Sexual and reproductive health rights in disasters and humanitarian crises

CARE team members responding to the COVID-19 crisis in the Bihar region of India. (Photo credit: CARE India)

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of our “Equity in Disasters” series. The series, which focuses primarily on racial equity and justice issues, also explores how these intersect with other kinds of marginalization and the ways that historical and systemic discrimination create an uneven playing field for recovery.

As many Americans continue to reflect, protest and react to the leaked draft ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, we cannot help but think about the broader issue of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) around the globe. It is a topic that the international grantmaking team at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy discusses regularly with our grantee partners to ensure the health, safety and protection of women and their rights in disaster situations.

This blog post will not comment on the morality of abortion, or sexual or reproductive health rights more broadly. Instead, it will provide information on the global context of SRHR and the importance of funding SRH programs before, during and after disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies. We approach this from a global perspective, a rights perspective, a humanitarian programming [1] perspective and an evidence-based perspective.

The importance of SRHR in disasters and humanitarian emergencies

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ties women’s SRHR to several human rights: the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education and the prohibition of discrimination.

Disasters and crises increase and compound vulnerabilities and risk exposure, particularly for those already vulnerable and at-risk. Disasters also result in an increase in unintended pregnancies, as access to contraception is disrupted and sexual violence increases.

One in four women are unable to say no to sex, often because rape is used as a weapon of war, forcing women to choose to criminally and/or unsafely perform an abortion to protect themselves. For the women and girls affected, the most life-altering reproductive choice — whether or not to become pregnant — is no choice at all.

Below is notable evidence and statistics on abortion from the World Health Organization:

  1. Evidence shows that restricting access to abortions does not reduce the number of abortions; however, it does affect whether the abortions that women and girls attain are safe and dignified.
  2. Restrictive abortion regulation can cause distress and stigma, and risk constituting a violation of human rights of women and girls, including the right to privacy and the right to non-discrimination and equality, while also imposing financial burdens on women and girls.
  3. Regulations that force women to travel to attain legal care, or require mandatory counseling or waiting periods, lead to loss of income and other financial costs, and can make abortion inaccessible to women with low resources.
  4. More than 60% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, and an estimated 45% of all abortions are unsafe.
  5. Each year, approximately 25 million unsafe abortions take place.
  6. Unsafe abortion is a leading – but preventable – cause of maternal deaths and morbidities. It can lead to physical and mental health complications and social and financial burdens for women, communities and health systems.
  7. About 8% of all maternal deaths globally can be attributed to unsafe abortion, and the most affected are women and girls living in poverty and/or belonging to marginalized groups.
  8. The proportion of unsafe abortions is significantly higher in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws than in countries with less restrictive laws.
  9. Almost all deaths from unsafe abortion occur in countries where abortion is severely restricted in law and/or in practice.
  10. Most countries allow abortions without restriction or with restrictions that take into account the physical and mental health of the woman as well as economic or social reasons pertaining to the situation of the pregnant woman.

Lack of adequate access to quality SRHR services and denial of SRHR rights have negative implications that go far beyond a woman’s right to choose. Click To TweetIt is also an equity issue because it strengthens and exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities.

CDP’s commitment to supporting SRHR

CDP is committed to supporting SRHR programs that protect and support vulnerable and at-risk women and girls. One of our grantee partners, MSI Reproductive Choices, recently received a $250,000 grant from CDP to reduce the adverse health impacts of COVID-19 in Afghanistan. This includes building the capacity of public health facilities to continue to deliver quality reproductive health services, a critical gap that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Call to action for global funders and disaster philanthropists:

  1. Increase funding for SRH programs. SRH programs are underfunded globally [2] and we can help fill that gap by funding SRH programs and ensuring the protection of these rights.
  2. Educate yourself about SRHR and the linkages with human rights, women and girls in disasters, and the work of the United Nations Population Fund.
  3. Donate to our Global Recovery Fund. CDP funds emergency health and protection programming, including sexual and reproductive health programming, globally.
[1] “Humanitarian programming” encapsulates programs that save lives, alleviate suffering and restore dignity to crisis-affected populations.
[2] In 2021, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency that specializes in sexual and reproductive health, raised only 48 percent of their $715 million appeal.
Alex Gray

Alex Gray

Director, International Funds