On July 11th, we recognize World Population Day – a day to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues. This year’s theme, Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies, is one of critical importance as the rights of girls and women are affected most in emergency settings. Take a disaster triggered by climate change as an example. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a household survey from Oxfam in Aceh, Indonesia, found that up to four women died for every male in the most affected areas. In some villages, all of the deceased were women. Why? In Aceh, girls and women often not encouraged or taught to swim or climb trees. They also spend majority of time in the home caring for children – homes vulnerably positioned near the shoreline.
Girls and women are also more susceptible to gender-based violence in emergency settings where feelings of stress and powerless can lead increased physical and sexual violence, and exploitation. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, rape was reported as an epidemic that followed as girls as women were displaced and left vulnerable to attack.
While the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women are a pressing concern globally, that concern is heightened during an emergency. Rather than waiting until a disaster strikes, the health and rights of girls and women must be addressed now, especially as the world is currently solidifying a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and policies over the next 15 years.
Half of the world’s current population –over 3.5 billion – is under 30 years of age. While their lives differ across regions and countries, young people share basic human rights, including those pertaining to sexual and reproductive health. Adolescents need information and services to support healthy decision-making related to sexuality and reproduction, and before an emergency occurs. Ensuring access to such education and services before an emergency could help to inform and empower girls, especially when placed in an even more vulnerable setting.
Many barriers prevent young people from obtaining comprehensive information and quality services, such as limited access to education, poor education attendance due to unintended pregnancy, and weak heath care infrastructure. Yet it is the comprehensive sexual and reproductive education that is essential for young people to be aware of the respect and rights due to them as humans. To this end, scientific evidence on the sexual and reproductive knowledge, attitudes, and health of young people can strengthen the work of health care providers, educators, disaster relief providers, and advocates working to improve the lives of girls and women. Working together to provide that evidence is Guttmacher Institute and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who have a long history working together to increase public awareness about sexual and reproductive health issues.
In 2013, the organizations released Demystifying Data: A Guide to Using Evidence to Improve Young People’s Sexual Health and Rights, a publication designed to provide and contextualize a wealth of data on adolescent sexual health and rights in 30 countries, as well as provide guidance on how to apply the data to advocacy, education and service efforts. The guide was designed to be a resource for youth advocates, sexuality educators and service providers as well as others working to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people around the world. By providing demographic and socioeconomic information about young people, as well as measures of their access to, need for, and use of sexual and reproductive health information and services, policymakers and decision-makers can clearly see the evidence for effective design policies and programs to meet young people’s needs for sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Recently, the organizations shared new infographics for advocates and educators to “know the data” and “use the numbers”. Together, the guide and infographics will allow those working with young people to bring about much-needed changes, such as provision of comprehensive sexuality education; increased access to sexual and reproductive health services; improved policies to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people; and increased understanding of where the need is greatest in order to focus efforts on the most vulnerable young people.
Demystifying Data is comprised of three core chapters which highlight 70 key indicators on issues such as sexual activity and marriage; contraceptive knowledge, use and need; childbearing; sexuality education in schools; adolescents’ ability to advocate for and ensure their own sexual health; and societal norms and gender equality. By ensuring girls and women are educated in such issues, and equipping them with the tools and services to lead safe and healthy lives, we are protecting them even more if and when an emergency or disaster strikes. Consider a pregnant woman in Nepal.
In April 2015, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing over 3,400 people. Hospitals were overcrowded and injured people were displaced and even treated in the streets.
“In times of upheaval or natural disasters, pregnancy-related deaths and gender-based violence soar,” said Priya Marwah, UNFPA’s humanitarian response coordinator in Asia and the Pacific. “Many women lose access to essential reproductive health services and give birth in appalling conditions without access to safe delivery services and lifesaving care.”
In response to Nepal’s earthquake, the United Nations Population Fund coordinated with the government and humanitarian relief to deploy reproductive health kits, as well as emergency staff to assist in the protection of girls and women. We must, however, protect girls and women and ensure access to full health services, including sexual and reproductive health, before an emergency.
Thanks to guides like Demystifying Data, we can equip the world with the data to improve sexual and reproductive health and right, create better policies, and ensure a healthy and prosperous future for girls and women.