When time won’t wait: New report outlines women’s sexual and reproductive health in times of conflict and disaster

Sapana Suwal, 25, with her children in a shelter for earthquake survivors, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Sapana Suwal, 25, with her children in a shelter for earthquake survivors, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Yesterday our friends at UNFPA released their annual State of the World Population report. “Shelter from the Storm” focuses on women and girls in areas affected by natural disasters, conflict, and displacement. It’s the right time, too, given that there are more people displaced today than any time since the Second World War. And of the 100 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, over a quarter are women and adolescent girls of reproductive age. While sexual and reproductive health services are increasingly included in humanitarian efforts, serious gaps remain and this report outlines action steps to address those gaps.

Three in five preventable maternal deaths and 45% of neonatal deaths occur in areas of conflict, displacement, or natural disaster. More than 500 women die daily from pregnancy or childbirth complications in emergency and fragile situations. Unfortunately, these crises are on the rise.

Controlling for population growth, the likelihood of being displaced by a natural disaster today is 60 per cent higher than it was four decades ago, and there has been a two fold increase in the number natural disasters between 1980 to present. Events like earthquakes, floods, droughts, and epidemics affect an average of 200 million people annually, taking 67,500 lives a year (on average). Civil conflict is also spreading, and today nearly 1 billion people live in areas of conflict.

The report also outlines the troubling relationship between women’s sexual and reproductive health and state fragility. More fragile states are, of course, less likely to meet family planning needs or have births attended by skilled health personnel. They also tend to have higher adolescent birth rates. These crises and fragile states also increase instances of gender-based violence, putting women and adolescent girls at greater risk of rape, intimate partner violence, early marriage, forced pregnancy, and trafficking.

The UNFPA report presents tactics to make sexual and reproductive health a greater priority in humanitarian interventions, as well as the agency’s transformative vision for risk reduction and resilience. For example, UNFPA in Nigeria has reached over 2 million people with an awareness campaign about preventing and responding to gender-based violence. They’ve also assisted women for safe deliveries by training midwives and health care providers, and providing safe delivery kits. UNFPA’s diverse tactics range from immediate assistance, to restoring access to family planning and reproductive health services after disasters, to longer term education and development programs that build resilient communities before disaster strikes.

We totally agree with UNFPA’s wise assessment: “the distinction between humanitarian response and development today is a false one … Humanitarian action can lay the foundations for long-term development” that is inclusive and equitable.