Q&A: Documenting Covid-19 Effect On Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health

By Samira Sadeque

With the COVID-19 pandemic adding complex layers of challenges to the issue of sexual and reproductive health for the youth, governments should prioritise documenting these effects for data collection purposes, co-founder and team leader of the Youth Alliance for Reproductive Health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told IPS in an interview.

“There is a need for countries to document how COVID19 is affecting adolescent and young people for the time they have been out of school, which increases their risk for pre-marital sexual activities and sexual violence as they have less protection in community than in school,” Mambo said. “With data-based evidence, countries will be able to make a right plan and respond to this risk which is irreversible if not mitigating.”

A group of youths in Machinga, Malawi. During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people, especially young girls, are facing many challenges regarding their sexual and reproductive health. The world’s population of young people between the ages of 10 and 24 is at a historic high, with the majority — nearly 90 percent — living in the developing world. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Mambo spoke with IPS following the two-day virtual forum “Not Without FP”, organised by the International Conference on Family Planning. The forum hosted a wide array of panels with sessions on family planning, Universal Health Coverage and the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are challenges beyond the data collection, Sophia Sadinsky, of the Guttmacher Institute, told IPS. Sadinsky also spoke on the same panel with Mambo.

“Even with robust data, meeting sexual and reproductive health needs has been stymied by unrealised innovations in health care technologies and service delivery methods, including telehealth; the importance of these innovations has become far more pronounced in the context of the pandemic,” she told IPS.

“While digital tools and remote service delivery can overcome some barriers to high-quality care encountered in traditional health service settings — such as a perceived or real absence of privacy or confidentiality, stigma and provider biases — there remains a significant divide in online access, especially by gender and geography,” she added.

She was echoing an insight shared by Mambo at the panel where he pointed out that when the youth don’t have access to information on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the results can slow the path towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For example, Mambo said that a many young girls in refugee camps have very little information about menstrual health. “We may not achieve the SDGs if we do not support the powerhouse of young people,” he said.

Excerpts of his interview with IPS follow: 

Inter Press Service (IPS): You mentioned the mental health concerns that can arise from the issue of unwanted pregnancy. Can you share how that could have been affected further by COVID-19?

Simon Binezero Mambo (SBM): During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people — especially young girls — are facing many challenges regarding their sexual and reproductive health, including risky behaviour, sexual activity, drug use and alcoholism, sexual violence and unwanted pregnancies.

On top of that, add the significant levels of stress from the pandemic that led to increased mental health concerns. During this time, teenage mothers are facing any number of challenges, like no source of revenue, not being able to get a good job, not getting respect or support from friends and family members. Teen mothers often struggle with significant emotional trauma, with higher rates of suicidal ideation. COVID-19 is adding more pressure and stress to an already stressful situation. We must put in place more support mechanisms to avoid even more deaths during this pandemic.

IPS: In your panel, unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion came up quite often. Sophia Sadinsky from the Guttmacher Institute brought up there’s 10 million unintended pregnancies each year because of the lack of use of modern contraceptives. How are unintended pregnancies an issue for youth SRHR?

SBM: For one thing, the world’s population of young people (between the ages of 10 and 24) is at a historic high, with the majority — nearly 90 percent — living in the developing world. We know that approximately 16 million adolescent girls (15-19 years old), mostly in low and middle income countries, give birth each year. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls in this age range and all are unwanted pregnancies due to lack of contraceptives information and services. It is an issue because when adolescent girls become pregnant, they often drop out of school and lose the chance to develop marketable skills and obtain good employment. This impacts the economic growth of girls and their families, their communities and their countries.

IPS: Can you share how family planning in your current city has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

SBM: Family planning services have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Goma in Eastern DRC. This is not new; we faced similar challenges during the 10th Outbreak of Ebola, when sexual activities among young people increased due to school closures and lack of socioeconomic support. When there is no support, youth are more likely to engage in risky sexual activities and family planning is not prioritised since there is more focus on the pandemic itself. This exposes adolescents and young people to high risk of getting HIV and now we are seeing increased unplanned pregnancy among young girls who may miss the chance to go back to school after the COVID-19.

Young people need contraceptives services today more than ever but they are increasingly hard to access due to lockdowns, COVID-19 fear, distance, costs, poor service, and lack of support from governments and partners.

IPS: How can involvement of the youth be important in addressing these issues with sexual and reproductive health?

SBM: Youth participation means better decisions and increased efficiency. Evidence shows that policies and programmes designed after consultations with users are more likely to be effective. By using youth participation, you are more likely to get it right the first time and avoid wasting time and money on services young people don’t want to use.

Youth participation contributes to positive youth development and research shows that young people who are supported to participate in decision-making are more likely to have increased confidence, make positive career choices and have greater involvement and responsibility in the future.

Youth involvement not only enables individuals to thrive, it also brings economic and social benefits for countries, because a healthy population is more likely to be productive and prosperous. This cohort represents a powerhouse of human potential that could transform health and sustainable development.

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