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Decisive action from female leaders helped some countries mitigate the devastating impact on women’s access to health services during the Covid-19 pandemic. A new report highlights the impact of Covid-19 on women and children around the world, and identifies 4 pillars for leaders to measure accountability in dealing with the disaster.


The Covid-19 pandemic has forced countries to reallocated valuable health resources to fight the virus. However, this has had a negative impact on the health of women worldwide, particularly when it comes to access to sexual and reproductive health services

This is just one of the concerning findings of the 2020 Report of the United  Nations Secretary-General Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) Every Woman Every Child  2020 report which was launched at a High-level Political Forum side event on July 13, 2020.

“Even before Covid-19, global progress towards 2030 targets to save the lives of women and children was already lagging by around 20%,” states the report. “The global pandemic is making a bad situation even worse.”

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“The pandemic could reverse decades of progress in women’s, children’s, and adolescent’s health – but it is possible to mitigate this slide with better data collection and accountability efforts,” say world leaders who convened on Monday at the official launch.

The report highlights the following concerns:

  • Access to life-saving vaccines for children is declining
  • Sexual and reproductive health services are being disrupted putting millions lives at risk – including during childbirth
  • Adolescents are suffering from social isolation and mental health issues
  • Risks of abuse and violence for all these groups is increasing
  • Inequities and racial and ethnic discrimination are rife

Testing the limits of healthcare systems around the world

“The coronavirus pandemic is testing the social, economic and political resilience of many countries around the world but especially developing countries,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa who addressed the leaders at the launch.

“Many of these countries, especially African countries, already face challenges of extreme poverty, a lack of basic infrastructure and services, inadequate social protection systems, poor health care capacity and pre-existing disease burdens. The pandemic is placing an additional burden on already constrained health care systems.”

Mothers and newborns at risk

Countries have been forced to redirect critical resources to equip healthcare services for the pandemic, and try to ease the economic burden of the pandemic on citizens.

“There is a real danger that this will contribute to a rise in maternal and newborn mortality, increased unmet need for contraception and an increased number of unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections,” said Ramaphosa.

“South Africa believes sexual and reproductive health services are crucial for a thriving society, including access to maternal health care and interventions related to gender-based violence.”

Women, children indirectly impacted

While older people and those with co-morbidities are most likely to be directly affected by Covid-19, the indirect effects on pregnant women, newborns, young children and adolescents are enormous.

A survey of 30 countries conducted for the report found that:

  • 73% of health workers cited shortages of sanitary products
  • 58% cited price hikes of sanitary products
  • 50% reported reduced access to clean water to help manage menstrual hygiene

Lockdowns and restrictions on movement have led to the postponement of immunisation campaigns. “Leaving at least 13.5 million children unprotected against life-threatening diseases,” according to the report.

Other alarming findings:

  • The closure of schools meant 370 million children missed meals
  • Adolescents suffered from greater physical threats, isolation and mental health issues
  • With more children and adolescents relying on technology for learning and social interaction, there is an increased risk of online abuse and exploitation
  • Domestic violence increased – in Argentina, emergency calls increased by 25%; and calls to helplines in Singapore, France and Cyprus rose by more than 30%.

Domestic violence or Gender Based Violence (GBV) was a major factor in South Africa. On 13 June, President Ramaphosa issued a statement condemning the surge in murders of women and children over the lockdown period.

“We note with disgust that at a time when the country is facing the gravest of threats from the pandemic, violent men are taking advantage of the eased restrictions on movement to attack women and children.”

“According to the SAPS there has been an increase in violent crime, especially murders, since we entered alert level 3. We need to understand what factors are fuelling this terrible trend and, as society as a whole, address them urgently,” the President said.

Corruption another factor affecting women and children

The report found that corruption further diverted the limited resources away from their intended destination.

“An estimated 20–40% of health expenditure is wasted globally due to inefficiencies and corruption; this has been a repeated finding over the past 10 years, and currently amounts to around 2 trillion USD a year.”

“During the pandemic, this has been seen in procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) that is not fit for purpose and Covid-19 test kits that are substandard.”

“Development assistance for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health is not necessarily invested in areas of greatest need.”

Women leaders praised for their response to pandemic

The report highlighted the effectiveness of women political leaders in their countries’ responses to the pandemic.

“Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan all have female leaders, and were among countries with the lowest Covid-19 death rates (mid-May 2020),” according to the report.

“Decisive action was a feature of female leaders’ responses. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel alerted her country early to the possibility that the virus would infect up to 70% of the population. Germany’s policy of rigorous and widespread testing from an early date was credited with keeping the number of deaths from Covid-19 much lower than in neighbouring countries.”

The report noted that women leaders made use of technology and social media to motivate the public and promote their governments’ responses to the pandemic.

“Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland and the world’s youngest head of state, championed the use of social media influencers to spread information about the pandemic. Women leaders also specifically engaged with children, for example organising press conferences to hear from them and respond to their questions.”

How can countries respond and mitigate disaster?

“We must ensure that our response enables young people in particular to shape the world that will emerge from this crisis,” said Ramaphosa.

The IAP report identifies 4 pillars to measure accountability: commit, justify, implement, and progress.

It makes three recommendations for how to build on these pillars. 

  1. First, invest in country data systems for national and global security. “High-quality data must play a vital role in identifying where there is a need for course correction,” said Rt. Hon Helen Clark. “Data acts like a spotlight. It identifies what change needs to happen and it reveals where injustice is the most profound.”
  2. Second, institutionalise accountability functions and features, since voluntary arrangements are insufficient. “Institutionalising accountability on a national level is really possible and it should be driven not only from top to bottom, or government-down, but from bottom to top,” said Ambassador Kaha Imnadze, Permanent Representative of Georgia to the UN and co-facilitator of HLPF and ECOSOC review. “To build back better, investments in education and health are two key areas.”
  3. Finally, democratise accountability to include the voices of all people. “We must listen to the people we serve and to whom we are accountable,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. “By working in solidarity, we can deploy accountability in health to transform commitments into progress and make a real difference to the most vulnerable and marginalised in our world.”

Access the full report HERE.



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