6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

State of World Population 2015 - 'Shelter From the Storm: A Transformative Agenda for Women and Girls in a Crisis-Prone World' (Report Launch)

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

The sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls must be protected, even – especially – during “the toughest of times, in the hardest of places,” said Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), at the Wilson Center on December 3.

More than 100 million people today require humanitarian aid because of natural disasters and violence, more than at any time since World War II. About one-quarter of these people are women of reproductive age. Wars, earthquakes, epidemics, droughts, and other disasters – exacerbated by the effects of climate change – are putting ever more people at risk.

This year’s State of World Population report from UNFPA, Shelter From the Storm: A Transformative Agenda for Women and Girls in a Crisis-Prone World, launched at the Wilson Center, urges governments and NGOs to protect women and girls during times of upheaval.

Gilmore and a panel of experts explained how providing contraception, pregnancy care, protection from gender-based violence, and other reproductive health services not only promotes health and saves lives, it empowers women and adolescent girls to be transformative forces in their communities.

Gilmore and other speakers said donor nations and humanitarian aid organizations can foster this process by shifting from a short-term focus on crisis response to the longer-term goals of recovery and resilience.

Growing Need for Assistance

“So many more countries [today] are considered fragile and are dealing with the before, during, and after of conflict and disaster,” said Jesse Rattan of the non-profit CARE.

An estimated 1.5 billion people live in crisis-prone regions, Gilmore explained, in countries beset by violence and lacking the infrastructure and institutions needed to respond to natural or human-caused disasters.

Women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable in these situations. In many settings, women are already socially and economically disadvantaged. “Before the war, before the natural disaster, the situation for women and girls where we routinely work is a state of emergency unto itself,” said Omar Robles of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a non-profit advocacy organization.

During the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, women were much more likely to die than men. Often they could not swim, climb a tree, or run fast enough to escape danger, Gilmore explained.

In the aftermath of conflicts and natural disasters, displaced female survivors often lose the protection of their homes and communities, and may face rape, sexually transmitted infections and high-risk or unwanted pregnancies. Some girls are forced or encouraged to marry while very young.

Though not common in Syria itself, child marriage among Syrian refugees has become a strategy to protect young daughters from harm, preserve the family’s honor, and reduce their financial burden, said Meighan Stone of the Malala Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to girls’ education.

Stone relayed a story about Malak, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan who was about to enter into an arranged marriage. After she and her parents went to a UNPFA-funded clinic and learned about the many benefits of delaying marriage, her parents broke off the engagement. Now Malak has the chance to finish school and pursue her dream of becoming a police officer.

A Human Rights Commitment

Protecting and meeting the needs of women and girls during humanitarian crises is a moral obligation, rooted in the commitment to ensure basic human rights, Gilmore said. “Disaster may derail, but never erase these rights,” she said.

Ensuring sexual and reproductive rights is also an investment in the “human capital of the adolescent girl,” Gilmore said, a point echoed by other speakers. When girls are assured these rights, they are more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, which leads to better health and higher living standards for their families. Furthermore, empowered, educated women and girls are more likely to participate in and contribute to the development of their communities.

Engaging women in development efforts and shifting the focus of humanitarian aid from crisis response to recovery and resilience can “lay the foundations for long-term development, which in turn can provide community-changing benefits, enabling individuals, institutions, and communities to withstand crisis and help accelerate recovery,” said Margaret Pollack of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The language of reproductive health – though unfortunately not sexual rights – is embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals, which are meant to guide global aid until 2030.

There have been significant advances in delivering sexual and reproductive health services in crisis-affected areas over the past 20 years, said Jeremy Konyndyk of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Aid for victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal included efforts to protect displaced women from sex trafficking, for example.

Yet the goal of providing comprehensive services for “every woman, every girl, everywhere” has not been realized, said Rattan.

Need for Leadership, Coordination, Self-Reflection

Insufficient funding and resources are a constant problem, said Gilmore. Official humanitarian and development aid is “a drop in the bucket” compared with other government expenditures, she said.

She also decried a lack of leadership on these issues. Governments often do not contribute the full amount promised for disaster relief, said Stone. Unfulfilled donor commitmentsintended for Syrian refugees have left aid organizations short of millions of dollars. Shortfalls in promised support were also a major problem after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Konyndyk said.

Involving community leaders is crucial for successful programs, Rattan said, noting that CARE enlists police, the military, and religious leaders as well as health providers in their projects.

Aid organizations can also look inward to find ways to be more effective. Robles said after reading the State of World Population report he asked himself, “How am I in the way? What can I do to catalyze these shifts?”

Rattan said that sometimes aid organizations need to let go of assumptions about who might be an adversary and give people the chance to embrace, or at least accept, the importance of sexual and reproductive health.

In Chad, disgruntled husbands went to the police to complain that their wives were visiting CARE-supported family planning clinics without their permission. But once husbands learned that their wives had a legal right to seek care and what family planning really was, they became allies, Rattan said. Governments and providers are often “ready and willing” to support sexual and reproductive health and rights programs when they understand them, she said.

Humanitarian organizations can also cooperate more closely with each other, Stone said. Whether opening schools, as the Malala Fund does, or delivering family planning services and education, as UNFPA does, they are often working toward a common goal, sometimes with the same girls.

Gilmore and others said the humanitarian community has much to celebrate: Care for women and girls has improved significantly over the past two decades. But the expanding population at risk adds urgency to their work.

To “get beyond business as usual,” Robles said, we need more action, with a focus on proven strategies. Gilmore noted that real change will not come from the elites, because “power will not let go of power.” Long-lasting, sustainable change has always come from the people who are excluded. Ensuring the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls enables such change.

Event Resources:

 

Mary Mederios Kent, formerly with the Population Reference Bureau, is an editor and writer on population and health issues and freelancer for the Environmental Change and Security Program. 

Photo Credit: Mother and child at Thea Chaung camp in Myanmar, December 2012, courtesy of David Ohana/UN Photo.

Speakers

  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Kate Gilmore

    Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund
  • Jeremy Konyndyk

    Director, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Margaret Pollack

    Director for Multilateral Coordination and External Relations and Senior Advisor on Population Issues, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Department of State
  • Jesse Rattan

    Director, SAF-PAC Initiative, Sexual, Reproductive, and Maternal Health Team, CARE
  • Omar J. Robles

    Women’s Refugee Commission
  • Meighan Stone

    President, The Malala Fund