Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, relief agencies, multilateral institutions and governments are increasingly shifting their focus from emergency response to longer term relief, rebuilding and development efforts. Given the scale of the disaster, many thousands of Haitians will likely be forced to live in camps or other makeshift arrangements for years, if not decades, to come. During this time of displacement, the health and lives of Haiti’s women and girls—many of whom were already in a precarious situation because of poverty or low social status—are threatened by severe living conditions, including the virtual absence of reproductive health services.
Most immediately, there is an urgent need for clean delivery kits to ensure that childbirth is safe for mothers and their newborns. Likewise, displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation, and proper care—including emergency contraception and HIV prophylaxis—must be made widely available to any victims of sexual violence. Also, the many Haitian women who find themselves cut off from their usual sources for family planning services and supplies, including condoms, must be provided with free contraceptives. A failure to address these needs heightens the risk for unwanted pregnancy and botched abortion, HIV and other STIs, and high-risk, life-threatening pregnancies and childbirth.
Fortunately, with increased awareness over the last 15 years of the importance of reproductive health for displaced people, coordination and collaboration among agencies working on these issues has grown, including through the work of the Reproductive Health Response in Conflict (RHRC) Consortium. Additionally, increased research and documentation of the specific needs of refugees and displaced people have been critical in improving service delivery and strengthening advocacy efforts aimed at donors, NGOs and policymakers.
The U.S. government’s response to the Haitian earthquake has been both swift and strong. But Haiti’s women also need the United States to reassert a leadership role in ensuring that sexual and reproductive health care is a core component of the humanitarian response to the crisis. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her recent speech on global reproductive health: "Investing in the health of women, adolescents and girls is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. That is why we are integrating women’s issues as key elements of our foreign policy agenda." It’s time to put these wise words to the test in U.S. relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti by prioritizing reproductive health care.
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