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Focus on the Girl Child: pandemic calls for increased access to Sexual Reproductive Health and Gender- Based Violence services for the most vulnerable adolescent and girls in South Africa

In South Africa, like elsewhere, the lockdown, disruptions and uncertainties associated with the pandemic have placed adolescent girls at increased risk of sexual violence, female genital mutilation, child marriage, unintended pregnancies, and disproportionate care work. This is particularly striking in the most vulnerable districts of the country, some of them with the highest youth populations. 

 

The first three weeks of lockdown in South Africa saw more than 120 000 victims of all ages calling the National Helpline for Gender-Based Violence. Between July and September 2020, more than half of the young girls seen in Ntafufu Clinic in Alfred Nzo district in the Eastern Cape were coming for antenatal care; among these, 10 cases of sexual based violence were referred to a higher level of care. Girls are facing temporary and permanent ruptures in their education, and disruptions in access to comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services, including access to menstrual hygiene supplies. They are also being deprived of the protective services and safety nets that they may have availed of pre-pandemic.

 

At the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 in 2019, the South African high level delegation made key commitments towards achieving these challenges. Among other commitments, South Africa pledged to improve vulnerable groups’ access to reproductive health services, including adolescent girls, and to develop programmes to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and children. The efforts to address GBV have been now articulated in a holistic National GBV National Strategic Plan, which includes the necessary prevention actions, provision of services in the fields of justice, health and social sectors, engagement of men and boys to challenge harmful notions of masculinity and promote gender equality, and supporting youth and women’s groups and community leaders -- all critical to girls’ well-being. 

 This Canada- funded initiative seeks to increase the availability of quality SRH and SGBV services for the most vulnerable adolescent girls and young women in select districts of the Provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal - the two provinces with the highest youth 10-24 populations, KwaZulu Natal at 19.6% and the Eastern Cape at 11.5%.The selected districts are among some of the worst performing human development indicators, including high rates of reported SGBV, teenage pregnancy and HIV burden among adolescent girls. 

 

The Joint Programme kicked off shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, with the proposal to increase access to quality sexual and reproductive health services, as well as HIV and SGBV prevention and response to adolescent girls and young women. A second tier is also contributing to decrease discriminatory and harmful practices and attitudes that perpetuate and validate SGBV against women and girls. With the pandemic, the needs for Sanitary Dignity Kits became prominent and the programme stepped up to support the governments of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal.

All evidence suggests that healthy, educated girls will in the course of their lives contribute to greater economic growth, higher agricultural productivity, lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, smaller and better educated families, lower prevalence of HIV and malaria, more women in leadership positions, and more resilience to climate change and crisis.