Sexual reproductive health and rights still matter during climate disasters

Rumbidzayi Zinyuke
Health Buzz

Four years ago, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and parts of Malawi were plunged into crisis when Cyclone Idai hit several provinces of these countries.

The result was a humanitarian crisis of huge magnitude. Not only did people lose their lives, thousands of homes were destroyed, including the livestock and the fields, leaving families stranded.

Road networks, bridges, clinics and other infrastructure were destroyed, cutting off villagers from the help they needed.

Since then, these countries have been successively hit by other weather phenomena including Tropical Storm Anna, Tropical Storm Freddy, droughts and even earth tremors in parts of Chipinge and Mozambique.

While all these are a natural result of climate change which affects the whole population, their impact on women and girls can never be overlooked.

Climate change is a multiplier of existing health vulnerabilities, through insufficient access to safe water and sanitation, food insecurity, and impacts on access to health care and education.

And experts say women and girls feel these effects more than their male counterparts.

Recently, at least 150 of these experts from 12 countries in the east and southern African region met in Johannesburg to discuss strategies that could be used to strengthen sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), organised the regional symposium with the view of drawing from past experiences lessons that could be implemented to remove barriers to universal access to SRHR.

From the discussions that took place, it was evident that climate change has an undeniably negative impact on women, girls and other marginalised populations within the communities.

According to Chipinge based meteorological technician with the Meteorological Services Department Ms Lydia Masengu, the change in weather patterns caused by climate change cannot be denied as much as their impact on women and girls.

She said many areas in Manicaland province were being affected by the frequent violent storms, cyclones, tremors caused by plate tectonic movements, hailstorms and droughts.

“We cannot deny that climate change has an impact on the availability of sexual reproductive health services and when disasters like cyclones happen, this becomes worse. Women in evacuation camps may fail to access sexual reproductive health services so this then needs the authorities to see that they make adequate plans.

“While we stockpile amenities in response to these disasters, we need to consider also stockpiling SRH products like pads and contraceptives among others so that women are not left exposed.

“We have to mainstream climate change to ensure that we continue to have access to sexual reproductive health and rights during climate induced emergencies,” she said.

As an example, she said climate change had taken its toll on the lowvelds of Chipinge where droughts were common leading to reduced food security and increased migration of men to neighbouring countries in search of employment.

However, this has left women and girls to bear the brunt of the effects of this migration and the drought.

“The women have to make sure they provide food for the family in the absence of the husband, but if the season is not good, then it leaves her vulnerable to predators who may take advantage of them and sexually abuse them in return for food.

“When the situation really gets tough, the children drop out of school because the mother cannot afford to pay fees and this often results in early pregnancies or child marriages in some cases,” said Ms Masengu.

It has become apparent that climate change has both direct and indirect implications for SRHR.

Increased vulnerability and food insecurity driven by climate-related loss of livelihoods, as is the case in Chipinge, Buhera and other drought prone areas of Zimbabwe may impact on maternal health as it may limit nutrient intake for many pregnant women.

Hence it can make pregnancy less safe and worsen neo-natal health outcomes.

Climate change may also create and exacerbate circumstances conducive to gender-based violence.

In the case of Cyclone Idai, there was a significant increase of GBV cases as the stress, scarcity and pressure on the available resources often get to people in such instances.

However, the actual number of the affected remains unclear.

But studies show that after such disasters, women and girls who need to travel greater distances to gather basic necessities such as water and firewood can also be at increased risk of physical and sexual violence.

For areas like Chimanimani and Chipinge, Government and its partners introduced mobile one stop centres after cyclone Idai where women who sought medical attention got a host of other services including GBV and SRH services.

While this was successful to some extent in getting women to open up about GBV, many cases still remained unreported as women feared that the only person able to give them food and a roof over their heads would be put away.

Child Marriages

As said before, the pressure on families due to floods, droughts, disasters and other climate impacts exacerbate drivers of early, forced and child marriage.

When families find that they do not have enough resources, marrying off their daughters could be a way of reducing the financial burden.

Dropping out of school becomes common as well.

According to statistics from the Malala Fund, approximately four million girls in low- and lower-middle income countries will not be able to complete their education because of climate-related events.

Family Planning

Access to voluntary, rights-based family planning is fundamental to achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Climate disasters may increase vulnerability and disrupts access to essential health services including contraceptives.

Access to family planning enables couples to make decisions that best reflect their personal circumstances and could help prevent unsafe abortions, which according to statistics are the cause of at least nine percent of maternal deaths worldwide.

The Solution?

Addressing SRHR and climate adaptation linkages relies heavily on a multi-pronged approach that aims to ensure healthy and empowered populations, including women and young people.

There is need to strengthen individual and community resilience by investing in a healthy, educated and empowered population.

Strengthening health systems, including SRH services and GBV response could also help mitigate the impact of climate change of women and girls.

Cyclone Idai, Cyclone Freddy, the Covid 19 pandemic and many other such disasters have shown how unprepared African countries are in terms of their response to emergencies.

Therefore, it remains imperative for governments to have stronger systems for climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity assessments which are informed by disaggregated population, health and gender data to reflect the multiple and differentiated impacts of the climate emergencies.

All this will ensure that sexual reproductive health and rights are put into consideration during the planning stages of any policy or strategy and will help countries to realise the Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, hunger, gender inequalities as well as improved access to health and education for all.

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