Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Crises

In my last post, I talked about one of the themes the Executive Director of UNFPA discussed in his statement to the UNFPA Executive Board. I’m going to discuss another one here that is incredibly relevant around the world: humanitarian crises. Whether because of natural disasters, pandemics, or conflict, women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable. More than 75% of the people affected by these crises are women and children, and the risks that women already face in their daily lives become heightened when resources are scarce and security breaks down.

Abuse, sexual exploitation, violence, and forced marriage all increase during crises, as well as illnesses and deaths related to reproductive health and pregnancy. Sexual and reproductive health services are difficult to access, if they exist at all, leaving women with few resources if they are victims of violence or are giving birth.

The experiences of women in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan demonstrate how all these risks intersect. The camp is populated with Syrian refugees, who are already dealing with the psychological trauma of displacement. In such an insecure atmosphere, many families arrange marriages for their adolescent daughters, hoping it will keep them safe. However, child marriage exposes girls to many other dangers, especially pregnancy. In Za’atari, many of the pregnant women that health care workers attend are under 15. Many girls fear violence from their husband if they try to prevent or delay pregnancy. Once girls get married, it becomes difficult to continue their education and achieve their full potential.

UNFPA’s State of the World Population report from 2015 does a great job going into detail about the dynamics that threaten women and girls in humanitarian crises, and the steps that can be taken to address it.
  • Include family planning in basic emergency supplies delivered to those affected by the crisis, rather than treating it as an additional, optional service.
  • Couple family planning supplies with education targeted at women and men about how delaying first pregnancy and increasing the spacing between pregnancies is good for the health of the mother and the whole family.
  • Connect women, who may be dispersed in rural, hard-to-reach areas, to maternal and newborn health services.
  • Target assistance to HIV treatment and prevention.
  • Give adolescents access to education and vocational training. This will mitigate the vulnerability they face due to poverty and separation from their families, and give them the tools to be active advocates for positive change.
  • In all areas, work with local women to understand their unique challenges, as well as their input on solutions that make sense given their needs and context.
But most importantly, before a crisis hits, governments and civil society must work to address the underlying socioeconomic and structural issues that affect its severity and the possibility of full recovery. That includes investment in reproductive health infrastructure, education, and gender equality. The issue of reproductive health in humanitarian crises shows how gender, health, and economic development are intertwined. When women have the agency to contribute fully to their societies, then their societies will be that much more resilient and able to bounce back in the face of disasters.

By Morgan, MPP '17
WAPPP Summer Intern Blog
Originally posted on Wanted, Safe, Fulfilled: UNFPA Summer 2016

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