Women’s Health in the Time of Pandemic

By Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover, PhD

For the past 34 years, May 28 is considered as the International Day of Action for Women’s Health. This is perhaps even more significant this year as we continue to face the unrelenting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health has become everyone’s focus nowadays, but as advocacy websites have underscored, women’s health or well-being has been disproportionately affected by the current global health crisis. Aside from their vulnerability to COVID-19, women have become unduly burdened with household care work while still maintaining their jobs. Due to the pandemic, entire families suddenly stayed within the home 24/7. Someone must then do round-the-clock cooking and cleaning—tasks that most likely fall on women as they have been culturally socialized to assume such gender roles. Since children’s schooling has shifted to remote learning or online modality, mothers also assumed the extra task of becoming in-house teachers, supervising children’s education more than what was expected in previous years. The mental health challenges alone that these added responsibilities imposed on women are well-documented and need to be addressed.

By now, we most likely have an idea of how this pandemic has highlighted long-existing inequalities. We see this manifested on a global scale as more affluent countries in the Northern hemisphere round out their mass vaccinations and take initial steps towards recovery, while countries in the global South struggle with new virus variants, infection surges, and pathetic vaccine roll-out. In the first quarter of this year, the WHO has noted that about 90% of countries experience significant disruptions to essential health services as attention got averted to dealing with COVID-19. Sadly, sexual and reproductive health services, including those related to HIV, as well as mental health services, are among those extensively affected. For example, it was noted that maternal healthcare facilities were converted into dedicated COVID-19 facilities (Green, 2020). Then of course, there is the issue of gender-based violence that had recorded an alarming increasing trend when lockdowns were imposed, prompting the UN to refer to it as a “shadow pandemic” (see https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19). In the socio-political arena, we have seen in the past year how government control measures to curb the pandemic have further marginalized sectors across various contexts, even going as far as endangering the lives of young women here in our own country.

Talking about women’s health in the current pandemic situation somehow sidelines what the advocacy stands for in over three decades The long-standing advocacy for women’s health centers on reproductive health and rights, including the right to information and access to services, as well as the right to decide on matters pertaining to one’s body freely—that is, free from any form of institutional coercion. This was the advocacy that jumpstarted my own feminist journey as an undergraduate student exploring options for a thesis topic when the 4th World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. Back then, I found it amusing how other people–men who never get pregnant–would decide for and on behalf of women over what is deemed best for women’s bodies and futures. Fortunately, the people and organizations I associated with at that time [shout out to WomanHealth Philippines] helped me navigate and process the contentious terrain of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). There was also one pivotal quote from Rina Jimenez-David’s column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer 26 years ago that resonated with me, a then 21-year-old who has never been pregnant. It still resonates with me today, decades and two children later, as I now reflect on the state of women’s health, on what I can do about it and the many struggles that still lay ahead. The quote goes: “Even God asked Mary’s permission before he got her pregnant.” I was floored upon reading that short sentence but, in many ways, it does encapsulate the core message of the advocacy for women’s health and rights. More so in the present times when human rights, in general, are blatantly violated by political opportunism. Permission. Consideration. Respect. Words that should always be in our collective vocabulary, especially when we find ourselves in serious health crises.

Despite many disappointing turn of events, I would still like to believe that today, the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, during a pandemic that has upset all our lives and made us rethink our life choices, we will find room to ponder upon the state of women’s health and how we can each work towards dismantling the barriers that hinder the pursuit of holistic sexual and reproductive health and rights for all individuals. #Women’sHealthMatters