One of the most talked about issues at the International Conference on Family Planning was sexual and reproductive health in emergency situations, such as in conflict and displacement. Using the guidelines of the Minimum Initial Service Package (MSP), organizations and agencies working in emergencies offer comprehensive reproductive health services, including family planning, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, safe motherhood and prevention and response to gender based violence. They aim to provide girls and women with the resources for sexual and reproductive health in the most unstable, unpredictable and unsafe circumstances imaginable.
Representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explained that sometimes girls and women receiving these services are in healthy relationships, but often they are not. Most seek reproductive health services because they have been victims of sexual violence. Sarah Knaster of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crisis explained that existing gender inequalities are exacerbated in conflict and displacement. As systems of law and justice break down, rates of intimate partner violence, rape and incest increase. Families with adolescent daughters often marry them off because they believe that marriage will protect them from rape. Unaccompanied girls are targets for exploitation, and rape and abduction are used as tools of war. Even when girls and women remain physically safe, they are isolated during menstruation if they do not have access to pads.
Sarah explained that “family planning and related services are a life-saving, critical intervention in humanitarian settings.” These are not programs that can be eliminated with budget cuts, nor are these programs that can be postponed until the situation stabilizes. Sexual and reproductive health services must begin with displacement and continue until girls and women have alternative sources of quality services.
One of the reasons we see so much violence in emergencies is that it is an exacerbated norm. Violence against girls and women largely goes unpunished globally and crisis situations allow this norm to flourish. In order to stop sexual and gender based violence in emergencies, we need to stop it in times of peace and stability. At the same time, we need to support organizations working with girls and women to reduce the risks and work with survivors. Sexual and gender based violence is never acceptable, and it is also not inevitable. To end violence against girls and women, we have to make it intolerable in all places and under all circumstances.
Featured image: Sarah Knaster in front of the UNHCR tent at ICFP. Image by author.