are now at an even higher risk of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and complications arising from pregnancy. Access to contraceptives is an integral component in safeguarding an individual’s reproductive autonomy and safety, over and above reducing the demand that would otherwise be placed on the healthcare system due to negative consequences of not being able to access contraceptives.
COVID-19, which was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020, has severely disrupted the global contraceptives supply chain. Vital resources have been redirected to COVID-19 response, while in some instances, the manufacture of contraceptives has been halted altogether. There have been reports that many of the Asian companies that manufacture condoms and other contraceptives have shut down as workers have been asked to stay at home. Where manufacturing has resumed, the contraceptive suppliers are still not operating at their normal capacities, and this is expected to lead to delays in production. In Malaysia for example, Karex Bhd which makes one in every five condoms globally, announced that there is a looming shortage of condoms after it initially shut down production but subsequently resumed with only 50% of its workforce. Furthermore, bans on the export of medical supplies and certain raw materials in countries like India is also expected to contribute to the shortage of contraceptives.
Therefore, in as much as this pandemic is going to affect everyone, young people, especially adolescent girls, will suffer disproportionately due to the fact that they are naturally predisposed to intersecting forms of marginalisation. Consequently, governments, policymakers, service providers and advocates, in responding to the pandemic, must take cognisance of the impact the virus has on young people’s SRHR. Action must be taken to ensure young people have access to contraceptives and contraceptive services, because lack thereof may result in another crisis post-COVID -19.
Further, governments must realise that the absence of contraceptive services from the essential services lists of most countries, is going to disproportionately affect young people who now find themselves spending more time at home due to the closure of schools to control COVID-19 transmission. The closure of schools is highly likely to result in increased sexual exploitation of young people, especially adolescent girls. This phenomenon was witnessed in 2014-2015 during the Ebola epidemic, where incidences of sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy increased exponentially. Vulnerable girls turned to transactional sex for economic sustenance and without adequate access to contraception and safe abortion services, this serious form of child exploitation contributed to a teenage pregnancy rate of about 65%.
Therefore, governments, in the development of a public health response to COVID-19, must adopt a human rights-based framework that takes into account the impact of the pandemic on young people’s SRHR. Young people, including adolescents, are entitled to the full enjoyment of the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including SRHR4. States must, therefore, invest both human and capital resources into youth-friendly SRH services, so that young people are assured access to these services in an environment free from any form of discrimination and stigma. National governments are called upon to include contraceptive as essential services during this crisis because failure to do so, is likely to result in negative SRHR outcomes for young people across the globe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly interfered with a range of SRHR services available to young people, including adolescents. Therefore, just as the United Nations Secretary-General has stated, governments must continue with the delivery of SRHR services unabated in spite of the pandemic. Contraceptive supply chains must be maintained as a priority, the need for prescriptions for certain contraceptives should be removed, contraceptives should be available via telemedicine where appropriate, and national health bodies should promote youth-friendly guidance on the use of contraceptives during the pandemic. Additionally, governments should also ensure that the youth have uninterrupted access to information on SRHR. The delivery of these services should be available to all young persons, including adolescents, because access to health facilities, goods, services and information must be enjoyed by all persons irrespective of age.
 K Hall and others ‘Centring sexual and reproductive health and justice in the global COVID-19 response’ (2020) LANCET
 United Nations Population Fund COVID-19: a gender lens protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights and promoting gender equality (2020) United Nations Population Fund.
 C Purdy ‘How will COVID-19 affect global access to contraceptives, and what can we do about it?’ DKT International 11 March 2020
 as above
 Human Rights watch COVID-19 and Children’s Rights (2020)
 As above
Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of SRHM as an organisation.