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COVID-19 caused millions to lose access to birth control, U.N. estimate shows

Millions of women around the world lost access to family planning services like birth control and contraceptives as a result of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates released Thursday by the United Nations Population Fund. The data further demonstrates how fallout from the virus has disproportionately impacted women, who are also facing increased childcare responsibilities and widespread job losses.

Researchers from the Population Fund (UNFPA), a U.N. agency focused on global reproductive health, estimated that 12 million women across 115 low- to middle-income countries were "unable to access family planning services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," with those disruptions lasting an average of 3.6 months and resulting in an estimated 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies in 2020.

The numbers are an improvement from what the U.N. agency had originally projected. In April 2020, UNFPA speculated that if coronavirus-related lockdowns were to last six months with major disruptions to services, 47 million women in 114 low- to middle-income countries could be "unable to use modern contraceptives." At the time, UNFPA was concerned the disruption could "critically undermine progress" towards increased birth control access, reductions in gender-based violence and improvements in maternal health.

Had the initial figures born out, the result would have been "catastrophic," said Dr. Natalia Kanem, the executive director of UNFPA, in a telephone interview with CBS News. Kanem said a "rallying of the international community" was responsible for averting that scenario.

Kanem said creative solutions helped many women access contraceptives despite state-mandated lockdowns and quarantine. In Uganda, for example, a UNFPA-led project redirected ride-share drivers to help shuttle reproductive health items from pharmacies to patients.

But Thursday's report says that even the reduced numbers are still a "concern" and that "severe social and economic impacts of COVID-19 demand intensified action for women and girls."

"Once again, the fundamental story is that COVID has indeed wrought devastation on women's bodies and their lives," said Kanem. "Women who face this disruption could face a lifelong impact."

Thursday's data follows a familiar theme: As the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns and economic fallout have wreaked havoc across the world, women are bearing the brunt of it. In the United States, more than 2 million women left the workforce last year, pushing women's labor force participation to its lowest level since 1988. Significant job losses in female-dominated industries like hospitality and retail have disproportionately impacted women around the world, while widespread school and daycare closures have forced women to choose between paid work and child care responsibilities.

Many experts, including Kanem, say birth control access has long been considered an essential component in helping women succeed in the workplace. As vaccination efforts continue and life slowly returns to normal, access to contraceptives will be a crucial factor in restoring women's employment and education opportunities, Kanem said.

"Too often sexual and reproductive health services are depicted as a luxury, but they're an absolute necessity," Kanem said.

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