Humanitarian Response Treats Women’s Health ‘As An Afterthought’
The health needs of women and girls must not be treated as an afterthought in times of crises, but placed at the centre of any humanitarian response, according to the UN’s state of the world population report.
Humanitarian responses have failed to account for the different ways in which disasters and conflict can have an impact on women and men, says the report,Shelter from the Storm, published by the UN population fund (UNFPA) on Thursday. In times of crisis, services related to pregnancy, childbirth and family planning are usually unavailable, “leaving already disadvantaged women and girls in an even more precarious situation”, it says.
Sixty per cent of all preventable maternal deaths are estimated to occur in humanitarian and conflict settings, the UNFPA says, which equates to nearly 500 deaths each day.
“In the tumultuous early phase of a crisis, food, shelter and care for acute physical trauma often seem the most compelling needs, with gender or any other kind of discrimination something that can be put off for a safer day. Thinking this way, however, can make a response blind to realities,” says the report.
It adds that protecting the health and rights of women and young people is not only critical to weathering the chaos of wars and natural disasters but can also accelerate recovery.
The UNFPA is calling on governments to scale up funding and action for sexual and reproductive healthcare, and honour international agreements – including the programme for action signed in Cairo in 1994 – that promised to uphold and deliver them at all times.
“Crises do not diminish this responsibility,” says the report. “Keeping that promise means guaranteeing that women and girls have access to comprehensive services before, during and after a crisis. What’s needed in many crisis-affected countries are scaled-up commitment and action.”
The UNFPA’s executive director, Babatunde Osotimehin, said: “The health and rights of women and adolescents should not be treated like an afterthought in humanitarian response. For the pregnant woman who is about to deliver, or the adolescent girl who survived sexual violence, life-saving services are as vital as water, food and shelter.
“Having the means to prevent a pregnancy and being safe from sexual violence – these are basic human rights. Rights don’t just go away, and women don’t stop giving birth when a conflict breaks out or disaster strikes.”
In June, the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said that by the end of 2014 a record 59.5 million people had been displaced from their homes because of crises. More than 100 million are now in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than a quarter of them are women and girls aged between 15 and 49.
The report argues that because women are likely to have less of everything – less income, less access to land and less education, and unequal protection under the law – they are disproportionately disadvantaged and not well prepared to survive or recover from a crisis. Incidences of gender-based violence soar during and after a crisis, and rape is often used as a weapon of war. Extreme hardship can also push some women into sex work and make them vulnerable to trafficking.
Funding for sexual and reproductive healthcare in humanitarian settings has increased since 2002, but only 43% of the need was met between that year and 2013.
Earlier this year, research published by the Inter Agency Working Group (IAWG) on reproductive health in crises showed that between 2002 and 2013, the total funding request for reproductive healthcare was $4.72bn, of which just $2.03bn was received. The biggest shortfall in funding was for family planning services and abortion care. Only 14% of funding appeals for reproductive health services in humanitarian emergencies include provisions for family planning, while fewer than 1% of appeals ask for money for abortion services. Emergency contraception was provided at fewer than half of the facilities assessed by researchers between 2012 and 2014, and clinical care for rape survivors was deemed inadequate in most humanitarian settings.
The UNFPA report says that for every $1 spent on contraceptive services, a saving of between $1.70 and $4 is made in meeting maternal and newborn healthcare costs. The agency, which in 2015 has responded to crises in 38 countries, says it has received less than half the money it needs to carry out its work.
Photo courtesy of: Ton Koene/Alamy