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Coronavirus: Eswatini SMS service helps women access family planning, food amid pandemic

Once a month, Nolwazi Myeni receives a message on her mobile phone notifying her that family planning services are available despite the pandemic-related lockdown. “I felt very encouraged to be assured that I could visit any clinic amid COVID-19 for my contraceptive needs,” the 24-year-old said.

This service has encouraged thousands of women in Eswatini to access contraceptives, and also provided welcome monthly reminders lest they forget.

“With the lockdown movement restrictions, it’s easy to forget the date to return to the health facility. These [messages], beyond encouraging us to go for the service, also act as a reminder,” Ms. Myeni said.

Ms. Myeni is the mother of a 6 year old and a mentor to dozens of adolescent girls in her community. She hopes to continue her youth-empowerment efforts by becoming a teacher.

Family planning will help her realize this dream, she says, by helping her avoid pregnancy so she can complete her studies and receive a primary teacher’s diploma.

Reaching women with critical messages The short message service (SMS) programme is part of a partnership between UNFPA, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the health ministry’s Sexual Reproductive Health Unit.

The programme not only encourages recipients to learn about family planning services, it also provides information about food relief. The campaign aims to reach 80,000 young women receiving assistance through the WFP COVID-19 relief project in Eswatini.

Experts are concerned the COVID-19 pandemic may be undermining women’s ability to choose whether and when to have children. In April, UNFPA and partners projected that 6 months of lockdown-related service disruptions could result in at least 47 million women around the world unable to use modern contraceptives.

There are some indications this may be happening in Eswatini. The country saw a 47 per cent drop in use of family planning services between January and May compared to the previous year, according to a recent report by the Social Protection Cluster Partners.

Unintended pregnancies pose pandemic risks An increase in unintended pregnancies will not only disrupt women’s and girls’ ability to achieve their full potential, it will also endanger their lives by exposing them to possible pregnancy complications in an uncertain time.

Some health facilities, especially those in rural areas of the country, are already reporting a decline in women attending antenatal clinics and an increase in home deliveries.

“Since the start of the lockdown, we have noted an increase in incidents of women delivering babies either at home or on their way to the facility,” midwife Lobesutfu Nkambule told UNFPA.

“Ensuring that women continue accessing these services is one way we can mitigate COVID-19’s impact on the health of vulnerable groups like women and girls,” said Margaret Thwala-Tembe, UNFPA’s acting head of office in Eswatini.

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