COVID-19 impacts all aspects of adolescent girl’s lives, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights (or SRHR). SRHR is an umbrella term that underlines the basic need for everyone to be able to access sexual and reproductive healthcare, information, products, and resources, along with the human rights that everyone has to be able to make decisions about their bodies, sexual health and relationships, sexuality, and gender identity. For example, this includes adolescent girls’ rights to access menstrual health products and their right to decide if they want to get married or have children.
Although women and adolescent girls already face challenges in exercising their SRHR, during the pandemic, these have barriers increased. Due to the shift of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and healthcare workers towards the outbreak, women and adolescent girls may not be able to access SRH services, products, and information. Additionally, restrictive measures, such as lockdowns, can make it harder for girls to access these services. For example, in India, the distribution of government-provided menstrual health products has stopped, leaving many girls without any products. These measures have also disrupted the supply and production of SRH products, such as contraception, leading to stockouts. These different challenges are expected to have a long-term impact, including an increase in the number of early pregnancies, cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unsafe abortions.
Sindhu from Jharkhand, India said, “We don’t have enough money for food. How can I ask [my family] to buy me sanitary napkins? So, I started using old cloth again because of the lack of availability, even though the sanitary napkins are available in the market, the price is high. I am worried about my health but what can I do?” Sindhu isn’t alone. Thousands of women and young girls in the rural areas of Jharkhand are in a similar situation and things may be worse than what they appear as these issues are not discussed openly.
In Mali, girls are also having a hard time accessing menstrual health products, in part due to the rise in prices of sanitary cotton. Aminata from Segou said, “I and several other girls are often forced to resort to the traditional method which is a source of infection.”
MTBA partner, NEEDS, surveyed 419 adolescent girls from 15 to 19 in the Deoghar district in Jharkhand. Before the lockdown, 65% of these girls had access to sanitary pads. Due to the lockdown, this number has reduced to 33%. MTBA partners, like NEEDS, have been trying to meet these gaps by distributing reusable sanitary pads to 560 girls who had no access to menstrual health products.
Girls themselves are also taking action and raising their voices to demand their sexual and reproductive health rights. For example, Neelam, wrote a joint letter with a group of girls to the Honourable Chief Minister of Jharkhand regarding the lack of menstrual health products available and the barriers girls were facing to access them. Girls are also making their own menstrual health products, and even making them for others. Sarmistha from Odisha, India, and her girl’s group are making pads for themselves and are even planning to scale up their work on a commercial basis.
Continue comprehensive sexuality education (CSE): It is important that CSE remains part of gender-responsive distance learning and that it is resumed when school reopens.
Ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights information, services, and products remain essential and accessible: Ensuring adolescent’ girls’ access to SRHR is vital. Especially for adolescent girls most at risk, such as those that are out-of-school or married. They must be able to voice and safeguard their SRHR needs.
Sumitra from Odisha, India said: “I sincerely request the concerned Government Department and authorities on behalf of our girl group members to resume the supply of sanitary napkins for girls through ASHA and IFA tablets through AWW.”