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International Development Minister Karina Gould responds during question period in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada is dedicating $8.9 million in new international aid to ensure women and girls around the world have access to safe abortions and reproductive health services – money experts say will help maintain that access despite restrictions due to COVID-19.

International Development Minister Karina Gould said Tuesday that contraceptives, abortion services and reproductive health care have become more challenging to procure for women in many parts of the world and Canada wants to do its part to “step up.”

“We feel particularly right now that it’s important to make this funding announcement to demonstrate that we are still committed to SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) even in a pandemic and actually highlighting the fact that these needs exist and are, in fact, exacerbated by the current pandemic,” she said in an interview.

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“This funding will help ensure those services can be delivered.”

Of the $8.9 million announced Tuesday, $4.9 million will go to Marie Stopes International, a global organization that provides contraception and abortions in 37 countries.

Canada’s money will go toward ensuring access safe abortions, post-abortion care and contraception; telemedicine and online outreach and funding for a mobile-phone platform aimed at youth living in isolation and those who are out of school.

A further $2 million will go to Ipas, another international body that works with governments to advocate for safe, legal abortion and to make contraception widely available.

Experts who work in the field say the pandemic has heightened barriers that already existed for many women and girls when it comes to accessing safe abortion services, post-natal care and other reproductive health needs.

Laura Neidhart of Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights said the pandemic has made reproductive health care in Canada and abroad harder to get: supply chains for medication and birth control have been disrupted, clinics closed, and doctors more difficult to see.

“We’ve heard both on the ground here in Canada and also from organizations that are working in countries across the world that this is a pretty substantial problem,” she said.

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There are also a number of countries using the pandemic as a pretext to roll back abortion access, Neidhart said.

Members of a United Nations working group issued a statement last month expressing concern over some American states including Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee that “appear to be manipulating the crisis” to implement bans on different types of abortions during the pandemic.

This creates dangers, Neidhart said.

“Anywhere that we see attempts to roll back or reduce access to abortion care … unsafe abortions become much more of a challenge and likelihood.”

She applauded the Trudeau government for investing in reproductive health care and for highlighting the need to see this as a priority in the midst of a pandemic.

“It’s really essential for feminist leadership from the Canadian government to make sure that people are able to access the care that they need,” she said.

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Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada, said she too was heartened to see new money being committed to this effort.

However she noted that $8.9 million “seems like peanuts” compared to the $1.4 billion pledged last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for international aid for women’s health, half of which was dedicated to ensuring access to safe abortions and reproductive-health services worldwide.

While this investment was lauded as “historic” for its size and focus, Sarosi said the money has yet to start rolling out.

“There has been little movement thus far in implementing those commitments, so right now it’s not just about trying to sustain the services that were there before the pandemic, but also really building capacity of health systems to address a whole range of neglected areas, like contraceptive care, abortion services,” she said.

“We’re really hoping the government steps up in implementing that massive commitment for which they received a lot of accolades around the world. It’s really time to implement that now.”

Part of the amount announced Tuesday – $2 million – will also go to the United Nations trust fund on violence against women to help combat gender-based violence internationally.

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Gould said there has been a “staggering” increase in violence against women caused by COVID-19 restrictions.

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