This article is part of the Strife Series on Women and Children’s Health in Conflict. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
After a crisis, women face abuse in many shades and colours. Such abuse includes intimate partner violence, which is occurring at a shockingly high rate in many countries. Moreover, some women and girls who rely on aid are exposed to sexual exploitation by aid workers who withhold support until sexual demands are met. It is important to highlight that the mentioned types of abuse, and many others concerning health and safety of women, do not only affect individuals. They also have a long lasting impact on societies as numerous studies have shown that children growing up with violence are more likely to being abused or becoming abusers themselves in the future. Categorically, sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, trafficking for sexual exploitation, female infanticide, and ‘honour’ crimes remain common in many societies.
Working as a medical referrals’ coordinator for refugees, I still recall being struck by the number of underaged girls leaving school and getting married. Often before the age of 18, they endured numerous preventable health complications as a result of giving birth to their first, second and sometimes third child before they reached adulthood. And this problem did not end there, one woman I met had had more than 9 pregnancies before reaching the age of 35. This was because, as she told me while laying on her hospital bed, “a woman in her culture cannot say no to her husband”, and that hers “does not approve of using contraceptives or any family planning method”, even though she has been continuously warned that further pregnancies may jeopardise her own life.
These are just snapshots of many life stories that women and girls experience when they are deprived of access to basic services such as sexual and reproductive health. The inability to access such essential services puts women at a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, maternal mortality and morbidity, severe sexual and reproductive injuries, and contracting sexually transmitted infections. In addition, emergencies cause scarcity of basic feminine hygiene products, which causes girls to experience cultural shame. This, in turn, can negatively affect their mental health and exposes them to physical health risks as low menstrual hygiene has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections.
As the COVID-19 global pandemic further worsens the suffering of communities especially in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where many countries are already experiencing conflict or are undergoing post-conflict transitions, many organisations and governments have reported a dramatic increase in GBV. This increase can largely be attributed to factors such as disruption of social and protective networks and decreased access to services.
The risk of GBV was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic as many females were trapped in long lockdowns with their abusers. This put them at increased risk of various types of abuse, while isolating them from access to support systems. Simultaneously, governmental support was reduced as resources were diverted to the enforcement of Covid-19 measures and precautions. This has meant that law enforcement is stretched thin and is unable to address reports of GBV in a timely manner. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean Region Office’s (EMRO) initial information from two countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, reported an increase of 50-60% in cases of violence against women, based on survivors’ calls for help to women’s organisations’ hotlines.
Even though many international and local organisations are working on issues related to women and girls, as one of the most vulnerable groups in post-conflict and emergency settings, I believe that there is still a very long road to go in order to achieve protection and meet women and girl’s needs. In order to alleviate suffering, UN organisations need to advocate for ending sexual violence against women and meeting the needs of women and girls, through raising awareness, increasing accessibility to healthcare including sexual and reproductive health services, and enforcing regulations that serve and protect females.
To support that, I believe that governmental and non-governmental organisations should prioritise including women in planning for and responding to emergencies, ensuring they are active participants in both formal and informal processes. The inclusion of women will shift the situation from women and girls being perceived solely as vulnerable or as victims, to being able to plan for and support their own needs. Many organizations supporting women’s involvement state that women are often strong influencers and dynamic leaders of change. Empowering women to participate in decision making ensures that women and girls’ issues are prioritised in any formal actions and, I believe, would be a major step towards better serving the needs of women and girls. As a woman who has studied and worked in emergency management, I believe that women in decision-making positions are able to give back a voice to those females who need it the most.