Pandemic’s Long Shadow on African Women – from Uptick in Maternal Deaths to Domestic Violence
A nurse in rural Mozambique consults with a 32-year-old woman about her family planning needs, pre-COVID. Many such services remain disrupted, two years after the pandemic began.

Women in Africa will feel the disruptive force of the pandemic for many years to come – with upticks in maternal deaths and prolonged disruptions in maternal, child and reproductive health services issues the continent must grapple with now. 

About 40% of African countries are reporting continued disruptions to sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, Director of the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa, in a WHO briefing on Thursday, just ahead of International Women’s Day, 8 March.   

Matshidiso Moeti,of the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa,

Even more worrisome, some countries have seen a prolonged increase in maternal deaths since the pandemic began, she said.

“One survey from 11 countries showed that more than half saw a 16% increase in maternal deaths between February and May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019,” Moeti said.

“That statistic decreased slightly last year [2021] to 11%. But the number could be much higher because home births were excluded from this data,” she said.

Overall, Africa has fared worse than other regions in terms of gender-related health services, according to the data reported by WHO in its latest Global Pulse Survey on health services continuity. 

On top of that, nutrition-relation services like counseling on infant feeding and management of wasting, which also deeply affect women, have been even more severely disrupted, the WHO data reveals.  

Teen pregnancies and violence against women

Health Education - Family Planning
Moeti added that teenage pregnancies and incidents of violence against women also increased exponentially, with the situation exacerbated by pandemic-related school closures. 

According to one recently published study, the COVID-19 pandemic “deleteriously affected the sexual and reproductive health of girls and amplified school transfer and dropout in Kenya. 

“Adolescent girls who couldn’t attend school for six months were at twice the risk of falling pregnant, and three times more likely never to return to class,” Moeti added. 

She called on African governments to consider ​​gender inequality as a determinant that needs to be woven into the design and delivery of interventions to improve health.

“Investing in human economy participation, livelihoods and health is an investment in the health of future generations of Africans. Our continent cannot afford any further reversals of the fragile gains made in the pursuit of equitable care for women and girls,” Moeti warned.

Need for gender-based approaches to pandemic preparedness

Dr Francine Ntoumi, President and Director-General of the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research.

In other remarks at the WHO briefing, ​​Dr Francine Ntoumi, President and Director-General of the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research noted that women, especially pregnant women, often have to wait before they can benefit from interventions because they were not included in clinical trials.

“All of the trials exclude pregnant women, which means that pregnant women can only benefit from scientific progress very later, which is the case for vaccines as well. So we call for urgent actions to ensure pregnant women have privileged and early access to new interventions including vaccination,” she said. 

Corroborating Ntoumi, Dr Eleanor Nwadinobi, President of the Medical Women’s International Association added that the circumstances surrounding the global COVID-19 response necessitated the need for gender-based approaches to pandemic preparedness.

The experts also called for more studies targeting African women on a number of issues including pregnancy, mental health, obesity, co-morbidities and others.

“We need to ensure there’s prevention education, and dedicated funding to address violence against women and girls,” Nwadinobi concluded.

Image Credits: Dominic Chavez/World Bank, © Evolving Communications/The Global Financing Facility.

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