Reproductive Health for Displaced Women

Anu Kumar is Executive Vice President for Ipas.

Last week, Andrea wrote an excellent post that pointed to the vulnerability of poor populations-particularly women-when natural disasters force them out of their homes. She reminded us not only to about the limp response of the international community that had just reached into their pockets for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. She also noted the hole in disaster relief: when communities around the world donate housing and supplies to the displaced, these "care packages" generally do not include reproductive health supplies.

I was particularly pleased to see this post because Ipas has just released the second issue of A … the abortion magazine, and our focus for this issue is reproductive health for refugees and displaced women. There are currently as many as 33 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world, 80 percent of whom are women and children. Within this group, 20 to 25 percent of the women of childbearing age (aged 15-45) are pregnant at any given time, and at least 15 percent will suffer complications from pregnancy and childbirth. The U.N. Population Fund estimates that 25-50 percent of all maternal deaths in these situations are the result of unsafe abortion.

In addition to the need for food, shelter and clean water, reproductive health services are crucial to women's survival in a crisis setting. Women in these conditions are at great risk for obstetric complications, sexual assault and sexually transmitted infections, as well as unsafe abortion. In spite of this long list of dangers, it was not until 1994 that reproductive health was explicitly included in the basic health package used by many relief agencies.

In this issue of A, Ipas examines the similar challenges women face around the world, whether in Guatemala, Darfur or on the Gulf Coast: lack of access to health services; lack of personal security; health problems caused by flight; and lack of social support networks.

Yes, even in the United States, women are not immune from these challenges. Ipas spoke with medical staff from Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas (PPHSET), who worked to ensure health care services for women displaced by the storm in Louisiana. In addition to getting health care centers back up and running, they were also fielding calls from relief agencies that didn't know how to deliver basic reproductive health care.

"They called asking for information about birth control, Pap smears, even [labor and] delivery," said PPHSET Clinical Services Director Dyann Santos.

That's right: if you are pregnant and fleeing a disaster in this country, you may well be on your own.

Click here to read more about how PPHSET responded, and how relief agencies around the world are meeting (or not) women's needs.

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