Reproductive Health Care: A Human Right
Originally Published: May 27, 2011
Revised: September 5, 2012
Every year, millions of people around the world are forced to leave their homes due to a crisis, like a natural disaster or war. Often, people displaced by a crisis—including teens and children—end up in refugee camps where resources are limited.
Does a girl who lost her parents in an earthquake have anyone to go to when she gets her first period? Where does a boy turn if he is raped or sexually assaulted during a war? While most humanitarian groups work to provide food, shelter and water—reproductive health care is often forgotten about.
Reproductive Health Care in a Crisis
When a crisis happens—like the earthquake that shook Haiti in January 2010—families, schools, hospitals and governments, which normally protect and care for people, fall apart. Without these social structures and institutions, rape increases and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), like HIV, spread more rapidly.
To find out what kind of reproductive care people need in a crisis, I reached out to two people who work in crisis-affected areas.
While most humanitarian groups work to provide food, shelter and water—reproductive health care is often forgotten about.
Thirty-year-old Rose T. Michael works in southern Sudan, a country that has been engaged in its most recent civil war since 1983. When Rose was 10 years old, she fled her home in southern Sudan and went to Uganda. She has since returned to southern Sudan and works with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) as a gender-based violence program officer, helping hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese who have been displaced by civil war.
The ARC provides primary and reproductive health care, water, sanitation, HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness and many other services. Rose’s work focuses on preventing and responding to gender-based violence, which has been an ongoing problem during the war. Gender-based violence includes the sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and any cultural practice that has a negative impact on the sexual or reproductive health of people.
When I ask Rose how teens who have been displaced by war in southern Sudan learn about sexuality or get health care, she says, “People don’t talk about sex. They believe it is confidential—between a married couple.”
Rose explains that sex is so stigmatized that victims of rape are often looked down upon and fear coming forward for help. This often results in health complications, such as STDs and unplanned pregnancies. Rose is working to change this by educating people in her community about gender-based violence.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rape is intentionally used as a weapon of war. Twenty-four-year-old Amy Ernst, a blogger and advocate for the end of sexual violence in the DRC, says that a majority of women (and even men) rarely access hospital treatment after rape. Most hospitals carry kits that contain emergency contraception or initial treatment for STDs and HIV, yet many rape survivors don’t know that treatment is available and are too scared to come forward.
Condoms are also rare. Many students in the United States know where to get condoms, sometimes even for free. According to Amy, though, condoms in the DRC are $2 for a pack of three. What may not seem like a big deal is very expensive for the average Congolese person living on $120 a year.
What You Can Do
Both Rose and Amy encourage teens to be aware of sexual violence and reproductive health care in their own countries.
“Stop the stigmatization of rape where you are living right now,” Amy says. “Then keep educating yourself and those around you.”
When people think of human rights (rights or freedoms that everyone is entitled to), it is important to include sexual and reproductive health in that category. During a crisis, people should not only receive food, water and shelter, but be protected from violence and have access to safer sex methods and reproductive health care.
Whether we live in the United States, Haiti, Sudan or the DRC, we all deserve to be sexually safe and healthy.
“Sex is something that can create life or be a bridge of intimacy between two people,” Amy says. “It is something that should be beautiful and empowering for every human, never degrading or destructive.”
Visit ARCrelief.org or WomenforWomen.org to find out how to support people displaced by war or a natural disaster.
Photo via Minnesota Public Radio/American Refugee Committee
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