Women, girls, health workers must not be overlooked in global COVID-19 response

26 March 2020

Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem 


With each passing day, the scale of the COVID-19 crisis and its consequences are becoming ever more apparent and alarming.

UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, stands in solidarity with all those responding to the novel coronavirus: from the medical staff and volunteers bravely tending to the sick, to the bus drivers and care-workers who have been catapulted onto the front line of the response. And we grieve with the growing number of those who have lost loved ones in the greatest global health crisis in a century.

COVID-19 is testing the international community. Yet UNFPA’s work with governments, partners, UN agencies and donors is continuing, and ramping up. Business continuity plans are in place at all levels, and our commitment to serving the most vulnerable and hard to reach is stronger than ever. 

As with most crises, this pandemic has severely disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and hampered authorities’ ability to respond to gender-based violence, at a time when women and girls need these services most. UNFPA is working with governments and partners to prioritize the particular needs of women and girls, in line with our goals to end unmet need for family planning, end preventable maternal deaths, and end gender-based violence and harmful practices by 2030.

We have appealed to donors to fund our COVID-19 response targeting countries with weak public health and social support systems, including countries in fragile and humanitarian situations, and are provisionally projecting a cost of US$187.5 million. UNFPA’s efforts will focus on strengthening health systems, procuring and delivering essential supplies to protect health workers, ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services, and promoting risk communication and community engagement.

Now is a time for solidarity, resolve and selflessness. We must not forget that there are people we may not immediately see, who are at great risk as a result of the consequences of the crisis:

The pregnant women, who need antenatal care, but are unsure whether it is safe to go to the clinic. The women in abusive relationships trapped at home for the foreseeable future and fearing for their safety. The tens of millions of people in refugee camps, who are counting down the days until the coronavirus arrives, and for whom social distancing is simply not an option. The older people, many of whom are trapped in isolation, starved of social interaction and who are particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the virus.

UNFPA is providing material support to affected health systems and protecting health workers and midwives. In China, Iran and the Philippines, for instance, we distributed essential hygiene and other items to the most vulnerable and personal protective equipment to health workers. And in Moldova we have launched an online dashboard for the health system that shows its current caseload, disaggregated by location, sex, age and pregnancy status. 

But we need to do much more to ensure that the most intimate, yet essential, needs of the world’s women and girls are met while we battle COVID-19 during the challenging months ahead. UNFPA has outlined what we need to do in a number of guidance documents recently published on on these topics.

This global scourge requires a global response. We urge the international community to come to the help of all those affected by the crisis: both those with COVID-19 and those who are trapped in isolation, denied the services they desperately need. Please join us in standing up for the dignity and health of women and girls when they need us most.


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