United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
By Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin
The rising frequency and impact of natural disasters is a clear sign of our changing world. It is also a warning for us to better prepare to reduce the risks that people might face. We need better management of land and the environment and to improve our preparedness and early warning systems.
Such measures were discussed by the international community at the upcoming Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was hosted by Japan in Sendai from Saturday until Wednesday.
For women in particular, part of being safe during disasters — natural or otherwise — means ensuring safe birth, safety from unintended pregnancy, and safety from violence.
Evidence shows pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls are more vulnerable in disasters due to their limited mobility and increased needs for food, water, hygiene supplies, reproductive health care and safe birth facilities. The sudden loss of medical support also puts women and their babies at risk.
Of the more than 80 million people who needed humanitarian assistance in 2014, more than 75% were women and children. In fact, worldwide, women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster. And when a crisis strikes, skilled birth attendance and emergency obstetrics care often become scarce or unavailable. This exacerbates the vulnerability of pregnant women and increases maternal and infant deaths.
In Asia and the Pacific, recurring floods, cyclones and typhoons in the Philippines, Pakistan and the Pacific sub-region have shown governments that engaging women and communities to understand the risks and vulnerabilities associated with their safety and protection are critical to preventing gender-based and sexual violence, and promoting their leadership in recovery. Studies show that an estimated 20% of displaced women have experienced gender-based violence that required critical medical care. Reducing disaster risk means reducing risk of this kind of violence.
For these reasons, the international community agreed at the United Nations General Assembly last year that basic health measures during humanitarian emergencies should include sexual and reproductive health services to save the lives of women and newborns.
Women, and often young women, are the backbone of their communities' resilience. Time and time again, they sustain their households during difficult times. Investment in reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health is an investment in disaster risk reduction that improves the rights of individuals and strengthens countries' resilience. Women and young people must be recognised as invaluable partners across the humanitarian-development continuum.
The meeting in Sendai builds on the last conference on disaster risk reduction held 10 years ago, where delegates adopted a framework for action to build the resilience of nations and communities.
During the last decade, natural disasters — from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the devastating earthquake in Haiti to the tsunamis in Southeast Asia and Japan to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines — have provided an urgent backdrop for action. This underlines the importance of the Sendai gathering and its resulting post-2014 framework for disaster risk reduction. The negotiated outcome will draw lessons from those tragedies and also from health emergencies such as pandemic influenza that emerged in 2009 and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, as well as new knowledge about climate change.
For the United Nations Population Fund a successful outcome is one that calls for investing in the "shock absorbing" capacities of countries and resilience building. These measures protect the right to sexual and reproductive health, ensure accountability for human safety and well-being, and take into account the special needs of women, ensuring their participation in decision-making for reducing risk and saving lives now and for generations to come.
Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund