In the last month, over 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh as a result of the Myanmar government’s scorched earth tactics, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, and use of rape and sexual violence. The long overdue spotlight on Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar underscores a key humanitarian issue in terms of protection and needs: the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 67 percent of Rohingya refugees are women and girls, and 13 percent of them are pregnant or breastfeeding, some giving birth and children dying during the perilous border crossing.
As UN agencies call upon the international community for an urgent response to the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya, donor governments must step up to support those who are disproportionately affected by emergencies—women and girls. Globally, of the more than 100 million people reportedly in need of humanitarian assistance in 2015, an estimated 26 million are women and girls of reproductive age living in emergency situations. The same impact is true for those fleeing abuse in Myanmar.
Women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights are not any less valid in emergencies. In fact, protection and health access needs increase as women and girls in humanitarian settings often face high maternal mortality and are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion and abuse. With the heightened risks of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation, adolescent girls in particular risk trafficking; transactional sex for survival; early and forced marriage; and sexual assault. However, funding and support for sexual and reproductive health is still a relatively low priority during humanitarian response. Between 2002 and 2013, unmet funding requirements for reproductive health in emergencies amounted to $2.68 billion of $4.72 billion in requested funding.
The majority of new Rohingya arrivals in Bangladesh are living in UNHCR-registered camps, as well as in makeshift settlements or among the local host community. Many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were already living in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. UNFPA, the principal multilateral organization working to advance family planning and reproductive health around the world, is currently seeking $13 million to provide life-saving reproductive health care and services for women and girls—including for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. But the agency faces an uphill battle. Just this June, it was already urgently seeking $1.5 million for emergency reproductive health services for women, girls and newborns impacted by Cyclone Mora, which affected 500,000 people in Bangladesh and Myanmar. And while Bangladesh has made important strides in family planning access and reproductive health, the most recent influx of refugees and their urgent medical needs have overwhelmed local administrations and aid agencies alike.
Against this backdrop, the policies of the Trump-Pence administration have created voids in international development assistance, especially in regards to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. In addition to the implementation of Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule, the administration made the politically-motivated decision to cut off all funding to UNFPA, including vital humanitarian funding. In 2016, the U.S. was the agency’s fourth largest donor with respect to humanitarian funding—this support was critical considering only about half of UNFPA’s $312 million humanitarian funding request was met. U.S. funding cuts will be catastrophic for vulnerable women, including those in emergency settings, who will suffer most from the administration’s politics.
Two years ago, the international community came together to make commitments to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), pledging to “leave no one behind” in international development and addressing gaps related to health and gender. The SDGs were followed in 2016 by the first World Humanitarian Summit to initiate meaningful change for the world’s most vulnerable people. A year ago last week at the 2016 UN General Assembly (UNGA), governments were then making new commitments for a coordinated and humane approach to refugees and migrants. One hopes that with this year’s agenda of “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet,” and the current context, governments will address the interrelated crises of health, displacement and women’s rights.
Global leaders and dignitaries must do more than give lip service to the rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations, particularly in light of waning U.S. leadership on global health and women’s rights. Unfortunately, the Rohingya crisis is one of many examples of emergencies worldwide where unprecedented levels of displacement and ongoing conflicts are devastating entire populations. To achieve the vision of the SDGs and UNGA’s latest commitments to peace and a decent life for all, it is imperative to address improved access to health and well-being in emergencies, which cannot be done without focusing on the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and children.