The last several weeks have witnessed a flurry of crucial actions and activities that have been implemented as countries globally battle the deadly, novel coronavirus. South Africa has not been spared either and in line with other countries across the globe, the government has now implemented a 21-day lockdown with the hope that we may be spared the worst of this ravaging pandemic.
It has evidently not been an easy decision and there are concerns about access to other health services that have been raised by citizens on various public fora. These include womxn who are anxious about their ability to access crucial sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services during this lockdown.
Several activists and organisations in the last weeks have been raising awareness and working to ensure that SRH and gender-based violence issues remain a priority in the discourse around Covid-19. This includes sharing information and preparing womxn for possible challenges and delays they might encounter when they seek services and ways to mitigate this, like taking home pregnancy tests, seeking safe abortion services earlier, encouraging the use of emergency contraceptives, among others. They also encourage staying at home in case of symptoms of Covid-19 and rather, phoning for assistance.
As we mark World Health Day, let’s celebrate our constitution, which is one of the most progressive in the world, one that enables South Africans from all walks of life to exercise their freedoms and rights, which include SRHR for all. SRHR is defined as a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to all aspects of sexuality and reproduction, not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity1.
According to the World Health Organisation, SRHR includes access to a comprehensive suite of SRH interventions, which are an essential component of the overall health, rights and well-being of womxn. These include access to family planning, contraception and abortion services; prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer as well as sexually transmitted and reproductive tract infections; and prevention of female genital mutilation and violence against womxn, among others. But it is not just about the accessibility to services; it is also about the quality. Womxn need and deserve access to safe, non-judgmental SRH services (including youth-friendly setups) that respect the rights to confidentiality and privacy of those who seek it.
Unfortunately, the promises of our constitution have not been always been fulfilled, in particular for poor women who have to make use of the public health sector services. Violations of womx’s SRH rights have been frequent in our country. These are manifested through challenges in accessing SRH services, which is most concerning in a context of high rates of gender-based violence. Womxn have reported lack of post-trauma care in instances of rape and violence, prolonged contraceptive stockouts are common and there is the long-standing refusal of care by many healthcare providers when patients seek services like abortion. Most shockingly, an investigation by the Commission for Gender Equality revealed in February this year that state hospitals in South Africa have sterilized some pregnant HIV-positive womxn without their consent. The lack of youth-friendly SRH services continues to disadvantage girls and young womxn, which is evident in the high rates of unintended teenage pregnancies. This also speaks to lack of access to family planning needs and safe and legal abortion services.
According to the new draft National Integrated SRHR policy, all individuals have a right to make decisions governing their bodies and to access services that support that right. As a society, we must keep working to create an enabling environment so that all South African womxn can exercise their reproductive rights, so that we stay on our path to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity.
As we fight the scourge of Covid-19, it’s important to keep these rights in mind and support womxn so they don’t face challenges while trying to access essential services. This is an opportunity to reflect as well on the deep socio-economic inequalities that prevent the majority of our population from accessing quality health care. As activists for social justice, we must reflect and learn from the Covid-19 crisis and integrate these lessons in our discussions around the National Health Insurance Bill.
In solidarity and with determination, we will overcome this current health crisis, but we must also use this time to reflect on strategies that will further intensify our efforts to promote health and save the lives of womxn and girls in South Africa. As the old rallying cry of feminists all over the world say…womxn’s rights are human rights!