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.
The Kingdom of Eswatini also known as Swaziland was officially renamed in 2018. Eswatini is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, bordered by Mozambique to its northeast and South Africa to its north, west, and south.
At no more than 200 kilometres north to south and 130 kilometres east to west, Eswatini is one of the smallest countries in Africa; despite this, its climate and topography are diverse, ranging from a cool and mountainous high veld to a hot and dry low veld.
The population is composed primarily of ethnic Swazis. The language is Swazi (siSwati in native form). The Swazis established their kingdom in the mid-18th century under the leadership of Ngwane. The country and the Swazi take their names from Mswati 11, the 19th-century king under whose rule Swazi territory was expanded and unified; the present boundaries were drawn up in 1881 in the midst of the Scramble for Africa.
After the Second Boer War, the kingdom, under the name of Swaziland, was a British protectorate from 1903 until it regained its independence on 6 September 1968. In April 2018, the official name was changed from Kingdom of Swaziland to Kingdom of Eswatini, mirroring the name commonly used in Swazi.
The government is an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. Elections are held every five years to determine the House of Assembly and the Senate majority. The current constitution was adopted in 2005. Umhlanga, the reed dance held in August/September, and incwala, the kingship dance held in December/January, are the nation’s most important events.
Eswatini is a developing country with a small economy. With a GDP per capita of $4,145.97, it is classified as a country with a lower-middle-income. As a member of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), its main local trading partner is South Africa; in order to ensure economic stability, Eswatini’s currency, the lilangeni, is pegged to the South African rand.
Eswatini’s major overseas trading partners are the United States and the European Union. The majority of the country’s employment is provided by its agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Eswatini is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations.
The Swazi population faces major health issues: HIV/AIDS and (to a lesser extent) tuberculosis are widespread. It is estimated that 26% of the adult population is HIV-positive. As of 2018, Eswatini has the 12th-lowest life expectancy in the world, at 58 years.
The population of Eswatini is young, with a median age of 20.5 years and people aged 14 years or younger constituting 37.5% of the country’s total population. The present population growth rate is 1.2%.
“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”, Myeni said.
Myeni is the mother of a six-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 realise 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 the United Nations Population Fund (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 the 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.