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Madam President, we meet in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. As we speak, we all mourn for lost souls, and continue to fight against infection, treat our sick, roll out vaccinations – all while managing the severe social and economic fallout of this disease.
In September 2019, the world set itself a bold goal by adopting a Political Declaration on Universal Health Coverage (UHC). The pandemic shows how critical effective health systems and universal health coverage are in times of crisis. Investing in health and health systems for all, leaving no one behind, must be a top priority.
Governments recognize that sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are integral to UHC. SRHR services should be of good quality, affordable, available, accessible, and acceptable to all persons, including women and girls, across their life course. Such services should be offered to all, free from stigma, discrimination, coercion, and violence. Broad SRHR programs prevent risks, reduce harm, and ultimately save lives.
The WHO identifies sexual and reproductive health care services, including family planning services and care during pregnancy and childbirth, as essential services that governments should prioritize to maintain continuity of services during the pandemic.
Similarly, the CEDAW Committee has issued guidance that calls on States to ensure “confidential access to sexual and reproductive health information and services and full consent to women and girls at all times, through toll-free hotlines and easy-to-access procedures such as online prescriptions, if necessary free of charge.”
Yet, we today witness an “inequality pandemic”, with rising disparities in and between countries. Women are in many ways the heroes of the pandemic, making valiant efforts in health care and essential services, both at work and at home. While seeing an already double workload increase, women and girls at the same time face the brunt of economic hardship. 47 million additional women and girls are slipping into poverty. Women and girls are also at an increased risk of human rights violations and abuses, including those violating their bodily integrity and autonomy. Lockdowns around the world have entailed a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence. According to the UN, 15 million additional women and girls worldwide have suffered from violence, for every three months of lockdown measures.
The severely diminished access to critical health services, especially services aimed at sexual and reproductive health, have generated declines in modern contraceptive use as well as an increase in unwanted pregnancies and maternal mortality.
Comprehensive sexuality education risks being left out as school systems across regions continue to struggle to operate. Many children will lose access to critical sexual and reproductive health information. Girls may be unable to leave their homes to access sexual and reproductive health services. Some of them will never return to school and some will end up in child, early and forced marriages.
The world needs more robust and resilient healthcare systems. Sexual and reproductive health and rights must be at the core of the health agenda, as we respond to the ongoing crisis and build back stronger. Let us together make sure this is not a missed opportunity.