Opening Statement at the Conference on SRHR in Humanitarian Crisis on 4 February 2016

Offentliggjort den 5. februar 2016

Executive Director of UNFPA, Babatunde Osotimehin recently said that “The health and rights of women and adolescents should not be treated like an afterthought in humanitarian response.”

This statement is of course true but for me it says so much more than a single thought. It says, that;

  • Right now, in many circumstances, we are failing to protect the fundamental human rights of women and girls.
  • Crimes against women and girls are often silent and don’t receive the focus and prioritization that they warrant.
  • Women and girls of child bearing age (between 15 and 49) made up about 25% of the more than 100 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2015.
  • Women and girls in need of aid because of conflict or disaster and without the protection of family and community are more vulnerable to sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
  • We must recognise that for a woman who is about to give birth, or the adolescent girl who survived sexual violence, life-saving services are as vital as water, food and shelter.
  • Our current protection and response strategies must include the needs of this large and vulnerable group.

So, I would sincerely like to thank the organisers; International Planned Parenthood Federation, The Danish Family Planning Association, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the All Party Parliamentary Group on sexual and reproductive health and rights for organising this important conference – Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Humanitarian Crisis.

This conference confirms that in the global community there is a promising and strengthened focus on this complex issue. War, instability, epidemics and disasters have left a long trail of chaos and destruction resulting in, the need for humanitarian aid being significantly outweighed by the growth in funding and services.

We need to ensure that humanitarian action includes recognition of the needs and vulnerabilities of this majority group and that protection is always at the core of humanitarian action.

In many parts of the world, even under normal conditions, reproductive health issues are a leading cause of death and illness among women of childbearing age. The majority of these deaths and disabilities are preventable and unnecessary and result from the lack of access to services and information. 

We are talking about 800 women who die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth, everyday.  Of these 800 tragedies, 507 of them occur in emergency situations.

Crises and humanitarian settings account for 60 % of all preventable maternal deaths in the world. In fact, in 2014, WHO documented that the 10 countries with the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world are affected by, or emerging from, war. The death of a mother very often means that newborn babies – or small children – are left behind and who, without their prime care-giver are more likely to die themselves.   And the statistics tell the same story; Crises account for 53 % of deaths of children under-five, and 45% of neonatal deaths.

Many complex circumstances and urgent needs arise when a crises strikes.  Health care services, skilled birth attendance and emergency obstetric care often become unavailable.

And women face other threats as well. The absence of health services and other factors increase the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. And the breakdown of protection systems often leads to a rise in gender-based violence. This includes; rape and sexual assault, human trafficking, domestic violence and early and forced marriage.

As a result of the prolonged Syrian crisis; The Danish Refugee Council have witnessed that the depletion of refugees resources, poverty and debt is resulting in negative coping mechanisms;

  • A critical and dangerous trend is the resort to child labor. Not only are children working in dangerous and exploitative conditions, they are also much less likely to attend school.
  • Another negative coping mechanism is early and forced marriage. DRC has witnessed that the difficult financial situation of Syrian families is encouraging early and forced marriage as girls become the financial burden of their husbands upon marriage.
  • Gender based violence is also prominent.  Syrian refugee women are in a critical situation as many have lost their husbands and other male relatives in the war, or the husband is still in Syria or elsewhere. This can leave the women and female-headed refugee households fearing for their safety, exposed to GBV and restricted in their movements, which again impacts their ability to access health facilities and employment opportunities.

Wherever a humanitarian disaster occurs, the burden of care women assume for children and others can make it difficult for them to take proper care of themselves. Women may or often do neglect their own needs as they care for their families and neighbors.

Over the last many years, as patron of UNFPA, and the Danish Refugee Council, I have visited a number of camps for refugees and internally displaced people. 

Different countries, different camps and different reasons for their existence – from Dadaab in Kenya, to Za’atari in Jordan to Say Tha Mar in Myanmar and Tierkidi in Ethiopia.

These visits had left a strong impression on me – and while it is truly distressing to witness the often extremely difficult circumstances under which they live…they exist. At the same time, I cannot be anything but, enormously impressed by the courage, skills and ingenuity of the women and girls I have met.

I would like to name two interventions that, for these women and girls, had a significant impact on their lives.

  • In the Za’atari camp, I spoke with a couple of heavily pregnant women.  They were already mothers and therefore knew all too well the risks associated with childbirth. In Syria, they had given birth in a hospital with their own gynecologist and midwife.

    For them, the presence of UNFPA’s reproductive health unit turned their fear and the potential risk associated with giving birth into thankfulness and hope.  Today, UNFPA is delivering a larger share of its reproductive health services in crisis settings.
  • In Tierkidi, I witnessed the distribution of UNFPAs ‘dignity kits’.  These kits contain menstrual pads, soap, underwear, as well as other supplies required by circumstances or cultural contexts.   The importance of these kits are not just for their own dignity (as they themselves describe them), they also provided relief.  Relief that for example during their menstruation they could continue to move about and provide (water and food) for their children.  Here we must remember the culture sensitivities and how they affect women.

Experience shows that in crisis women and girls are not only victims.  They can also be leaders and they constitute an important resource to combat the challenges they face. 

Traditional gender roles often change during such situations where it becomes necessary for women and girls to take on unconventional responsibilities and activities. 

I have personally witnessed; how women are capable of finding innovative ways to cope, how they assume a role to protect and support their families and how they often continue to play pivotal roles in contributing to their local surroundings.  We must continue and increase support of this valuable resource.

So even though women and girls are extremely vulnerable in humanitarian crisis and have particular protection needs, they are also a resource to be utilized.

Whether women live or die in a crisis often depends on whether they can access basic sexual and reproductive health services, which too often takes a back seat to other urgent needs, like food and shelter.

We need to build a better and more durable shelter. This includes humanitarian responses that go far beyond the provision of food and shelter, as essential as those things are, and include reproductive health and family planning services and protection against gender based violence.

In 2016 the World Humanitarian Summit will convene, where stakeholders within humanitarian assistance will discuss how to improve the response to the needs of millions of people affected by conflict and disasters.

This Summit is an opportunity to highlight sexual and reproductive health services as an important element of all humanitarian responses.

Women and girls vulnerability to crisis is not a sign of weakness but, of inequality. Women and girls are powerful. If their needs are met and rights protected; they can become the catalyst of change; from the rubble of a crisis to the development, resilience and stability of their families, communities and nations.

Women and girls as an afterthought won’t do.

Thank you.