Renewing Our Focus on Women and Girls

March 22, 2021

By Mariana Becerra and Amanda Van Duym, co-chairs of Global Health Council’s MNCH Roundtable

Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, working as health care workers, caregivers, researchers, advocates and as some of the most exemplary national leaders in combating the pandemic. However, one year into the pandemic and in the midst of Women’s History Month, we cannot overlook the fact that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women and girls, both in the US and globally.  

Matilda, now 22, lives in a community just north of Accra in Ghana, and she has been a mother since age 13. Credit: World Vision

Countries grappling with the pandemic have been forced to divert significant resources, including midwives, from regular service delivery to COVID-19 response efforts. According to a recent PATH analysis, the world has seen significant disruptions to essential health services leading to a reduction in the provision of maternal, newborn, and child health, family planning, and reproductive health care. Pregnant women and mothers with newborns are experiencing difficulties accessing health services due to disruptions in transportation, government-sanctioned lockdowns, and fear of infection. As a result, experts estimate that the severe reductions in coverage of essential maternal and child health caused by COVID-19 could result in 1.2 million additional child deaths and 57,000 additional maternal deaths every six months during the pandemic.  

In addition to the physiologic impacts, the pandemic’s damage to education and the economy has resulted in more adolescent girls being forced into marriage and an increase in teen pregnancies and gender-based violence. Up to 25 million more girls around the world are at risk of marriage in the next five years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations estimates that nearly 11 million primary and secondary school learners worldwide might never return to school because of the pandemic, most of those being girls. Not only will children miss out on attending school, but school closures could lead to up to 65% more high-risk adolescent pregnancies. Complications due to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally. This cannot be taken lightly.

A mother and her child in the Dulce Tierra Nuevo Sol community in Colombia. Credit: Ben Adams, World Vision

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The global rollout of COVAX vaccines has started and is rapidly accelerating bringing us closer to equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, our best bet for mitigating the public health impact of the pandemic. With this monumental change of events, we can start to reimagine a brighter world. But we still have work to do. As vaccines become available worldwide, we must now turn our attention to investing in women and girls.  

With the new administration, it’s a time for the US to reinvest and make a bold commitment that puts women and girls at the forefront of our global health agenda. It is not too late to prevent large scale, irreversible harm to maternal, newborn, and child health. But we must act now. We urge the new administration to identify the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls and recommit to strengthening health systems to deliver care for women and girls—and people everywhere.

About MaternalNewborn, and Child Health (MNCHRoundtable

The Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH) Roundtable brings together the most influential non-profit organizations working across MNCH issues. The roundtable works together to raise awareness and increase U.S. commitment to global efforts that improve the survival and health of mothers and children under five in developing countries.