By: Rebecca Dennis and Allison Doody
Currently, there are over 65 million forcibly displaced persons in the world, including refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people – the highest since World War II. Women and girls make up nearly half of these refugees and they are the most vulnerable to the consequences of displacement: they are at higher risk for forced marriage and sexual exploitation and violence; and they often lack access to basic health services including reproductive health care.
Both the United Nations and President Obama recognized the need to develop a plan to meet the needs of all refugees and migrants, and this week two summits are focused on just that. On September 19, the United Nations General Assembly hosted a High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants. President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees occurred yesterday. While both summits attempted to respond to the global refugee crisis, the two differ on substance—especially when it comes to the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) of women and girls and gender more broadly.
A Promising Start, but Recognition of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Refugees and Migrants Still Incomplete
The United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants agreed to a political declaration that puts forward a set of commitments from member states to address large movements of refugees and migrants. The commitments address a wide variety of issues from border control procedures to providing health care services to refugees and migrants, and many commitments are grounded in protecting and respecting human rights. While specifically recognizing the increased vulnerabilities of women and girls, member states commit to ensuring that humanitarian responses will promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. They aim to mainstream gender, combat sexual and gender-based violence, and ensure that women and girls will be meaningfully involved in the development of solutions. This gives women and girls a voice in the process and ensures that programs reflect the real obstacles they face.
There are multiple commitments to ensure access to health care services; however, access to sexual and reproductive health services is only included once and it not explicitly mentioned as part of essential health care services for women and girls. It is critical that these commitments are included because the needs of women and girls are often neglected in emergencies and the response. By including issues like SRH in this political declaration on refugees and migrants, it increases the likelihood that, moving forward, these issues will be prioritized.
However, the commitments and framework laid out as part of the High-Level Meeting represent a good starting point. Both have helped draw attention to the needs of refugees and migrants, but now these commitments must be met. Civil society, including women-led and refugee and migrant organizations, need to be included in the development of implementation plans, and the funding gap for the humanitarian response must be closed. While these commitments are far from perfect, they are more comprehensive and, at the very least, recognize that ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health care for migrants and refugees is an important component of the humanitarian response.
A Failing Grade for Leaders’ Summit on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
While issues of gender and health figured into the discussions and declarations at the High-Level Meeting, they failed to make it onto the agenda for the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. The President’s summit—a gathering that brought together 52 world leaders and international organizations willing to commit to more tangible outcomes like pledging financial resources and policy changes—focused on increasing funding for relief activities, improving efforts to legally admit and resettle refugees, and improve the quality of and access to education and livelihoods. While these commitments will undoubtedly have significant benefits for women and girls, little attention was paid to the specific, unique needs of this population, and sexual and reproductive health and rights appear to have been absent from the conversation.
This omission suggests a lack of understanding of the reality of women’s and girls’ lives in humanitarian crises. Like in other settings, female refugees have complex, often deeply interconnected needs, which cannot be effectively addressed by looking only at one component. For example, for many women and girls, the opportunity to engage in the types of livelihood and educational activities promoted by the summit may be dependent on their ability to plan their pregnancies and access maternal health services, to freely choose when and whom they marry or to have concerns around gender-based violence in their communities be addressed.
The lack of discussion on and holistic approach to gender issues at this summit is surprising coming from an administration that has often championed these issues.
Earlier this year at the World Humanitarian Summit, the U.S.’ stated priorities included “reduce the impact of conflict on civilians, with special attention to the impact on women and girls,” and government made renewed commitments to the Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies. The United States has also just recently released updated national strategies covering issues such as women, peace and security and gender-based violence, as well as a new strategy on the empowerment of adolescent girls—all of which recognize the importance of access to health services, including sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian situations. The lack of acknowledgment of these issues at the summit seems out of line with these foreign policy goals and objectives.
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Must be Mainstreamed as Life-Saving Interventions
The disparate approaches of the summits to addressing the needs of women and girls in crises highlights how far we’ve come and how much work there is left to do. The explicit inclusion of gender in high-level discussions is no longer remarkable, but remains inconsistent—sometimes taking priority, sometimes being mainstreamed into other issues, and at other times overlooked entirely.
The situation is even starker, however, when it comes to sexual and reproductive health, which is too often still not given the priority of a life-saving intervention. This means SRH care can make it into one part of a declaration on refugees, but is entirely absent from another summit the same week, led by an administration that at other times has recognized the importance of these interventions.
To resolve this discrepancy and ensure that women and girls are always on the agenda, as are their sexual and reproductive health and rights, governments, UN agencies and members of civil society will all need to continue to work together. Those who are forcibly displaced must be treated with dignity and respect, and their human rights must be respected and protected.