World Population Day 2020 - Recovering from the pandemic must not come at the expense of tackling other burning issues

UN in Ghana and partners observed World Population Day in Ghana with a focus on sustaining efforts at safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls.

It is a great pleasure to be part of this year’s World Population Day commemoration here in Ghana. Indeed, even though we are not in normal times, we are showing that we cannot disconnect from the realities that face us today. After all, the pandemic, in as much as it is a health crisis, it is a crisis that affects populations everywhere.

I must commend the Government of Ghana, National Population Council and UN Population Fund, UNFPA, and partners for organizing this event to draw attention to the population issues and specifically, the dynamics of the impact of COVID-19 on populations and on women and girls.

World Population Day is an annual occasion commemorated by countries in collaboration with the UN under an urgent and overarching theme. This year, 2020, you will agree with me that such a theme on population must relate to the pandemic, and so it does. For some good reasons, this year’s theme focuses on women and girls – Putting the Brakes on COVID-19: How to Safeguard the Health and Rights of Women and Girls NOW?”  

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres has described the current pandemic as "the greatest test that we have faced since the formation of the United Nations"[in 1945]. He has therefore issued a Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19. Immediately after, the UN system worldwide switched to emergency mode to support governments’ response. A significant proportion of the UN’s existing portfolio of sustainable development programmes across all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been adjusted and expanded towards COVID19-related needs. Repurposing and reprogramming efforts have already started, in close collaboration with programme countries, donors and partners.

May I take this moment, your excellency, ladies and gentlemen to appreciate the role of His Excellency, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, for his leadership work as both the Co-Chair of the Eminent Group of SDGs advocates as well as Gender and Development Champion for the African Union. Over the period, President Akufo-Addo has championed women’s equality and empowerment reminding us of how integral gender matters are to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. His role should serve as a motivation for all of us and indeed for the continent to deliver to achieve gender equality and meet the global target.

In Ghana, the UN Country team is supporting the Government of Ghana to develop the Country Preparedness and Response Plan, has provided policy inputs, and continued to provide support, using its programme-criticality approach. In addition, the UN system has conducted a common country analysis and is finalizing a holistic response plan that covers health, social protection and basic services continuity, economic recovery, stabilizing the macro-economic context and strengthening social cohesion and peace. The UN system’s joined-up response seeks to support the government’s wider framework – focusing on both the immediate as well as the long-term socio-economic needs to help ease the impact for vulnerable groups as well as support Ghana build back.

Each UN agency in Ghana has been at their best ensuring that the critical issues pertaining to their mandate area are addressed while maintaining a strong element of joint programming and collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the lead.

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The impact of the pandemic on our health system's is disturbing as it has disrupted essential health services. For instance, sexual and reproductive health services are being sidelined and family planning acceptor levels and facility-based delivery dropped in the first quarter.  This has been due to the fact that health personnel were, understandably, repurposed to support direct COVID-19 activities thereby impacting on the availability of health workforce for routine services. Supply chain disruptions arising from global supply constraints also begun limiting the availability of contraceptives.

UNFPA Ghana had been quick to anticipate the socio-economic and programmatic implications of the pandemic in the country. We were sure that restrictions in movement due to lockdowns would affect vulnerable segments of the population comprising adolescents, women, people with disability and the aged. And beyond lockdown, the continuing presence of COVID-19 will impact the ‘new normal’ – creating new ways to support women and girls, create digital solutions and enhance gender equality and empowerment.

The purported impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations is undeniably alarming - the potential upsurge of cases of domestic violence, sexual and gender-based violence, rape, unplanned pregnancies; female genital mutilation; child marriage; reduced maternal care, neglect of the vulnerable and psychological effects of the pandemic on the youth are just a few.  At the global level, figures coming from UN Women, WHO, ILO, and UNICEF provide unsettling statistics on child marriage [total number of girls married in childhood is estimated at 12 million per year], female genital mutilation [at least 200 million women and girls aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation in some 30 countries with representative data on prevalence.] and forced sex [Approximately 15 million adolescent girls (aged 15 to 19) worldwide have experienced forced sex (forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts) at some point in their life either by a current/former husband, partner or boyfriend].

For the Ghanaian situation, women disproportionately work in insecure labour markets and COVID-19 presents a sharp and harder blow to them where their livelihoods are negatively impacted. The crisis is having a substantial impact on women. Women play a disproportionate role in responding to the virus, including as frontline healthcare workers and carers at home. Women disproportionately work in insecure labour markets and are harder hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Nearly 60 per cent of women work in the informal economy, at greater risk of falling into poverty. Women’s unpaid care work has increased as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people. The humanitarian access for sexual and gender-based violence service providers has been also restricted. Furthermore, the pandemic constraint may expose a significant proportion of vulnerable women to higher risk of violence from their abusers. Already, existing data suggests women currently married or living together and forced to have sex is 16.7 percent. Despite social, economic and cultural barriers, the practice of child marriage is still prevalent in parts of the country and the rates are higher for girls than boys. Teenage pregnancy is 2.5 percent according to 2017 Ghana Maternal and Health Survey.

Your excellency, ladies and gentlemen, these are the characteristic indicators that have the tendencies to worsen because the pandemic. Because these figures tilt heavily against women and girls, there is an overarching need to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Therefore, the theme for this year’s World Population Day is right on point for Ghana, and most countries of the world.  This is why we must raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls during the pandemic. We must ensure that that the world does not relent in its effort to continue and sustain its services on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights; but maintain the momentum to achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In November 2019 during the Nairobi Summit, Ghana reiterated its commitment to achieve the SDGs and the UNFPA strategic objective of three zeroes by 2030.  The three zeros of ‘zero preventable maternal death’; ‘zero unmet need for family planning’ and ‘zero sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices’, are part of the promise at the International Conference on Population and Development which took place 25 years ago in Cairo, Egypt. In support of these three zeroes are other issues of population dynamics including the onset of the demographic dividend for which Ghana has formulated a strategy to harness the tremendous potential available through the large proportion of the population being youth.

We at the UN system will continue to ensure that Ghana’s commitment of meeting the three zero targets are met. UNFPA, through partnership with other UN agencies, Government organizations, youth groups, NGOs, CSOs, volunteers and the media, has reached tens of thousands of people with information on COVID-19 ensuring that empowering the general populace, particularly the youth, with information on maternal health, family planning, sexual and gender based violence and on harmful practices.  This is to make sure that issues of reproductive health are not lost during this period. Dignity kits have also been distributed to over 5,800 adolescent girls and young women including vulnerable female migrant head porters known as kayayei, persons with disability, juveniles in correctional centers, all in line with the SDGs tag of leaving no one behind. In all these, UNFPA has been guided by four accelerators of programme implementation namely, leaving no one behind; data availability; youth engagement and; risk communication and stigma reduction. UNFPA in collaboration with the domestic violence unit of the Ghana Police activated a dedicated domestic violence hotline to facilitate reports on abuse.  This hotline received over 4000 calls in the last four months which pointed to a clear need, and also attesting to the view that SGBV is a third pandemic.

The UN system, with UNFPA providing great leadership in this area, will continue to collaborate with ministries, departments and agencies of government; civil society organisations; women groups; male groups involved in gender issues; youth organisations; leadership of vulnerable groups and; adolescents in safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls now and beyond. This is one of the most important aspects of the pandemic. Equally important is the support of religious leaders and traditional authorities, which is urgently needed to address all aspects of sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices. 

Finally, the pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected we are at the global, national and local levels. Recovering from the pandemic must not come at the expense of tackling other burning issues. We must also not address the concerns of one constituent at the detriment of another. We are in this together and we must build back together.  Like many countries, Ghana has the opportunity to include these burning issues of safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls in its overall recovery plan because, as suggested in the UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19, “how stimulus plans are implemented matters to what this recovery will look like”. Recovering from the impact of COVID-19 must be inclusive.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Speech by
Charles Abani
UN Resident Coordinator
Charles Abani
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Population Fund