Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in the African Region has declined from an estimated 857 maternal deaths per 1000 live births in the year 2000 to 525 deaths per 1000 live births in 2017, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite this progress, countries have united behind a new target to accelerate the decline of maternal mortality by 2030. Through Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3, the ambitious target is “reducing the global MMR to less than 70 per 100 000 births, with no country having a maternal mortality rate of more than twice the global average”.
The impact of coronavirus pandemic has brought a great shift in focus to prioritize the fight against the rapid spread of the virus that has recorded over 6,000 fatalities across Africa region as at June 16. While the fight against COVID- 19 is crucial, the pandemic has negatively affected sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Maternal health care in Kenya, for instance, continues to face challenges even as the government seeks to offer free maternity services. However, a lot more attention needs to be done in a bid to ensure all expectant women acquire affordable pre-natal, delivery, post-natal and infant care packages effectively and efficiently.
In a virtual stakeholders’ forum discussing current trends in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), various industry players voiced diverse views on challenges and suggested key strategies to ensure sustenance of SRHR amidst the pandemic.
Dubbed ‘Fuelling action towards the achievement of the sexual and reproductive health agenda’, the webinar was facilitated by New Faces New Voices (NFNV) Kenya, bringing on board representatives from United Nation’s Population Fund – Kenya, World Bank – IFC, African Youth and Adolescent Network and Global Fund for Women.
Speaking during the forum, World Bank – IFC Health Programme Manager Dr. Njeri Gitau noted that working towards quality maternal and child healthcare was a basic minimum standard that calls for having trained personnel, availability of drugs and equipment as set by the Ministry of Health.
“Through the Linda Mama initiative in conjunction with the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), World Bank has worked closely with the Government of Kenya to ensure that free maternity healthcare packages and the larger universal health coverage for comprehensive reproductive, maternal, and infant health care. These initiatives are aimed at improving accessibility and maternal-child health indicators,” added Dr. Njeri Gitau.
Lack of access to menstrual health continues to be a challenge to women and girls who cannot afford sanitary towels. Global Fund for Women Program Director for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Erin Williams disclosed that women and girls in most communities across Africa lacked sanitary facilities which are either unavailable to them, limited or unaffordable. “Research has shown that only 1 per cent of funding goes directly to women-led organisations. At Global Fund for Women, our objective is to assist grass-root feminist organisations acquire funding. Grassroots movements is people-power,” she noted.
Seif Ibrahim from African Youth and Adolescent Network also noted that there is need for capacity building for both men and women to embrace menstrual hygiene conversations while disclosing that in Tanzania, menstrual health issues are still considered taboo and deemed as private matters thus limiting access to sanitary products for young women and girls.
There is need to also be culturally sensitive when driving conversations on sexuality education through proper dissemination of right information that promotes safe sexual and reproductive health, respectful relationships and gender equality.
Besides maternal and menstrual health, cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) were rife since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. In his conversation, UNFPA -Kenya representative Dr. Ademola Olajide said there has been a spike on cases of GBV in form of rape, intimate partner violence and defilement, especially on women and girls. Most GBV victims cannot access essential protection services from social networks due to reinforcement of curfew directives and limited movements by governments in a move to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“In the first quarter of this year, there was a renewed commitment of stakeholders and negotiated commitments signed off by the highest forms of Government. With COVID, we must address this issue now amidst this pandemic,” said Dr. Olajide.
This, Dr. Olajide added, would be countered if industry players create alternative safe spaces for GBV victims, beginning with the homes where families spend more time during this pandemic.
The forum, therefore, opened up a discussion on the current trends in SRHR in devising policies and strategies to improve on the preparedness of sexual reproductive health across Africa.
Policy makers, Civil Society Organisations and all stakeholders need to collaborate to escalate action in ensuring access to rights for sexual and reproductive health matters through increased investments to propel progress and addressing systematic challenges in this crucial matter.
The e-forum was targeted at urging the respective Governments in Africa, through the public sector in partnership with the private sector and all stakeholders, to ensure that there is proper balancing of resources and priorities in sexual and reproductive health matters.