By Charles Owekmeno, National Coordinator, SRHR Alliance Uganda

The year 2020 will forever be remembered in history as one where everything came to a standstill due to the occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has led to disruptions in the operation of the national and community health systems but also diverted global attention from some of the long-standing challenges such as; gender inequalities, human rights violations, poverty, and reducing inequities in access to essential health services including sexual reproductive health services. The pandemic brought an unprecedented challenge to the livelihood and survival of most families with those headed by women and girls being disproportionately affected. For most young people, this was their first time to experience such total disruption of their life and operations hence the psychological effect on them as well as their mothers/caretakers were immeasurable.

We commemorate the 2021 International Women Day at the time when many of us are recovering from the experience and feeling of life ‘on pause’ because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is especially true for adolescent girls and young women. The pandemic is disrupting their education, interfering with their friendships and relationships, and – especially for girls – increasing their domestic work and care obligations. For some, it is increasing their vulnerability to abuse and violence.

In line with this year’s theme; “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.I would like to celebrate the achievements of women who have been pivotal in the fight against the pandemic in the previous twelve months. When the pandemic hit Uganda, women who comprise the biggest percentage of the frontline workers including health workers provided leadership in managing the diverse effects of COVID-19. In Uganda, we celebrate the Minister of Health Hon. Jane Ruth Aceng alongside Dr. Dianah Atwiine the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health who were at the center stage of COVID-19 response and worked tirelessly to ensure that communities are sensitized about the Pandemic. We also celebrate and appreciate all the female Doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and other support teams who have given their all to the Covid response.

Although there are indications of progress toward containing the covid-19 pandemic globally, its devastating effects are likely to continue for many more years if no deliberate efforts are made to support the vulnerable groups such as refugees, widows, orphans, Adolescent girls, and young women. The pandemic presents the biggest threat ever towards the attainment of SDGs agenda 2030 especially goals number 2, 3, and 5 where girls and young women remain the most affected. Girls and young women deserve an equal future free from stigma, stereotypes, and violence; a future that’s sustainable, peaceful, with equal rights and opportunities for all. To get us there, we need adolescent girls and young women at every table where decisions are being made.

According to a report by UNESCO, over 10 million girls globally are at risk of dropping out of school because of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Uganda, there are clear pointers that the pandemic has posed a potential threat of regress in most of the SRHR indicators that impact the health of women and girls. For instance, when schools were closed, the potential for increased drop-out rates disproportionately affected adolescent girls and vulnerable children further entrenching gender gaps and inequality in education. This amidst heightened risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, and early and forced marriage. In many cases. School dropout has been driven by increased domestic and caring responsibilities and a shift towards income generation.

The Uganda Police indicates that over 21,000 cases of violence against children were registered in a period of five months between March and July 2020. These were the reported cases that imply that they would have been more in the different regions and the continuous lack of school made it worse. This means many have not been able to return to school as the rest of the students reported back on 1st March. One of the good moves by the government is allowing pregnant girls especially those in candidate classes to report back to school. This has changed the narrative that existed earlier of not allowing pregnant girls back to school. Nevertheless, this displays an image that needs to be worked on.

Throughout the country, there have also been alarming reports of increased rates of gender-based violence against women and girls as a result of the lockdown. UN Women in a report on the increased GBV notes that one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner. However, the COVID19 increased the numbers and they indicate that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence have deepened. The lockdown hindered efforts by cultural and religious leaders aimed at educating the community on issues of domestic violence. Many women also lost jobs due to the pandemic which increased their economic vulnerability. This increased Sexual exploitation especially among girls where they would be given in exchange for goods such as sanitary pads.

Although the consequences of COVID19 on health and health services are uppermost in the public consciousness, it also an opportunity that can trigger and shape broader discourse on different SRH laws and policies, sexual and reproductive health, and social justice.

Therefore, as we celebrate the women at the forefront in the COVID19 fight, it should be noted that this pandemic poses a great threat to the gains that have been made over decades towards achieving gender equality. I call the government agencies, youth leaders, and civil societies to come up with innovative and sustainable approaches to reduce the vulnerability faced by women and girls amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

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