The month of August marks National Women’s Month, and an opportunity for South Africans to recognise the severity of the challenges and threats to human rights still faced by women everywhere, particularly in economically vulnerable areas of the world.
This year, Women’s Day on August 9th takes place amidst a global pandemic that has had devastating consequences for economies, health systems and people. Just as the coronavirus attacks the human body, exposing its weaknesses, it has also exposed society’s fractures and inequalities. Lack of access to essential women’s health services and the violations suffered by women, are chief among these.
The violence against women and girls occurs at both structural and individual levels and has reached such staggering proportions that it is routinely described as a “war on women’s bodies” in media and popular discourse. The murder of Lawren Shernice Jonathan who was stabbed to death last Thursday evening after visiting a friend is a stark reminder of our dismal track record of gender-based violence (GBV). South Africa has five times the global average of femicide, which is defined as the killing of women because they are women. Taken with the actual murder rate of women, our statistics are higher and equate to a woman being murdered every three hours.
President Ramaphosa himself has dubbed GBV in South Africa a “second epidemic” that has been both highlighted and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. More specifically, the unintended knock-on effects of lockdowns and restrictions which for many women meant no escape from their abusers or potential abusers and an increased risk of sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy.
Access to reproductive health care, like the legal termination of pregnancy, ante-natal care and emergency contraception is therefore imperative. But while access to these and other health services is a constitutional right, the resources required to deal with the pandemic, have taken priority and put a strain on other areas of the health system. Since the start of lockdown, non-emergency operations and out-patient visits in both public and private health facilitates have been reduced or cancelled altogether.
Access to services like safe abortions, ante-natal care and family-planning services are time sensitive. While South Africa’s primary healthcare clinics have remained open during lockdown, limited transport, a possible reduction in wages, and other constraints caused by the pandemic, have made it difficult for women to travel to hospitals or clinics, preventing them from seeking the attention they need. Statements by the Gauteng Health Department that 20% of patients failed to collect their HIV medication in May, seem to bear this out. It must be emphasized that globally, most deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be prevented with proper care before, during and after childbirth.
For mothers, social distancing measures mean that the usual support structures, like having a partner or doula at the birth, may no longer be allowed as a practical consideration from an epidemiological standpoint. Already an anxious time for mothers to be, this lack of support structure can have a negative effect on the mental health of women.
The sad reality remains that women and girls may face even graver threats than the coronavirus itself. Structural violence in the form of unequal access to healthcare, individual violence perpetrated with impunity within communities and inequalities in representation and pay in the workplace are without doubt epidemics that warrant as much action and attention as Covid-19.
SASOG wishes to remind the women of South Africa that our members, gynaecologists, obstetricians and other health care workers in this field, are there to assist and support them in all aspects of reproductive care during this pandemic. We will assist with fertility control, pregnancy care, acute or chronic gynaecologic problems as well as gender-based discrimination or violence as best we can.
Please contact Heidi Kruger on 082 905 1161 or email@example.com for more information.