Remembering the Most Vulnerable on World Population Day

July 10, 2015

Syrian Kurdish Refugees.jpg

Syrian Kurdish refugees arrive in Turkey. Photo by EC/ECHO. 

The theme for this year’s World Population Day—Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies—could not be more relevant. A recent report from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) found that worldwide displacement has reached an all-time high, with almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes due to emergencies such as wars and natural disasters. In other words, approximately 1 in every 120 people in the world is a refugee.

In emergency situations, ensuring that refugees have access to contraception is not usually a top priority. The amount of funding designated to providing family planning in humanitarian settings falls well below the demonstrated need, leaving many refugee camps with limited birth control supplies and inadequate reproductive health services. Despite this lack of attention, the need for family planning and reproductive health care during emergency circumstances is tremendous.

Life during emergencies is incredibly unstable; social structures break down, families are separated, and there is intense economic strain. As a result, women and girls are especially vulnerable to rape, sexual violence, and forced marriage. In addition, some young women feel forced to trade sex in order to meet their basic needs. Without access to birth control, these women and girls are at a high risk of becoming pregnant.

This likelihood translates into a sobering reality. Of the 15 million women in crisis settings that are of reproductive age (15-45), approximately 1 in 5 is pregnant. A study by the Women’s Refugee Commission found that 40 percent of these pregnancies—about 1.2 million—are unintended.

Pregnancy is not easy for anyone, but for women who do not have access to safe reproductive health services, it can be incredibly dangerous. Fifteen percent of pregnant women in emergency situations experience life-threatening complications, most of which could easily have been prevented. Sadly, however, maternal mortality is one of the leading causes of death in emergency situations. In fact, 60 percent of maternal deaths worldwide occur in just 10 countries, 9 of which are conflict areas.

The majority of maternal deaths can be avoided by making sure that organizations that provide contraception and reproductive health care during emergencies, such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), receive adequate funding.

Supporting international family planning in emergency situations should be a no-brainer: Access to contraception reduces unsafe abortion, prevents maternal mortality, empowers women by enabling them to pursue their educations, and slows population growth in some of the poorest, most volatile parts of the world.

Despite these proven benefits, Republicans in Congress remain committed to draining U.S. aid from international family planning programs and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The 2016 State and Foreign Operations Bill, which was recently passed by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, proposes spending cuts of almost $150 million from international family planning and completely eliminates funding for UNFPA.

The number of people living in emergency situations is the highest it has ever been, and there is no sign that the rate of forced displacement will slow any time soon. Therefore, it is vital that the U.S. reverses this trend of slashing international family planning and instead starts protecting the basic human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

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