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Sex, birth and power in disasters

NEW YORK—“People still have sexual intercourse even in times of crisis,” the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) declared in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” which to my mind is rather like stressing the obvious.

And yet the obvious rather obviously needs to be pointed out, because it seems that the public believes the lives of men, women and children falling victim to natural or manmade calamities will screech to a halt while they try to put their lives back in order.

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But, as the IPPF says, men and women will continue to have sex, however chaotic their lives may be at the moment, and if sex is taking place, can having babies be far behind?

This was the idea at the heart of a recent “side event” held in conjunction with the ongoing 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in this city. The UN Fund for Population together with the Interagency Group on Humanitarian Crises and the Women’s Refugee Committee sponsored a panel on “Reproductive Health Services in Disasters.” This columnist was invited to give a presentation on the Philippine response to Yolanda, the name I preferred to use instead of the international name “Haiyan” mainly because it resonates much deeper with Filipinos, and gives a sense of the challenges that Filipinos, especially in Eastern Visayas, continue to face after “the visit of this woman named Yolanda.”

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THE numbers alone argue the case for “integration” of the needs of pregnant women, mothers and newborns into the emergency and relief response.

Disasters and crises tend to put the situation of women and children, not always ideal in the best of times, in even more precarious circumstances. In Syria, for instance, said Philippa King of the Australian mission in the UN, “96 percent of mothers enjoyed assisted births” before violence broke out, but this number “has fallen even below 25 percent” since the conflict started.

And if, as the IPPF pointed out, people will still have sex even amid the rubble of disaster, the number of unplanned pregnancies, especially when contraceptives are not available, is bound to rise. The possibility of pregnancy resulting from sexual violence is also pretty high. And, of course, we can surmise that the lives of “disaster babies” will be fraught with so much more difficulty and danger almost from the start of their lives.

In the Yolanda-affected areas, for instance, an estimated 14.4 million people were affected, with 25 percent or 3.6 million of them women of reproductive age. Clearly then, even before disaster strikes, countries need to put in place supplies, facilities, services and personnel to address the reproductive needs of affected citizens, even in the midst of a scramble for survival, for basic needs like water, food, shelter and clothing.

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“IT IS now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was quoted as saying at a recent address on International Women’s Day. Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and another speaker at the panel, pointed out that these days “the majority of victims of war are women.” “Most wars have no uniforms,” she observed, and even in the so-called peacetime, “the majority of casualties are civilians, most of them women.” By way of example, she said that between 2003 and 2012, “5,000 soldiers were killed in battle in Iraq, but twice that number of women were killed by intimate partners in the US” in the same stretch of time.

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Gilmore even specified a link between reproductive health and rights and conflict, citing findings that “88 percent of internal conflicts are in countries with high fertility rates.”

One of the slides in my presentation was that on the contents of the “dignity kits” that the UNFPA distributed to women survivors of Yolanda. Gilmore took time to note that the design of the orange plastic pail, actually a pail with a basin as cover, which is used to hold all the other supplies, “was made by the women themselves.” “Truly, all you need to do is consult with the women and they will tell you what it is they need and find useful,” she said.

Another item in the kits—which include underwear, slippers, toiletries, sanitary pads, infant clothing, even first-aid materials—that is specific for the Philippines is the “malong” or cloth tube for which women find many uses: as a changing “room” that affords them privacy in a public setting; a shawl; a blanket; a sling; even a carrying bag.

Like the “malong,” there is no end to the creativity of women even in the most dire of circumstances.

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UNDER discussion at the CSW58 is the need to build capacity within nations to cope with the most awful consequences of climate change, political turmoil and personal, familial and social violence.

And part of creating this capacity is indeed the urgent task of putting women in the center of any global discussion, because it is they who will be bearing the brunt of the challenges and difficulties that wait in a world that is coming apart.

But for this to come to pass, women need to “bell the cat,” as it were, the cat being the creature called patriarchy. Let me cite the example of the delegate from Egypt, who, reacting to a statement of the representative of the Holy See toeing its consistent line against the use of “gender” and “safe abortion” in the final document, asserted: “You have no right to speak at this forum since you represent a state where there are no women,” or at least with any woman with any semblance of voice or power.

That’s saying it, sister!

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TAGS: “Reproductive Health Services in Disasters”, Commission on the Status of Women, Interagency Group on Humanitarian Crises and the Women’s Refugee Committee, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, IPPF, sex, Super Typhoon Yolanda, UN Fund for Population, United Nations headquarters
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