Since August 2017, Burmese security forces have been carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state. The majority of Rohingya’s have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, and as of last month, the estimated population of the Rohingya camps passed 1 million.
The highly populated camp of Cox’s Bazar is incredibly cramped with poor sanitary conditions (327 persons sharing one toilet) and high prevalence of various infectious diseases. Amongst the rise of infectious diseases is the rise of another crisis amongst Rohingya women – pregnancy resulting from rape and sexual violence. Approximately 60 babies are born each day in Rohingya camps, and 64,000 women are currently pregnant. Despite the hard work of non-profits such as Hope Foundation for Bangladesh who are providing medical care to women and children in Cox’s Bazar, there are huge fears of rising maternal and neonatal mortality rates due to unsanitary conditions, lack of basic obstetrical care, and inadequate access to healthcare professionals. As a way to curb maternal mortality and protect women from pregnancy as a result of rape and sexual assault, the UNFPA just announced it will supply long-acting reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices and implants for Rohingya refugees. This is a huge step forward to protect the health and human rights of girls and women.
The crisis Rohingya women are facing have been seen in many other humanitarian and conflict settings, and can currently be seen in other parts of the world. 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced as a result of violence, conflict and persecution. A major reason as to why women suffer the consequences of rape and complications of childbirth in these settings is because limited attention is given to family planning. In 2015, the Inter-agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises carried out a ten year global evaluation of reproductive health in humanitarian settings. Of the funding that was allocated to reproductive healthcare, only 14.9% went to family planning.
Part of the issue is the model of humanitarian assistance being seen as providing immediate relief in emergencies only. However, even if the length of active humanitarian crises may be short, the displacement of citizens and time spent in camps can be months to years long. The average time spent in displacement is 20 years. Women and girls in particular are disproportionally affected by crises and displacement due to sexual and reproductive health risks. Access to family planning is therefore a necessary part of humanitarian aid. When health systems are destroyed as a result of conflict and disaster, humanitarian aid has to protect people from harm and provide preventive care. Contraception does just this – it protects women from pregnancies that can go wrong and cannot be saved by broken health systems.
Investment and access to family planning is one of the most effective ways to improve the health of women and children, reduce maternal mortality, promote sustainable development and alleviate poverty. Being displaced shouldn’t hinder women’s access to contraception. We may not be able to completely control the various human rights violations that occur against women and girls, but we should try to do as much as we can – providing family planning can at least give women some reproductive freedom and control over their bodies.
By Shreya Patel
John Owens, 2017
Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh
Comments will be approved before showing up.