Women and girls must be given priority in designing, developing and applying digital solutions, to bring about sustainable and effective gender-transformative solutions in health.
Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is an essential human right and development issue that has a direct impact on the lives and well-being of women and girls across the world. This right is enshrined in various international and regional human rights instruments, including national laws that require innovation and collective action to empower women and girls. Now, more than ever, it is important that the sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls are protected and that they have continued access to high quality and affordable healthcare.
Data from the World Health Organization from 2020 shows maternal mortality as still unacceptably high – with approximately 800 daily deaths of women recorded due to preventable pregnancy and delivery complications. The reality can be contritely elaborated to mean one woman dies every two minutes – with young adolescent girls facing a higher risk of complications and death compared to other women. Almost 95% of these cases occur in Africa, and other low and lower middle-income countries.
The high number of maternal deaths in Africa reflects inadequate access to healthcare services as a result of gender inequality, which contributes to poverty and lack of information, among other factors. This hinders the prevention of unintended pregnancies – such as limited access to affordable safe abortion services and quality post-abortion care. These are compounded by a higher number of women with an unmet need for modern contraception, which is estimated at 36 million by the UNFPA in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, by 2030, at least 50 per cent of young women in the world with an unmet need for family planning will be from the region.
In a range of intersecting crises from climate change and conflicts, to disease outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected women’s access to contraception and set back decades of progress attained on universal access to SRHR and services. Last year, Women Deliver explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on SRHR and found that restrictions on SRHR services, driven by the disruption of prevention programs and economic downturns during the pandemic have had a devastating effect on SRHR outcomes for girls and women. This has also led to an increase in unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths, and unsafe abortion.
Lessons to Innovate
With the dynamism of the world today, we have learnt from the global crisis how to innovate and leverage technology to overcome restrictions in movement and deliver quality SRH services to our communities. For example, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amref Health Africa’s digital training platforms – Leap, Jibu and ecampus empowered thousands of health and community health workers/volunteers in Africa to offer remote care and support to women and girls in need of the reproductive health services and information through mobile phones. Additionally, the ‘Tracking the Girls in Crisis Tool’ also played a key role in rescuing girls at risk of FGM/C and early marriages. According to Women Deliver, during the pandemic, young people, in particular, used social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, to mobilize adolescents and youth for SRHR advocacy, provide SRH information, and conduct chat sessions with SRHR experts.
Across the continent, rising mobile phone penetration and improving broadband internet poses a great opportunity for improving access to health in Africa. While the increased use of such digital technologies proved effective in disseminating SRHR information, it also revealed a high level of exclusion due to digital gender divide. Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected with women rated 37% less likely than men to use mobile technology, reports the UN.
The gender gaps in digital literacy, internet use, and mobile phone access mean SRHR remain out of reach for many women, especially those living in marginalized areas characterized by conflict, fragility, and violence – with significant mobility constraints, restrictive socio-cultural norms, and greater safety and security concerns. For women, and Africa’s ever-growing youth population, to access the needed services, it is of the utmost importance that they are provided with basic skills, knowledge, and capacity to use digital technologies.
Shifting gender gap narratives
Seven years ahead of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals’ target, and other regional and global commitments, accelerated action is needed to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive rights, health-care services, information and education. While Africa’s digital revolution has been, and remains impressive, relevant stakeholders – funders, governments, civil society organizations, communities and the private sector, must work collaboratively towards bridging the gender digital divide. Women and girls must be given priority in designing, developing and applying the digital solutions, to bring about sustainable and effective gender-transformative solutions in health.
Global progress in attaining this goal is contingent on progress in countries with the highest rates of unmet contraception needs, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is hope for Africa. From conversations at forums such as the Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) 2023, and the discussions lined up at the Women Deliver 2023 Conference, and the 2023 United Nations High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, it is evident that African countries are not willing to wait to build an equal future for all. These forums are critical to influencing discussions aimed at strengthening policies and laws as well as increasing investments that can help expand access to SRHR services to a diverse group of people.
To sustain the momentum from the global convening, there is a need for increased unrestricted funding to community-led innovations for SRHR and mainstreaming digital literacy programs in country-level affirmative action plans. Prioritizing research and data for decision making across the health tiers is also critical especially for SRH financing. Lastly, as we work towards strengthening the power of technology to advance the rights of women and girls, we must put in place countermeasures to protect their digital safety, safeguard them from harm, including online harassment and gender-based cyber-bullying.
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