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#UnderTheBlankets: A campaign prioritising sexual reproductive rights for refugees and migrants

“Is it because I am a foreigner?” is a question that aptly describes the barriers to healthcare in South Africa for asylum seekers and migrants. But the Sonke Gender Justice’s (SGJ) #UnderTheBlankets campaign is working to change that. 



South Africa has a troubled relationship with foreign African nationals and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of refugees, asylum-seekers, and undocumented migrants in the country. According to the International Journal for Equity in Health structural and practical xenophobia this groups into abject poverty and the COVID-19 containment measures adopted by the SA government through the lockdown have tremendously deepened their unequal treatment.

Additionally, this category of people was left out of SA’s national response safety nets leading to mental health issues and negative economic and health impacts including access to sexual and reproductive health services. This is despite the South African Refugees Act enshrining the right for asylum-seekers and refugees to work and study, access medical services and life-saving treatment, and freedom of movement.

This South African refugee policy was in the past praised for being highly progressive, its legal framework offers protection to asylum seekers of wide spectrum persecutions including explicit recognition of gender-based persecutions. The irony of which is not lost to those witnessing the vulnerable and unsupported reality of women and girl asylum seekers or migrants living in the country.

Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for refugees and migrants


Worldwide, refugee and migrant women throughout their lifespan i.e., girls, adolescents, and women struggle the most with access to SRHR. In their already vulnerable state, they have an increased probability of experiencing gender-based violence, denial or huge barriers to health services and care, high maternal mortality, complications following unsafe abortion, unmet need for family planning, untreated sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, child marriage and sex trafficking.

Know your HIV status Photo: Flickr Jon Rawlinson

They are also more greatly affected in both sudden and slow-onset emergencies like the pandemic or xenophobia and often face diverse and or intersectional SRHR challenges.

Sonke Gender Justice’s (SGJ) #UnderTheBlankets campaign

Sonke Gender Justice is a South African-based non-profit organisation working throughout Africa. The organisation believes that women and men, girls and boys, can work together to resist patriarchy, advocate for gender justice and achieve gender transformation.

The organisation started the #UnderTheBlankets campaign this year because “research has previously found that ‘medical xenophobia is deeply entrenched in the South African public health system’, and research samples struggled, typically, to access public healthcare.”

In one of their impact stories Abey* describes her harrowing delivery experiences, from giving birth during the 2008 xenophobic attacks to sterilisation referral against her knowledge. Abey, who is originally from Angola herself, wants to see people from migrant backgrounds talk more openly about sexual health. She encourages people like herself to find out information online and empower themselves so that they can stand up for themselves in clinics and hospitals.


The campaign, therefore, aims to educate and provide resources on how refugees and migrants can access government SRHR services in SA. It challenges the taboos, stigma, and silence surrounding SRHR by displaying the experiences of refugees and migrants in accessing healthcare. The campaign’s webpage also contains a data-free map that shows both government (free) clinics and private clinics located in the user’s area. It then lists organisations and NGOs that aid asylum seekers and migrants to access SRHR services.

Furthermore, the campaign seeks to remind healthcare workers that all people in the country regardless of nationality (universally) have a right to access reproductive healthcare.

The NGO brings forward the following facts:

  • Everyone is entitled to free primary health care services in South Africa.
  • Any woman – regardless of nationality – wanting a termination of pregnancy (abortion) is entitled to this free service.
  • All pregnant and lactating women and all children under six years old are entitled to free hospital care.
  • If a person is from a country in Southern Africa (SADC), they are entitled to treatment similar to a South African citizen at the hospital. This means that the treatment will be “means-tested” (the fee depends on their circumstances). This applies to people from the SADC region, whether they have a South African ID, refugee status, an asylum seeker document – or no document at all.

To learn more visit: #UnderTheBlankets Campaign Sexual Health Services in South Africa