Sexual and reproductive health: An essential element of disaster preparedness and response

Wednesday, 18 March 2015 16:18 GMT

People rummaged through what was left of their houses, looking for some belongings they could still salvage. © UNICEF Pacific.https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When Tropical Cyclone Pam slammed into the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu on Friday last week, an untold number of people were killed, and many thousands more displaced. Based on past experience, it is likely that significantly more women than men will have died. For example, in the 2004 Asian tsunami, nearly four women died for every man.

This tragedy befell Vanuatu as the world prepared for the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. The sobering devastation of Vanuatu reminds us of why emergency and disaster risk management require our increased attention at a global level.

The critical role of women in disaster risk reduction – in planning and decision-making – has been widely recognized by the humanitarian community. However, the importance of sexual and reproductive health has been largely overlooked. Continued inaction is unconscionable since lack of access to reproductive health care is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.

According to a report released on Thursday by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the risk of being displaced by natural disasters has quadrupled in the last four decades. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, with regard to both the immediate loss of life and the long-term consequences. Discrimination before a crisis undermines women's economic and social status, which limits their survival skills and their ability to receive warnings and stay out of harm's way. In the wake of disasters, women face increased risks of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, leading to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortion and sexually transmitted infections.

Lives can be saved by preparing, which includes providing reproductive health services before, during and after emergencies. In 2010, in recognition of the critical need to address sexual and reproductive health in disasters, an interagency reproductive health working group was established and is facilitated by the Women’s Refugee Commission. We are currently finalizing a national monitoring and action planning tool.

At a public forum in Sendai, the Women's Refugee Commission highlighted the need to strengthen community resilience and community-centered disaster risk management, including the critical need to include sexual and reproductive health. We can only hope that tragedies such as those experienced by the people of Vanuatu will underscore the reality that this work can no longer wait.   

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The Women's Refugee Commission has been a leader in the move to incorporate SRH into DRR.

  • We have supported the training of health providers in the Minimum Initial Services Package (MISP) of Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations, an international standard of care. 
  • We recently published Community Preparedness: Reproductive Health and Gender. Developed in collaboration with UNFPA and local partners in the Philippines, this facilitator’s kit includes everything needed for a three-day workshop on building local capacity to address SRH needs in disasters. It is available in English and Filipino.