How to extend access to SRH services and information during lockdown

Written by Talent Jumo, Director, Katswe Sistahood, Zimbabwe

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings?

The lockdown was swift and did not give time to everyone to plan and to obtain the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) supplies they would need. Gender-based violence (GBV) was increasing and it was harder for survivors to seek support – they would be turned back home by the police to comply with the lockdown. Some girls who were sexually abused early in lockdown did not get immediate help, i.e. emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxes for HIV within the 72-hour time frame required. Others who needed court intervention to facilitate prosecution for cases of rape or to access lawful termination of pregnancy faced insurmountable challenges as courts were closed and the clock was ticking.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

The lockdown guidelines in Zimbabwe were very strict, and there was no clarity on the exceptions. Advocates needed to stay in touch with women and girls in communities. Digital platforms through social media and mobile phones offered a window of opportunity. We received distress calls from girls and women who were desperate for family planning (FP) services. Some could not leave their houses to get to the nearest distributor, while many others simply could not afford to, as their means of living had been eroded by the lockdown. We were, however, aware that a much bigger community of women could not reach us, as they do not own their own means of communication like phones which they could use to transmit such confidential matters.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

In some of the settlements, vulnerable populations are crowded and lack access to information and services during the lockdown. We redressed this two ways.

Firstly, we successfully joined with other organisations to petition the government to recognise that SRH services are essential services, and that people still needed access to contraception, HIV medication, etc. The government then mandated that service providers must give out three months’ worth of HIV medication at once. 

Secondly, in order to help poorer people to access services we boosted our existing voucher scheme.  Through this scheme we pre-pay for services from SRH-service provider Population Services Zimbabwe (PSZ), and then give free vouchers for these services to clients in need. At the start of the lockdown we bought as many vouchers as we could, with donations and grants, so we would have plenty to give out in the months of lockdown.

There was a feeling that government information provision had been elitist and failed to reach the most vulnerable populations. To remedy this, we also worked within current circumstances by piggybacking an SRH campaign onto a COVID-19 safety campaign. We persuaded the Ministry of Education to lend us a mobile van with a public address (PA) system and developed an information campaign, which we toured around the settlements every day for three weeks.

The messages were about COVID-19 safety but intermixed with information about support available for SRH and GBV issues arising from lockdown. We painted on the side of the van hotline numbers for GBV, rape and child protection and broadcast messages about where to find help and even transport if needed. 

What did advocates learn from this experience?

The overriding challenge in our work, especially now, is poverty. People with means were stockpiling supplies, but those without funds could not do so. 

Similarly, government health information and support often does not reach the most vulnerable, who may not have phones or means to stock up on supplies in advance.

We found some of the new ways of working very effective and will be exploring continuing them, for example partnering with Population Services Zimbabwe to coordinate mobile and static SRH services.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Partnerships are crucial in crafting efficient family planning (FP) responses in emergencies. The mobile-outreach partnerships enabled mainstreaming of FP communication and marketing work as an essential aspect in the COVID-19 emergency response.
  • It is critical to merge new technology into communication and outreach activities. The use of digital platforms for service provision enabled us to intervene and support women’s access to prevent unintended pregnancies, as well as urgent services like post-abortion care services.

Talent Jumo, Director, Katswe Sistahood, Zimbabwe

Talent Jumo was originally a teacher, specialising in women and health. She became a Gender Officer in the HIV programme of the Community Working Group on Health in 2005, and in 2007 she co-founded the Young Women’s Leadership Initiative, which went on to become the Katswe Sistahood. In 2012, she became the Sistahood’s director, which promotes women’s rights and knowledge about sexual health.  She is also a member of the Women for the Global Fund.

Katswe Sistahood website