COVID-19 Exposes More Women to Gender-Based Violence, Including Reproductive Coercion

“Home sweet home” is a commonly used phrase to denote our appreciation for the familiar and comfortable. However, this sentiment towards home is not shared by all. For some women, home is the most dangerous place for them to be. Amid the various global COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, more women are stuck inside their homes, many with partners who are more agitated than usual. Thus, they are at a higher risk of experiencing gender-based violence, a hidden consequence of the pandemic.

One form of this gender-based violence is reproductive coercion.

Reproductive coercion is a set of “behavior[s] that prevents a person from making decisions about their reproductive health,” as defined by Marie Stopes International. In the U.S., black and multiracial women are most vulnerable to these behaviors, while on the international stage, women with disabilities are the most at risk. These behaviors can be perpetrated by intimate partners as well as by family members. Countries with rigid cultural and social structures often allow for older female relatives, in particular, to exert control over younger couples’ family sizes. This control can include psychological manipulation and physical violence, such as:

  • Pressuring another person into pregnancy through emotional blackmail or persuasion
  • Refusing to use contraception or prohibiting the other person from using it
  • Contraceptive sabotage, e.g. covertly removing a condom during sex without their partner’s consent (known as “stealthing”) or tampering with the partner’s birth control
  • Coerced continuation of an unwanted pregnancy
  • Forced termination of an established pregnancy
  • Forced sterilization

According to a UNFPA report published in February 2020, only 55% of women can make their own choices regarding their reproductive health and rights. Moreover, one in four women experiences reproductive coercion over their lifetime, according to a 2019 British Medical Journal study.

Taking into account that this data represents pre-COVID-19 conditions, imagine the heightened risk of these women under lockdown, with its additional stresses. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that if reproductive health care drops by 10% as a result of this pandemic, 49 million more women in low- and middle-income countries will have an unmet need for modern contraception. This could lead to an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies and 3 million more unsafe abortions.

With sexual and reproductive health supply chains breaking down worldwide and states in the U.S. attempting to suspend abortions by deeming them as nonessential medical procedures, women’s access to reproductive health care is in trouble internationally.

So how can we support women now while we are still in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic? Keeping women’s organizations open to provide vital services is paramount. Allowing women to reach out to the organizations by phone or online is critical while they are stuck in their homes. Another option is developing relationships with local businesses that women are frequenting during this period and using these places as access points for reporting their situations. For instance, in Serbia, Association Fenomena, a local women’s organization, has partnered with pharmacies and pharmacists to provide women access to support services and safety planning tools. In this unprecedented time, isolating women from support networks such as psychological, legal, and sexual reproductive support is only exacerbating the existent problem of reproductive coercion for women.

Right now, local health and women’s organizations around the world—including here in the United States—must continue providing essential comprehensive reproductive health services. Though the coronavirus is shining a light on the vulnerabilities of women at risk and bringing their situations to the forefront in this shadow pandemic, reproductive coercion should remain a concern for all once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action asserted it is “the right of all to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and on matters related to their sexuality, and to have the information and means to do so free from discrimination, violence, or coercion.” Almost three decades later, we are still demanding this right. Women should have the final word over their bodily autonomy no matter the circumstances, pandemic or not.

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