We know that conflicts and other emergencies can devastate health systems. Infrastructure is destroyed, supplies become limited, and providers flee, fearing for their safety. But what happens when conflict strikes a country with an already-fragile health care system, such as South Sudan?
When South Sudan gained independence on July 9th, 2011, it became one of the world’s poorest countries. Decades of civil war between Northern and Southern Sudan had taken their toll on development: there was virtually no health infrastructure or resources. The situation for women was particularly troubling. The new country had one of worlds the highest fertility rates at 7.5 children per woman, and one of the worst maternal mortality ratios with 730 women dying per 100,000 live births.
In December 2013, conflict broke out between fighters loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president. The renewed conflict has displaced more than 1.1 million people—the majority of them women, many of reproductive age—and has only worsened the health care situation. Already limited services have become nearly impossible to access in many areas. UNFPA estimates that this year more than 200,000 pregnant women will urgently need care and more than 30,000 are at risk of dying in childbirth. This is exactly why it’s so important that women in crises are able to access family planning services and prevent unintended pregnancies. However, in South Sudan, many women don’t even know that’s possible. Even before this conflict, they had not been able to access information or services.
UNFPA and other implementing organizations are working to educate women and families affected by the conflict about their options and provide them with contraceptive methods. They bring women together in refugee camps to learn about methods from community health workers as well as train young people in the camps to educate their peers on how to prevent pregnancy and protect themselves from HIV and other STDs.
However, despite recent appeals, funding for reproductive health programs to meet the need for services in South Sudan is still severely limited. Today, on World Refugee Day, it is crucial that we remember that comprehensive reproductive health services are life-saving and women and girls affected by conflict are worth the investment.