“July 11th, 2021 The Gambia joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Population Day (WPD). This globally celebrated day is anchored on the drive to raise and intensify awareness on emerging population and development issues facing the world in the quest to promote the welfare of all. Last year and this year’s commemoration is unique in the sense that the world is faced with a Public Health Crisis, COVID-19 which has taken a toll on all countries and grossly affected not only health systems but almost all sectors of the economy. Speaking of its impact on health systems, the Pandemic has overstretched the health sector such that holistic attentions are being diverted to addressing this global mayhem.
The pandemic has caused serious gaps and challenges in the provision of sexual and reproductive health information and services, with the reallocation of resources away from these services taking a toll on the health of women and girls. It has exacerbated gender inequality and gender-based violence and with programmes to address harmful practices interrupted, there are signs that Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage are on the rise. Furthermore, women and girls have been hit the hardest in terms of the overall economic impact of the pandemic. Consequently, the pandemic has resulted in changing fertility and demography in countries.
According to United Nations Fund for Population Affairs (UNFPA), recent data and projections in some low and middle income countries has it that the pandemic has interrupted access to Family Planning services, even increasing unintended pregnancies among vulnerable groups. For instance, spikes in unintended pregnancy were seen among adolescents in some developing countries. The opposite is true in some high-income countries. Even though, due to data gap, we do not know with certainty how the pandemic is affecting births in different countries currently or in the long run, as well as its potential impact on the world population, there is increasing concern over the different policy responses to the change, which at times can prove extremely harmful if they undermine individual health, rights, and choices. Thus, the reason for this year’s theme (“Rights and Choices are the Answer: Whether baby boom or bust, the solution lies in prioritizing the reproductive health and rights of all people”).
The Gambia Government, knowing the significance of sexual and reproductive health and rights to sustainable development, like several other countries at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, committed to providing sexual and reproductive health services for all, a commitment reiterated in 2019 at the Nairobi Summit, where The Gambia government committed to the three transformative zeros (ending all maternal deaths, unmet need for Family Planning and gender-based violence and harmful practices towards women by 2030). The importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights was also highlighted at the 69th ordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly during a side event, where global leaders agreed that key sustainable development goals such as poverty eradiation and ending AIDS epidemic by 2030 cannot be achieved without the promotion of sexual and reproductive health and rights. This statement is more valid in our current reality. Emerging from this pandemic where there are looming fears that the crisis could curtail support for women’s and girls’ decision making, agency, freedom of movement or access to health services and, more generally, preventing people from exercising their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This may be a major setback in our longstanding efforts towards the attainment of the three transformative zeros and by extension the sustainable development goals by 2030.Therefore appropriate policy responses on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women are needed to safeguard our hard-fought gains and keep us on track to achieving the sustainable development goals, making the theme for the 2021 World Population Day relevant and timely vis-à-vis the crisis emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In The Gambia, like in many developing countries, the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is more severe on women and girls. For instance, women’s personal safety has been at risk due to increased exposure to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) including FGM and Child Marriage as lockdowns and social restrictions compelled people to stay home. Despite several legislations and programmes for the promotion and protection of the rights of women and girls, violation such as domestic, physical and sexual violence continue to pose a problem. According to 2019-2020 Gambia Demographic Health Survey, 46% of women aged 15-49 have ever experienced physical violence; 9% of women aged 15-49 have ever experienced sexual violence; 39% of married women have experienced spousal violence, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, by their current or most recent husband or partner. Despite the GBV helpline initiated by Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare to facilitate reporting of GBV cases in an effort to address perpetrators, the report shows that 65% of women who experienced violence never sought help or told anyone. For FGM, there is a notable fall from 75% to 73%. This fall does not induce celebration because the percentage is still staggeringly high, given the level of policy attention as well as programs implemented towards its curb. Data shows that 30% of women and girls aged 20-24 were first married or are in a union before age 18. The pandemic as is the case in other countries is likely to compromise efforts that have been made over the years in ending GBV, including FGM and Child Marriage.
The promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights remain a national priority for the government, especially given its significance in sustainable development. The government of The Gambia recognizes the fact that Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is a key enabler of the strategic priorities in achieving National Development Goals. The manifestation of this is not only reflected in key strategic interventions of government through its agencies in the realm of Sexual and Reproductive Health but the engineering of sound progressive policies and instruments that are relevant and geared towards the attainment of the three transformative zeros such as the Reproductive Health Policy (2017-2026) and Strategy (2017-2021), the Family Planning Policy (2019-2026) and a costed Implementation Strategy (2019-2022) among others. Through the 8th UNFPA funded Country Programme, the government of The Gambia has taken giant strides towards achieving universal access to quality SRH in all public health facilities in The Gambia. Capacity building programmes have been conducted for health workers and Community-Based Distributors, different health facilities refurbished, maternal lifesaving drugs and free contraceptives provided through the programme among others.
The government recognizes that access to Family Planning is not only a human right, but it saves lives and promotes healthier populations, more efficient health systems and stronger economies. Consequently, the government is making significant progress in addressing Family Planning, as one of the fundamental pillars of safe motherhood and reproductive health rights. Evidence of achievements in this regard is reflected in the recent DHS report (2019-2020). Data from the DHS shows that the use of Family Planning has increased from 9% in 2013 to 19% in 2019-20. The demand for family planning among married women has increased from 34% in 2013 to 43% in 2019-2020. Unmet need for family planning has remained unchanged during this period. The Total Fertility Rate has fallen from 5.6 (DHS 2013) to 4.4 (DHS 2019-2020) with variations based on place of residence, LGA and level of education. Though gains have been made, there is the need to call for allocation of more resources and intensify the provision of Reproductive Health information and services to achieve our goal of Zero unmet need for Family planning by 2030.
Under the leadership of His Excellency President Adama Barrow, the Government of The Gambia wishes to reiterate the commitments made at the Nairobi Conference on ICPD +25 in November, 2019 and will continue to intensify focus and attention to safeguard the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls to achieve the three transformative zeros by 2030, cognizant of its enabling factor towards National Development Goals.
As we continue to fight against the Pandemic, it is pleasing to note that 42,975 people have received the first doze of the AstraZeneca vaccine while 11,825 people have been fully vaccinated as of July 7th, 2021. The Government remains committed to making Gambia a COVID-19 free country.
In conclusion, I wish to on behalf of The Gambia government acknowledge the contributions of all the United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the European Union, the African Development Bank, and other development partners for their continued support to population and development in The Gambia. I would especially like to commend UNFPA for their continued support to the health and rights of women and girls in our beloved country.
For The Gambia our homeland, under the able leadership of President Adama Barrow, we pledge our allegiance and renew our promise to improving the quality of life of all Gambians as enshrined in the National Population Policy and by extension, the National Development Plan.”