NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Indian government and the United Nations on Tuesday unveiled new guidelines on how to deal with the reproductive and sexual healthcare needs of girls and women when a disaster strikes.
The guidelines spelled out in a 223-page manual are designed to help humanitarian workers reduce sexual violence, HIV transmission and maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality.
"When a disaster strikes, although the first concern is survival, other essential needs do not disappear. Women have unique health concerns, from hygiene to life-threatening complications related to pregnancy and childbirth," said Frederika Meijer, country director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
"The integration of sexual and reproductive health in disaster preparedness and response is a priority at all levels," she said at the launch of the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP).
India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world with large chunks of its 1.2 billion population living in areas vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes.
Experts say in such situations, adolescent girls and women face a plethora of challenges -- from a lack of sanitary towels during menstruation to sexual violence in relief camps and poor healthcare delivery for expectant mothers.
As a result, maternal and infant mortality rates, infectious diseases due to a lack of adequate sanitation, sexual exploitation, rape and unsafe abortions tend to increase in the chaos which ensues after a humanitarian disaster.
STERILISED DELIVERY KITS
In the aftermath of a disaster, four percent of the displaced population is pregnant, of which 15 percent of women experience obstetric complications which could lead to death, says the UNFPA.
The MISP, designed by the UNFPA and India's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), focuses on services for expectant mothers such as the provision of gynaecologists and obstetricians, trained midwives and sterilised delivery kits.
It also addresses gender-based violence setting out a provision for medical and psychological care for victims of domestic, physical or sexual violence.
The MISP recommends access to contraceptives, such as condoms and pills, for family planning as treatment for sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and the provision of anti-retroviral medicines for treatment.
Since 2001, India has been jolted by around seven severe earthquakes which have killed some 25,000 people in states ranging from Gujarat in the west to Kashmir in the north.
Floods are also an annual occurrence, often disrupting the lives of millions of people. In 2008, floods in the eastern state of Bihar killed more than 500 people.
While an international standard for dealing with sexual and reproductive health exists as outlined in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter, India is one of the first countries in Asia to adapt it to fit its own particular context.
"In the coming years, I am very confident that the MISP will become an integral part of disaster management planning in India, starting in the national capital down to the district level," said Shashidhar Reddy, the NDMA's vice chairperson.
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