Don’t forget the needs of women and girls during natural disasters

Sexual and reproductive health is a human right and should be treated as such during humanitarian response. While some progress has been made by the international community to take sexual and reproductive health into account when responding to natural disasters—it's not enough.
Giselle Carino is CEO and Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation's Western Hemisphere Region.

The past few weeks have been harrowing—we've all been awestruck by the photos of destruction across Mexico and the Caribbean. The international community is quickly mobilizing aide to respond to multiple natural disasters, but once again a crucial aspect of humanitarian response is missing from the conversation—the urgent need for sexual and reproductive health care.

Post disasters, women and girls are more susceptible to sexual violence—many are sleeping on the streets as quake-rocked buildings are deemed unsafe. After the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, for example, rates of violence against women and girls living in tent cities soared. Neonatal and maternal mortality risk can also increase as important equipment like sonograms, ultrasounds, access to sterile tools, and regular check-ups are interrupted. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual and reproductive health needs during a humanitarian crisis.

Flooding can destroy sterile medical supplies, examination rooms, and important equipment. Lack of electricity can wipe out entire stocks of medications and vaccines that need to remain cool. Sexually transmitted infection treatment, anti-retrovirals, emergency contraception, condoms, and post-exposure prophylaxis are sometimes forgotten in the rush to send international aid.

I'm the CEO of International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere Office. We work closely with 45 partner organizations across the Americas and the Caribbean—in the United States our local partner is Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The International Federation has a team dedicated to mobilizing sexual and reproductive health services in emergency situations.

As we did following the earthquake in Haiti—and as we've done in other humanitarian crises—our team is mobilizing to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights are prioritized. We're assessing the damage to our clinics in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean to make sure we are ready to offer support.

We have decades of experience in the fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights—but we’ve never seen so many catastrophic events back-to-back in a region where sexual and reproductive health and rights are already so challenging. Between Irma, the first earthquake in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Hurricane Maria, and now a second earthquake in Mexico, the onslaught of natural disasters is overwhelming—and I’m concerned that the needs of women and girls will be overlooked.

The scale of the damage we're facing is beyond comprehension. We only recently made contact with our staff in Dominica, where high winds have caused unfathomable devastation and reduced much of the island to a pile of debris. Our partner association in Antigua—whose Executive Director splits her time from running the local organization and serving as a nurse in the clinic—has stepped up to serve evacuees from Barbuda.

We’re holding our breath as Puerto Rico assesses its damage, our Profamilias clinics there provide tens of thousands of services a year, but we know that electricity has been knocked out to the entire island. I want that to sink in for a moment—electricity has been knocked out to an entire island inhabited by 3.4 million people.

Our clinic in Oaxaca was damaged in the first earthquake, but remains open. Some of the clinic staff lost their homes there too, but continue to report to work to make sure the community can receive the care they need.

Ignoring the needs of women and girls has devastating long-term economic and social consequences, which are only more pronounced when natural disasters destroy infrastructure, schools, and work places. There is no development without addressing reproductive and sexual health and rights. No long-term recovery effort can ignore these important needs.

It's high time for the international community to commit to making sexual and reproductive health and rights a central part of its response to humanitarian disaster, starting with the earthquakes and hurricanes in the Caribbean. They are human rights first and foremost—not an afterthought—and should be treated as such.

To the millions of women and girls we serve across the region: Our thoughts are with you. You are not forgotten. You are brave, and we will be there to get you through this—every step of the way.