COVID-19 has permeated every level of every health system across the globe, overwhelming already overburdened health care workers and exposing existing faults within health systems—in addition to posing new barriers to accessing care. The longer COVID-19 drags on, the more evident this becomes.

But life does not stop—not even for a pandemic. People, young and old, still have sex. Women still conceive and still have babies. And children still grow into young adults who need comprehensive, judgment-free information about their bodies and their rights. Therefore, it is essential that everyone, regardless of sex, gender, and socio-economic status, retains access to quality sexual and reproductive health services and information. We cannot afford to de-prioritize sexual and reproductive health while we address the challenges of COVID-19.

The United Nations Population Fund recently unveiled the 2021 State of World Population Report, titled “My Body is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination. It highlights three dimensions of bodily autonomy:

  • Power to make your own health care decisions
  • Power to decide whether to use contraception
  • Power to say no to your husband/partner when you do not want to have sex

COVID-19 threatens all three of these dimensions—particularly for women and girls who face increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence and unwanted pregnancies during the long months of pandemic-imposed isolation. In fact, according to recent estimates released by thye UN and Avenir Health, 12 million women have experienced disruptions in their family planning services due to COVID-19, leading to 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.

This is why it’s imperative that we, as family planning program implementers and advocates, leverage the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic and push back on cuts to development assistance funding to the global south.  We must ensure women and girls around the world not only exercise control over their bodies but also survive the secondary impacts of COVID-19.  Now is the time to step up our commitments and support – not step back.

To that end, there are two concrete steps we can take immediately to help strengthen health systems and protecting the autonomy of women and girls.

Invest in Community Health Workers: In addition to playing a central role in COVID-19 response, community health workers act as invaluable links to the health system for hard-to-reach rural communities. However, these workers—the majority of whom are women—are often unpaid, have extremely limited opportunities for career development, and lack sufficient supervision and mentorship. This, understandably, leads to high turnover rates for these critical frontline workers.

For many women and girls, sustained access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, depends on the labor of community health workers. And though sustained funding for these workers is a good start, it’s not enough—we also need to make sure they have a voice in health workforce policy.

Invest in Primary Health Care: For many, making decisions around health care and contraception begins at an appointment with a local primary health care provider, who may actually be a community health worker. Primary health care providers are often the first resource women and girls turn to for family planning services and information—and it’s through access to regular, quality primary health care that we can prevent budding health problems from evolving into full-blown emergencies.

Similarly, as highlighted through USAID’s Vision 2030, it’s through strengthening the individual building blocks of the health system—including primary health care—that we can prevent future health crises from overwhelming our health systems

Acknowledging unique challenges in the lives of women and girls in the time of COVID-19, embracing simple, effective solutions in existing health systems and continuing the global commitments to development assistance, will have tremendous benefits for women and make their communities and families more resilient.

Crystal Lander serves as the executive director of global affairs for Pathfinder International, a Watertown-based global women’s health organization. Sarah Craven is director of the Washington Office for the United Nations Population Fund