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Empowering women in Myanmar to exercise sexual and reproductive health rights and choices in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic

Yangon, MYANMAR— “I am the mother of three children. As a housewife, I have to rely on my husband’s income. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are earning less and less, and it barely make ends meet. No more food for extra head in the family,” said Yamin, a local woman who lives in the slums of Yangon city. The pandemic and current political crisis make difficult for the people like Yamin to access the family planning services. It exacerbates existing barriers to access and use of sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services for women and girls. She added, “With lack of the access to family planning services, I am scared of getting pregnant. I know there are a lot of women out there suffering the same situation like me. We are losing our rights and choices.”

 

Quality health care services are compromised.

 

Globally, the COVID-19 has disrupted health care systems of the countries, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health. It has seriously affected families who want to continue their family planning or childbearing. About 12 million women across the world experienced disruptions to family planning services according to UNFPA research (March 2021). 

 

In Myanmar, the population of women is 53.2% of total population according to 2019 Myanmar’s Inter-censal survey. Adolescent fertility rate is 20.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 while total fertility rate (TFR) is 2 children per women aged 15 to 49. Infant mortality rate is 31 deaths per 1,000 live births. 16 % of currently married women have an unmet need for family planning according to Demographic and Health Survey (2015-16). These are the data collected just before the pandemic. There are growing concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic and the political crisis in the country could have extensively compromised the access to essential health care services for women and girls including those living in conflict-affected areas.

 

Breaking the stigma and empowering women.

 

Discrimination, stigma, stereotypes and cultural taboos in communities pose significant barriers in accessing quality sexual and reproductive health care services and information.

 

Ma Hnin, a midwife working in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State said, “While working in rural areas, I see a lot of social issues in sexual and reproductive health. People do not want to talk about it as they assume as a social taboo. They are too shy to consult with experts.” it also does not help that men think family planning is women’s matter. They tend to believe that it has nothing to do with them. She continued, “We need to break this stigma and empower women to speak up for their rights and choices.”

 

Adapt to the pandemic and respond with action.

 

Regarding providing essential health services, the COVID-19 pandemic not only has an adverse impact on the beneficiaries, it also has increased issues and challenges for the services providers on the ground. “Due to the pandemic, our mobile delivery services for the women and girls in remote areas have to adapt the situation. We cannot operate as usual. In some cases, we have to limit the numbers of clients per day on priority basis, and sometimes, reduce the numbers of visits to certain locations,” said Dr. Tun who is working with an NGO in Rakhine state.

 

Also, the ongoing banking crisis has made it even more difficult for NGOs across Myanmar to access funds to deliver services.

 

However, no matter how challenging the situation is, essential health services for women and girls cannot be stopped. Dr Tun continued, “We adapt. And we respond.”

 

UNFPA’s call on the global action for the rights and choices of women and girls.

 

UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, works with local and international partner organizations to strengthen comprehensive efforts to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care and advocate to ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights remain at the centre of development.

 

On the occasion of World Population Day 2021, UNFPA Executive Director, Dr Natalia Kanem calls on global and national actors; “On this Day, let us take action to close these gaps, because sexual and reproductive health services are essential. Even if health systems are understandably strained, these services cannot wait. Any further delays will curtail the health and well-being of women and girls, consequences that can last a lifetime. Let us work together to uphold the right to decide when and if to have a family and let us stand up for the rights and choices of all women and girls.”

 

It is important that women and girls are empowered to exercise their rights and choices under any kind of settings including conflicts and emergency situation. They must have control over their body not only in terms of autonomy but also through advances in various areas such as health and education, economics and safety. In Myanmar,  while progress has been made towards gender equality, social norms continue to entrench patriarchy and even more so in the context of COVID and conflict, leading to  significant inequalities among men and women in access to economic opportunities and health services. Sustained gender inequality is a proven contributor to gender-based violence.

 

The only way is through rights and choices!

 

Daw Sein, a local woman from the IDP camp in Rakhine, who received sexual and reproductive health care services from UNFPA implementing partner said, “Regardless of where we are, me and my husband decide together how many children we will have, when to have them and which contraceptive methods to use. We have equal rights to make our choices.”  Ensuring women and men are able to exercise their reproductive health rights no matter the context, and that they are able to access reproductive health services without any barriers, is essential towards achieving the commitments of ICPD+25 and Sustainable Development Goals.

 

 

 

This feature story is to commemorate World Population Day 2021. This year’s theme is “Rights and Choices are the Answer: Whether baby boom or bust, the solution lies in prioritizing the reproductive health and rights of all people.” With this annual commemoration, we salute all the individuals and sexual and reproductive health organizations who are working for the rights and choices of women and girls across the world.