Displaced Rohingya women need access to abortion, not just food and shelter

Anu Kumar, Ipas and Sandeep Prasad, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights for CBC News 

Rape is still being used as an instrument of war. Right now. Before our very eyes.

We know that since August 2017, thousands of Rohingya women and girls have been systematically raped by Myanmar military as a way to humiliate, terrify and dominate the Rohingya communities. In fact, Canadian parliamentarians recently unanimously voted to declare the systemic rape and killing of Rohingya an act of genocide.

The reality in Myanmar means that women like Fatima, a young Rohingya woman aged 17, who was brutally raped during an attack on her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, all too often arrive in the refugee camps homeless, hungry, frightened and pregnant.

Fatima is among the more than 60 million people— almost double the population of Canada — living in humanitarian settings or displaced due to conflict, natural disaster or human rights abuses.

Need for reproductive care

Humanitarian aid focuses on immediate needs such as shelter, clean water, food and safe and sanitary facilities, but people living in crises also need sexual and reproductive health care, including safe abortion and contraception.

Failing to provide women and adolescent girls, including survivors of sexual violence, with access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services like safe abortion, family planning and post-rape care denies them their human rights, including their right to health, to bodily autonomy, to decide the number and spacing of children and the right to live free from violence.

Countries like Canada – with its political will and financial means – need to do more to meet their needs and rights. Comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care is often neglected in emergency settings in large part because of myths and misperceptions, including the idea that reproductive health services are not needed, and that abortion is too complicated to provide in fragile settings.

These myths are the result of misinformation, stigma and a lack of commitment to the basic human rights of women.Negative attitudes and fears among key players in humanitarian organizations— including health care workers—about safe abortion care are barriers to the services these women need in crisis settings.

The average time a person spends living in a humanitarian setting is 17 years, which, for a woman, a big chunk of her reproductive life. These women are not only vulnerable to an increased risk of exploitation, sexual violence and transactional sex, they also face the greatest barriers to accessing reproductive health care — including contraception and safe abortion care— at a time when managing their reproductive lives is crucial.

In his report as special envoy to Myanmar in April, Bob Rae highlighted devastating stories of sexual abuse. He noted a “significant bubble” of babies being born to girls and women who have been raped, and the physical and emotional turmoil it’s having on people in the camps. He also emphasized the importance of attention on sexual and reproductive health. Canada can deliver the necessary attention and resources.

Canada can earmark funds for investments in organizations and programmes with proven track records of addressing the global problem of unsafe abortion. In fact, Canada has long prioritized maternal, newborn and child health initiatives.

The government made a strong commitment in 2010 by committing $1.1 billion to the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, on which it has built in subsequent years. In 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged $3.5 billion to improve maternal health, but his government excluded abortion. That has changed under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government made an additional financial commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights in March, 2017. With two years left on that promise, strong political and financial leadership is needed to see it thorough.

Women and girls around the world have a right to abortion care. A growing number of countries are liberalizing their abortion laws, and international human rights and humanitarian law recognizes women and girls’ right to abortion care. Rohingya women, like women in Canada, are entitled to these same rights. Canada can make that possible.

Click here to read the op-ed on the CBC. 

Posted on 2018-10-01
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