Today marks 31 years of the World Population Day, first established by the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme in 1989. Celebration of this day was inspired by the Day of Five Billion on July 11, 1987 – the approximate date on which the world's population reached 5 billion.
This day was first marked on July 11, 1990 and since then, the UN and other organisations have been commemorating it in partnership with governments and the civil society to enhance awareness of population issues, including their relation to the environment and development.
Every year, the World Population Day offers an opportunity to remind our local communities of the global issues emerging from the size and growth of population, to focus on the urgency of the importance of population issues in the world, and to make reproductive healthcare and rights a reality for all.
But this time, observance of the day is different from the previous years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The theme of World Population Day 2020 is "Putting the Brakes on Covid-19: How to Safeguard the Health and Rights of Women and Girls Now?" The key messages for this year are to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health needs, as well as about vulnerabilities of women and girls during the pandemic, and to highlight how we can safeguard the sexual and reproductive health and rights at the local level.
Also, we need to explore how to maintain the momentum towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, that was reiterated at "The Nairobi Summit on ICPD25: Accelerating the Promise" last year. This marked the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which first took place in Cairo in 1994, emphasising on rights and choices, on equality and on improving the quality of life.
To complete the ICPD Programme of Action and SDGs, it is now time to deliver actions on "Three Zeros" – the ICPD25 commitments to transform Bangladesh by ending all maternal deaths, unmet needs for family planning and gender-based violence, and harmful practices against women and girls by 2030. But the Covid-19 pandemic has taken an overwhelming toll on people, communities and economies everywhere, including Bangladesh. No doubt, the pandemic will have great impacts on the above stated "Three Zeros."
Currently Bangladesh is facing challenges in gender-based violence, child marriage and making contraceptives more available and accessible at the grassroots level. Unintended pregnancies, including those among adolescents during the pandemic, creates more barriers for pregnant women who need antenatal care or safe delivery services.
Thus, fulfilling the commitments made at the ICPD25 will be a great challenge. We know that not everyone has been affected equally during this crisis; a major segment of the frontline health workers are women who are excessively exposed to the novel coronavirus. Supply chains are being interrupted due to shutdowns, impacting the availability of contraceptives and raising the risk of unintended pregnancies.
Ensuring access to safe, effective contraception protects the lives and wellbeing of women and allows crisis-affected families to succeed more competently. According to Unicef, an estimated 2.4 million babies will be born under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh. Bangladesh ranks 9th in terms of the highest expected number of births during this period.
The pandemic has also interrupted school and community-based services for adolescents and youths. Women mostly working in the informal economy are at a greater risk of falling into poverty due to Covid-19. Recent media reports also suggest that child marriage and gender-based violence are on the rise.
Over the years, despite significant progress, Bangladeshi women still lack modern contraceptives. Women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities.
In Bangladesh, 12 percent married women (aged 15-49 years) are in this category, according to the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18. The percentage is similar to the 2014 survey. However, we find much higher unmet need (15.5 percent) for family planning among the youths (15-19 years) in the 2017-18 survey.
Despite substantial decrease in total fertility rate (2.3 in 2017-18), Bangladesh's adolescent birth rate is the highest (83 per 1,000) in South Asia. The 2017-18 survey says that adolescent fertility (15-19 years of age) is 27.7 percent, which was 30 in 2011. Since 2011, the total fertility rate and contraceptive prevalence rate have remained almost stagnant in Bangladesh.
Reduction of maternal mortality ratio has also become a big challenge. The most recent Bangladesh Maternal Mortality and Health Care Survey (BMMS) 2016 shows stagnant or slightly increased MMR despite increased number of women seeking maternal care at health facilities.
Moreover, under-18 marriages in Bangladesh remains high – the highest in South Asia (58.9 percent). Between 2011 and 2018, the number declined to 59 percent from 65 percent. These facts and figures show that the women and girls are vulnerable, but more so amid the pandemic.
Displaced young girls and women are mostly vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health problems and they urgently need information and services to protect themselves from disease and unintended pregnancies.
Covid-19 is a unique and critical moment that will impact every citizen of Bangladesh. Specifically, addressing the particular needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, including women and girls, should be accounted for in national policies and plans for the short and long terms. More careful investment is needed to develop, evaluate, and support effective care delivery programmes to meet their needs and safeguarding them against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mohammad Mainul Islam is a professor and chairman of the Department of Population Sciences at the University of Dhaka.