COVID-19 and adolescent girls and young women’s SRHR in South Sudan

By Nunu Diana Alison

While countries are busy putting in place different guidelines such as lockdown, closing of schools and working from home, there has been an increase in sexual and reproductive issues such as rape, unattended childbirth and lack of access to health facilities for people living with HIV. And these arising issues are because sex can’t be locked down – hence increasing cases of sexual violence such as rape and sexual assault in South Sudan. The increasing number of early pregnancies among adolescent girls is yet another evidence that sex is not on lockdown as countries battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 guidelines must consider sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV

Early child marriage and early pregnancies expose young girls to acquiring HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. School can be a safe haven for girls. Due to the school closures in response to COVID-19, there is an increased rate of early child marriages. Girls who are married young have less experience, lack power to negotiate for safer sex and have little access to family planning and contraceptive information.

The country’s challenges of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights mean child brides are left out, with no accurate information on SRHR. This is also made worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. Adolescent girls and young women have insufficient information on HIV prevention and safer sex, sex education is taboo in very many families, and discussions on sex education are prohibited.

It is evident that, since most health facilities are focusing COVID-19, health care related to HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights is put on hold and this is already life threatening to young positives who have little or no access to health facilities to get free medication. Some have resorted to buying ARVs from private clinics, which can be costly.  Meanwhile, there is fear of contracting COVID-19 in health facilities that are temporarily serving as COVID-19 isolation and quarantine centers, making it difficult for young positives to get their medication on time. This is made worse with very little information on COVID-19: apparently in some areas young positives are misinformed that the coronavirus affects people living with HIV, and this has caused anxiety among communities living with HIV.

COVID-19 comes with economic challenges such as lack of casual labor and unemployment among young women. Single mothers and women who are sole providers for their families are left with no option but sex work to fend for the needs of their families. The worst scenario is, these young women are never informed about condom use and SRH to protect themselves from HIV and STIs. Some become pregnant and seek unsafe abortion, which may cost their lives. And it is worst with schoolgirls who can’t afford the cost of sanitary towels and are forced to do the unusual, such as engaging in unsafe sex for the price of sanitary towels.

Lastly there is a need to mainstream the overwhelming work towards ending gender-based violence (GBV) in the COVID-19 response. HIV and GBV are inter-related. Both are underpinned by gender inequality. During the COVID-19 lockdown, cases of GBV are widespread.

During and post-COVID-19, contraceptives, sanitary products and safe abortion are vital for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young women and girls, and should be made accessible to them.

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