India's coronavirus lockdown has had a dramatic effect on women's reproductive health, safety and security, according to health organisations, with reduced access to medical facilities forcing millions of women either to continue with unwanted pregnancies or to undergo late-term or unsafe abortions.
“Some 1.85 million women will be unable to access abortion services as a near-term impact of Covid-19, directly affecting their sexual and reproductive health,” says Vinoj Manning, chief executive officer of Ipas Development Foundation (IDF), a non-profit group dedicated to preventing and managing unwanted pregnancies.
“Abortions were also compromised due to the lack of availability of medical abortion drugs at pharmacy stores.”
Difficult access to contraception
Several reports highlight the drop in institutional births because public health facilities were converted to Covid-19 care centres limiting the availability of sexual and reproductive health services. Disrupted supply chains meant there was limited availability of contraceptives, and suspension of public transport facilities restricted women’s mobility.
In addition, women also refrained from visiting health facilities due to fear of Covid-19 exposure.
“Data from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh shows that the number of institutional deliveries might have fallen by as much as 40 percent during the lockdown,” says Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation of India (PFI).
“This means these women had to deliver their babies in home settings.”
Studies show lack of education still prevents women from having full knowledge about the use of contraceptives and of the consequences of frequent childbirth, as well as of their reproductive rights. In India, illiteracy among women sits around 39 percent – almost twice as high men.
On the other hand, educated women understand their rights and choices of contraception. They are often vocal against early marriage and choose not to have many children.
Health experts and think tanks believe it is crucial to plan and ensure that sexual and reproductive health (SRH) be enshrined in the country’s disaster management plan. This includes ensuring sustained availability of essential SRH services during a crisis situation, and incorporating them into relief measures.
The studies also show that in a sexual relationship, women still lack the power to negotiate and chose if they want to get pregnant or give birth to a baby whether it is a boy or a girl. This is mainly the case in the lower sections of society.
The United Nations marks World Population Day every year on 11 July, with the aim of spreading awareness on overpopulation, under-population, family planning and birth control.
The day was first observed in 1989, after the United Nations Development Programme found that the global population had already crossed the five billion mark.
According to World Population Data Sheet 2019, India is on the verge of getting the title of "the most populous country in the world" by the end of 2025. Even after 69 years of the creation of the National Family Planning Programme, the pattern of family planning has not changed much in the country.