BANGKOK, 3 December 2015 — When the ground shook on April 25, 2015, in Nepal’s worst earthquake in almost a century, Ishwori Dangol’s life changed forever. Seven months pregnant at the time, she lost her seven-year-old son in the earthquake and feared for the life of her unborn child. Her home was destroyed, as was the nearby health facility. Across Nepal, tens of thousands of pregnant women like Ishwori were left with limited or no access to the health services they needed to deliver safely. Women and girls rendered homeless faced hardship in makeshift camps, with monsoon clouds looming on the horizon. The threat of sexual assault and other gender-based violence escalated in the wake of the disaster.
Scenarios like this are common in emergencies triggered by natural disasters, conflicts and protracted emergencies which are increasing in number and severity around the world, including across Asia and the Pacific.
Today the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, is issuing its annual State of World Population Report, “Shelter from the Storm”, calling for the urgent need to prioritise humanitarian response with a focus on women, girls and young people, the most vulnerable populations in emergencies.
Of the estimated 100 million people in need of humanitarian assistance around the world today, more than a quarter are women and adolescent girls in their childbearing years. 60 percent of maternal deaths occur in countries and territories considered fragile because of conflict or disaster, and more than 500 women die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth in these settings.
“Our region is home to more than 80 percent of the world’s disasters,” explains Yoriko Yasukawa, UNFPA Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “We also have long-running conflicts which further fuel the misery. Yet, humanitarian response often doesn’t match what’s needed to protect those affected. We also need to invest more in prevention and preparedness and promote inclusive development processes that advance gender equality and empower women and girls.”
In Asia and the Pacific, and globally, UNFPA is significantly stepping up its humanitarian efforts across a range of events such as Super Typhoon Haiyan of 2013 in the Philippines, Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in March this year, the Nepal earthquake barely a month later, and, more recently, the floods triggered by Cyclone Komen in Myanmar, Typhoon Koppu in the Philippines, and the fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants who attempted to seize Kunduz.
But even as UNFPA increases its involvement in humanitarian response, it, along with governments, other UN agencies and civil society partners, is finding it increasingly difficult to ensure that supply meets demand in a timely manner.
“There is a significant resource crunch,” notes Priya Marwah, UNFPA Humanitarian Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific. “2015 has been such a challenging year. Across the Asia-Pacific region, we remain largely underfunded to meet the minimal sexual and reproductive health and protection needs of women and adolescents in emergencies. This challenge is likely to intensify given the increasing number of crises around the world, and the limited resources available. .”
In response, UNFPA is calling for a new and holistic approach to humanitarian response -- one that emphasizes prevention, preparedness and resilience-building of countries, communities, institutions and individuals. The State of World Population report outlines the steps required to implement this approach, chief among them being inclusive development that protects rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – of women and girls, as well as the inclusion of young persons in humanitarian response, community development and peace-building.
Many of these steps are included in key recent protocols, such as the milestone 2015 Sendai Declaration, leading to next year’s World Humanitarian Summit whose outcomes should further strengthen existing frameworks. They are spelled out as well across the Sustainable Development Goals underpinning the 2030 Agenda which calls for ‘no one to be left behind’, including, in particular, women, girls and young persons, the populations that UNFPA provides a majority of its services for.
Ishwori Dangol of Nepal was one such beneficiary. She was referred to a reproductive health camp supported by UNFPA, one of almost 100 such camps set up in response to the earthquake. When Ishwori was examined by the camp doctor, she learnt that the fetus was in an abnormal position in her womb, posing a risk to the lives of both mother and baby. Fortunately, she could be looked after at the biggest health facility in a nearby district that was only partially damaged in the earthquake. In July, ten weeks after losing her first child in the disaster, Ishwori gave birth via cesarean section to a healthy baby boy.
“Not all stories have happy endings, of course,” concludes Yasukawa. “But with truly sustainable and inclusive development processes that ensure conditions for a life of dignity for all people, in all spheres of life – the economic, the social, the environmental, and the way we govern ourselves and live together as societies -- we can reduce the number and severity of crises. We can also ensure better outcomes for our fellow human beings affected by emergencies, and truly strengthen our shelter from the storm.”