Women, Migration & Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)

The Coronavirus pandemic has swept through the world with no mercy, causing many governments to take drastic emergency measures. Such measures as the implementation of lock downs to restrict movement, and thereby slow down the rate of infection have had inevitable effects on women in migration by cutting off access to vital sexual and reproductive health services. If these measures are not revised to address their gendered impacts, women will continue to suffer, compromising their human dignity, and freedom of choice, and sexual reproductive health and rights. Women are more vulnerable in light of coronavirus as disaster management legislative frameworks are not necessarily gender specific, and also because western conceptions of health responses to coronavirus, such as social distancing are at times impractical for African countries, and more so for women in migration.

Women migrants may generally face an intersection of inequalities, ‘a combination of legal, social, cultural, economic, behavioural and communication barriers during the migration process’ (Davies, Basten and Frattini, 2009).

Critical Issues & Situation on the Ground

So what is the link between Coronavirus and women in migration and their sexual and reproductive health and rights? There are several challenges that women in refugee settlements are facing:

  1. Diversion of resources

The diversion of funds from public services towards the implementation and enforcement of coronavirus regulations is likely to deprive women of access to public services such as healthcare in matters other than coronavirus infections. During the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the cutting back of resources from donors. Donor countries such as the United States have been seen diverting resources away from humanitarian work (WHO), and towards their domestic coronavirus responses and other domestic priorities.

This has a ripple effect on international donor organisations. For example, the World Health Organisation has currently reduced food portions by thirty percent in Ugandan refugee settlements according to a report by Aljazeera. Food is only one of many resources that refugees require for basic life. Women and girls in refugee settlements also require basic items for their sexual and reproductive health, such as sanitary wear, contraceptives, and other items for maternity and family planning inter alia. Although refugee settlements tend to have localised primary healthcare facilities, if donor funding is reduced, this can have trickle down effects, as sexual and reproductive health care resources are purchased with money. Any reductions in funding for organisations working with refugees, can force them to re-prioritise their resources, and if sexual and reproductive health products are ranked low, then this will impair women and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health care.

Further, it is also common practice for national governments when facing emergencies, to cut back sexual and reproductive health services such as the provision of contraceptives. There is also a risk that resources that would ordinarily be transferred to refugee programmes may become reduced, and reprioritised for nationals.

The effect of diverting resources at the international or domestic level is that it leaves women and girls vulnerable. In the face of reduced food portions, we know that women are more likely to ensure that their children and husbands are fed before feeding themselves, and so women are more likely to experience hunger in these times. This also places women and girls at risk of transactional sex and child marriages.

  1. Restricted Mobility

Lockdown conditions make it more difficult, and indeed more dangerous for women to leave their homes in pursuit of sexual and reproductive health care. Because of mobility restrictions, women are unable to engage in informal trade to supplement their basic needs, this situation can make women and girls more vulnerable to transactional sex, and child marriages.

As traditional gender norms are amplified in times of conflict and in migration, women living in refugee settlements often carry the burden of cooking family meals, and that includes finding fuel to prepare these meals. Due to lockdown provisions, women are unable to fetch fire wood for cooking which exacerbates their (and their families’) vulnerabilities. This is part of the challenge arising from transposing a foreign emergency response without considering our unique African lived realities. Women may even break the law and risk criminal penalties, because they have to feed their families somehow, and even in doing so, they may have legitimate fear of the police and military because of their experiences and in many instances women living in refugee settlements still carry the trauma from the conflict they escaped.

Volunteers from other countries who may otherwise have availed themselves to serve in sexual and reproductive health care programming, such as the awareness raising against female genital mutilation, or alternative rites of passage, may no longer be able to reach these communities, leaving young girls vulnerable to harmful customary practices that undermine their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

  1. Gender-based violence

Isolation and social distancing may be impractical in refugee settlements where families do not necessarily have the luxury for an infected person to sleep in his or her own room, or access to face masks or sanitisers, or the water to clean up utensils and surfaces at liberty. Additionally, women are at risk of coronavirus exposure as they may be unable to enforce social distancing within their bedroom, even when their husband/partner has symptoms of infection and this may also increase marital rape.

These realities must be taken into account. But more importantly, women remain at high risk of gender-based violence as cabin fever kicks in and tempers flare. Already domestic violence is on the increase, and it tends to compromise women’s sexual choices.

  1. Access to Water

One of the challenges in refugee settlements and camps is the lack of adequate access to water. Water is central to the right to life and human dignity, and is important for health and personal hygiene, and for washing hands to prevent the spread of coronavirus.  Water is also intricately linked with sexual and reproductive health. However, in refugee settlements, access to water tends to be very limited. For the majority of settlements, there is no running water in taps, but rather water points are provided. Bearing in mind that women tend to carry 3 times more care work than men in ordinary settings, and gendered roles are more defined in refugee settlements, and further that in Africa, women tend to be water carriers, there is a disproportionate risk for women contracting coronavirus while collecting water from shared water sources.

There is a high risk of local contagion due to the large populations residing in close proximity to each other. There are often long queues for water collection, and people wait for long periods of time to fetch water. It is not clear whether the water points are being sanitised after each use. Moreover, frequent washing of hands might be seen as a waste of this precious resource, or as adding to the work that must be done in the day, because when the bucket is empty, another long queue would have to be joined.

  1. Asylum Seekers

Necessary migration in the face of conflict, or risk is hampered by coronavirus response regulations, forcing women and girls to remain in dangerous environments as borders are closed and cross-border travel has been banned.

The closure of borders to persons seeking asylum denies them a way out. Moreover, applications for asylum are on hold during the lockdowns, and this will inevitably cause many to fall through the cracks, more so leaving unmet sexual and reproductive health needs. Economic migrants may also face hurdles with reduced incomes or lost jobs during the lockdown, and this would limit the financial resources available to them. Again, this may result in other things such as food being prioritised over sexual and reproductive health care. For those involved in the informal sector, with limited access to informal markets this again creates bread and butter issues, and sexual and reproductive health and rights are left at the bottom of the chain.

  1. Economic Migrants

Economic migrants may also face risk of rape and sexual violence by police and may engage in transactional sex if they are caught in the country to prevent arrest and deportation, as no new asylum applications are being heard. They are vulnerable and reporting the rape would result in their deportation, so many offences would go unreported.

Although essential services such as sexual and reproductive healthcare are available during the coronavirus lockdowns, many migrants will not be able to access these services because they lack proper identification and visas, language barriers, user fees and xenophobic attitudes of health workers.

  1. Volunteers

Volunteers who intended to travel and would have served in the provision of sexual and reproductive health care can no longer travel due to travel bans. Although organisations working with refugees have been provided with some protective gear, as you know most coronavirus protective gear must be disposed of after use, meaning there is a constant need for additional protective equipment such as masks, gloves, etc.

Although Uganda had to deal with the entry of Ebola in 2019, there is a big gap in that although there are isolation health facilities in Uganda, these were not equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and as such they need to be equipped with items such as ventilators. Soap portions have been increased from 250 grams to 500 grams in some refugee settlements, but in the absence of water, these efforts could be in vain.

Some Actions Taken

FEMNET campaign for a #DignifiedResponse to CVOID-19 aims to ‘coordinate and support African women and girls in their response towards COVID19’ and to ‘influence public policies and state responses to the COVID19 pandemic’. The Online Hub has four main portals:-

  • At your service responder’s directory
  • I am here- stories/ realities
  • African Covid-19 response plans
  • COVID-19 practical knowledge to stay safe and sane

There are working groups bringing together feminists, advocates, activists to  ‘Basic needs’ and ‘Fundraising’ dealing with immediate needs and ‘Communications’ and ‘Feminist analysis’, dealing with influence and communications. Contacts: m.ngesa@femnet.or.ke;  n.maloba@femnet.or.ke; i.muchomba@femnet.or.ke;  j.wangari@femnet.or.ke; h.zaidali@femnet.or.ke.

African Union Coronavirus Taskforce which has 3 pillars i.e. preventing transmission, preventing deaths and preventing social harm. The AU Coronavirus Task Force technical support programmes and webinars.

UNHCR made a plea on 25 March 2020 for US$255million to respond to coronavirus by providing essential laboratory equipment to test for the virus, and medical supplies to treat people, and install handwashing stations in camps and settlements. This would assist 70 million, children, women and men uprooted by war, and specifically around 25.9 million refugees across the world.

What should be prioritized in every COVID-19 response plan and strategy?

Refugees have been living in quarantine already – most, restricted from assimilation and integration. COVID-19 is making their conditions more difficult. The following must be prioritized in every country’s response plan and strategy:-

  • Access to water for all.
  • Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • Advocacy and funding to be expanded.


Written by Dr. Michelle Rufaro Maziwisa, Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutionalism, Governance and Human Rights, University of the WesternCape, South Africa


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