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 Sex Education in Malaysia
According to the 2022 United Nations World Economic Situation and Prospects report, Malaysia is listed as an upper-middle-income developing country. However, a large proportion of the country’s population is still struggling with not only absolute poverty but also relative poverty as well as increasing inequalities. Those with low socioeconomic status (SES) have less access to healthcare, which increases their vulnerability to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and other diseases. Although subjective, factors like income, financial security and educational attainment can determine SES. Economic inequality can impact STI preventative information, infection rates and treatment accessibility. This is where sex education in Malaysia can play an important role in preventing STIs and other reproductive health issues.

The Importance of Sex Education

Between April and May 2022, Durex Malaysia conducted a nationwide Sexual Health and Intimate Wellness Survey online to study Malaysian youths’ knowledge of sexual health. This study surveyed more than 1,000 Malaysians between 18 and 30 years old. The survey found that Malaysian youths are engaging in more sexual relations at 35%. This is an increase from the last 2016 Durex survey which indicated 18.8%. The findings highlighted gaps and misconceptions in their understanding of STIs and women’s reproductive health. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) defines comprehensive sex education as a “rights-based and gender transformative approach” that is taught inside and outside schools. Educators teach it over several years by taking into account age-appropriate information for young people. UNFPA notes that sex education should discuss culture, gender roles, relationships, family life, human rights as well as bodily autonomy and threats such as sexual abuse and discrimination.

Engaging young people in exploratory discussions helps them to understand and develop positive values about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Organizations like UNFPA work with governments to apply sex education through community training and outreach. It also advocates for policies and investments for internationally standardized programs. In 2018, the agency published “International technical guidance on sexuality education: an evidence-informed approach.” It acts as a tool for curriculum developers to create comprehensive sexual education curricula as UNFPA described. Schools do not have a comprehensive sexual education curriculum in Malaysia.

Sex Education in Malaysia

There was a 2011 study that analyzed schools’ coverage of sex education in Malaysia. Respondents of the study stated that the effectiveness of instruction depended on the teachers themselves. Ninety-five percent of the respondents expressed vague teaching processes regarding sex education. This is due to incomplete coverage of topics or ineffective teaching methods. Sexual education in Malaysia is most commonly delivered through biology and Islamic study classes. These classes cover physical adolescent development, reproductive development and sex in an Islamic context. Most of the criticisms regarding sex education as taught in Malaysia’s schools stemmed from the lack of a comprehensive syllabus. STIs and HIV/AIDS continue to affect many people in Malaysia.

STIs and Efforts to End HIV/AIDS

A Malaysian medical lifestyle application named Cleadoc reported that the top three common STIs in Malaysia are syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV. There were approximately 82,000 adults and children living with HIV in Malaysia as per the statistics provided by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). In 2017, UNAIDS set up “90-90-90”, an ambitious treatment target to help end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2020. UNAIDS document mentioned achievable targets stating that 90% of people living with HIV would be aware of their HIV status by 2020. Another 90% of patients with a diagnosed HIV infection would have received sustained antiretroviral therapy by 2020. It also stated that 90% of those who were receiving antiretroviral therapy would have their viral load suppressed by 2020.

As reported in the 2021 Global AIDS Monitoring Report that the Ministry of Health Malaysia’s HIV/STI/Hepatitis C Section produced, there were more than 153,000 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in 2020. The cumulative number of deaths related to HIV/AIDS was 45,450. Malaysia’s progress toward the 90-90-90 treatment target was 87-58-85 respectively. However, organizations in Malaysia have been actively advocating to improve access to sex education.

Advocating For Access to Sex Education

UNFPA works with the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations of Malaysia (FRHAM), one of the country’s three main sexual and reproductive health (SRH) program implementation partners. This partnership focuses on hard-to-reach populations with the help of health screenings, tests, contraceptive access services and general sexual/reproductive advisement. The service-based nonprofit, FRHAM is the leading non-governmental organization (NGO) in Malaysia that also advocates for SRH. It promotes access to information and services on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). FRHAM also conducts workshops, training and exhibitions to engage with specific target groups to help develop knowledge and skills as “peer educators.” Organizations have been teaming up to improve false perceptions of SRH in Malaysia.

Steps to Improve Sex Education in Malaysia

After Durex conducted its first survey, it teamed up with the Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), FRHAM and AISEC Malaysia to help correct the false perceptions regarding SRH among young Malaysians. Alongside Durex, the government launched an awareness and education campaign in 2013 called Choose2Protect. It was the first program of its kind for youths to educate one another. They receive training on issues concerning reproductive health, including the dangers of STIs. They also receive soft skills training that allows them to share knowledge in culturally and religiously sensitive contexts. The program emphasizes the importance of remaining non-discriminatory and non-judgemental.

The results of the 2022 Sexual Health and Intimate Wellness Survey were revealed with a #COMETOGETHER campaign which promoted open conversations on sex amongst the Malaysian public. The goal was to inform the public with accurate information and help them make informed decisions. This occurred through question-and-answer social media posts, workshops at higher-educational institutions and an “A-Z Pleasure Guide” that influencers and health experts developed. Some are taking steps to address the lack of comprehensive sex education in Malaysia. Organizations like UNFPA, FRHAM, WOA, Durex and the government are working together to close the gaps.

– Aishah French
Photo: Flickr

Period Poverty in Iraq
The debris of war lies heavily in Iraq. The country’s constant conflicts with ISIS, which internal sectarian divides and Kurdish disputes exacerbated, have led to the focus shifting from other vital issues. Period poverty in Iraq —  the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, water and sanitation facilities and proper knowledge about menstruation — stands as one of these issues.

Taboo About Periods

In most developed countries, talks about puberty and sexual development are normal. In deeply conservative countries like Iraq, however, society considers the topic of menstruation taboo. This leads to not only unpreparedness but also feelings of shame when adolescent girls first start menstruating. In an article that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published, Rusul, a young Iraqi woman, opened up about her experience with her first period. She mentioned that she felt confused and afraid, and “thought that she had done something wrong.”

The UNFPA established a Women Social Center in Rusul’s neighborhood a few years after her harrowing experience. The Center hosts educational sessions on issues affecting girls and women, such as menstruation, in order to raise awareness and educate girls on how periods affect them both mentally and physically. By dispelling myths and being open about biological facts, women in Iraq can feel comfortable about their body processes and confident enough to take the steps to maintain proper health and hygiene.

Feelings of fear and embarrassment in relation to periods are even more prevalent among lower-income individuals who have even less access to information and products like sanitary pads. UNICEF believes that by educating girls about menstrual cycles at an early age, the organization can help girls develop healthy menstrual practices. The organization has started work in the North African and Middle East regions to equip people of all genders with the necessary information about menstruation to help address misconceptions, prevent discrimination and reduce stigmas.

In Iraq specifically, one of UNICEF’s ongoing projects aims to develop and strengthen the knowledge of menstrual hygiene management among teachers. By conveying their menstrual knowledge to schoolgirls and normalizing periods, educators will “build confidence and encourage healthy habits” among menstruating girls.

Period Poverty During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues of period poverty in Iraq and throughout the world. The economic recession and supply chain crisis that followed have made menstrual supplies and hygiene products even less accessible, especially for those living in poverty. When girls and women cannot access menstrual products, they often resort to unsanitary methods, such as using dirty clothes or plastic bags to contain the bleeding. Consequently, these girls and women put themselves at risk of infections.

Moreover, during the pandemic, measures like lockdowns and the closing of social and medical centers block off access to menstrual education and free menstrual resources. The situation is worse for people in refugee camps, prisons and other institutions. A woman in Kirkuk, Iraq, told UNFPA that during the lockdown in 2020, being in a detention center made detainees feel forgotten “but [their] intimate needs matter.”

Solutions to Combat Period Poverty

In response to the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, UNFPA has arranged to distribute dignity kits to families during the pandemic. During times of conflict with ISIS, specifically from 2014 to 2015, the UNFPA handed out about 95,000 such kits. The kit consists of “toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, sanitary pads and underclothes.” While distributing, UNFPA  staff can meet women to assess their needs and tell them about the psychological and reproductive services that the organization offers.

UNHCR collaborated with partners in 2020 and assisted 77,786 girls and women in Iraq by providing sanitary products to them.

UNICEF also helped in arranging clean water and sanitation supplies for women in care homes, correctional facilities and hospitals. Additionally, public video messages and announcements created by UNFPA helped teachers, parents and students gain awareness of menstrual health, even though schools had effectively shut down.

These steps to address period poverty in Iraq are bearing fruit. Data that UNICEF and WHO collected from refugee camps in Iraq in 2020 shows that almost 100% of women felt satisfied with the provision of “menstrual materials and facilities.” Moreover, according to survey data collected in Iraq between 2016 and 2020, 94% of women between the ages of 15-49 years had a private place to wash and change and 97% “had basic hand washing facilities.”

Though solutions are underway, only continued efforts and steadfast commitments to reducing period poverty in Iraq will ensure long-term change and lasting impacts.

– Anushka Raychaudhuri
Photo: Unsplash

Hospitals Empower Women Amid ConflictAmid ongoing crises around the world, hospitals help women deliver babies and maintain good reproductive and sexual health. Supporting hospitals in conflict-ridden countries empowers women and can drastically reduce maternal mortality rates. In Afghanistan, maternal mortality rates have reduced by more than 50% in the past 20 years due to advancements in public health infrastructure. Hospitals empower women amid conflict by providing lifesaving support to new mothers and women of all ages.

Conflict-Ridden Areas

Hospitals and clinics in conflict zones save lives every day, in areas ranging from maternal care to helping the sick and wounded. When conflict strikes, though, medical care facilities experience difficulties procuring medicine, equipment and supplies. The hospitals and clinics may also struggle to maintain a steady supply of fuel and heating. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often help hospitals and clinics in conflict-ridden areas obtain supplies.

In 2021, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) provided two hospitals in Afghanistan with emergency kits containing medicine and equipment to support the “reproductive, maternal and newborn health needs” of more than 300,000 people. In combination with NGO efforts, governmental investments in hospitals and other public health infrastructure are necessary to ensure adequate medical care in conflict zones, especially for women. Well-funded hospitals empower women amid conflict by safeguarding their reproductive health and ensuring safe deliveries.

Health Care for Women

Conflict zones make it difficult for women, children and newborns to access health care. For example, the war in Yemen has prevented many women and children with health emergencies from accessing medical facilities. Limited access to medical care for the Yemeni people has led to an increase in deaths, leaving pregnant women, newborns and children the most vulnerable.

Developing countries are unlikely to have enough fully functioning hospitals to support everyone’s medical needs, especially in times of conflict. Many patients in conflict zones must travel through dangerous sites to receive medical attention from a hospital. Such endeavors are particularly dangerous for pregnant women and women traveling with young children. High-functioning, accessible hospitals are highly beneficial to public health and safety in times of conflict, especially for women and newborns.

Improving Health Care in Conflict Zones

Improvements to health care in conflict zones may involve public and private coordination, addressing context-specific needs and developing sustainable responses to medical emergencies. Public and private coordination efforts may include governmental bodies, humanitarian organizations and other global public health actors including the World Health Organization.

When public and private actors collaborate, the efforts can provide optimized health care to those in need. Context-specific health care initiatives tailor medical care and responses to the most common or urgent needs of a community. Such initiatives involve speaking with local actors and communities to gauge their medical needs. States can improve health care sustainability in conflict zones by improving existing health systems, securing funding and prioritizing the treatment of chronic illnesses.

Robust medical systems are necessary to promote health, safety and peace in conflict-ridden areas. Access to health care is particularly important for pregnant women and newborns as these are highly vulnerable groups in conflict zones. Hospitals empower women amid conflict by providing access to maternal and reproductive health care, which saves lives and ensures safe pregnancies.

– Cleo Hudson
Photo: Flickr

child-poverty-in-yemenYemen is currently in the middle of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yemen has been in conflict since 2015, a situation that has devastated its economy. COVID-19 also hit Yemen’s economy hard due to a fall in global prices, weak public infrastructure and a limited ability to cope with extreme climate events. Yemen’s death rate is currently five times the global average. Unfortunately, the crisis Yemen is experiencing most heavily impacts children and puts millions of kids at risk of starvation. Here is more information on child poverty in Yemen.

The Crisis in Yemen

There is an immense tragedy occurring in Yemen. Estimates have determined that Yemen’s overall poverty rate is 80% and the war has already set back the country’s development by 25 years. In addition to facing the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yemen continues to battle mass outbreaks of preventable diseases such as cholera, diptheria, measles and dengue fever. On top of fighting these diseases, the conflict in Yemen is actively occurring. The war has resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people from its start in 2015 to mid-2021. Unfortunately, Yemen’s children are the most vulnerable members of society and this crisis has caused child poverty in Yemen to be a critical issue.

Starvation and Malnutrition

According to UNICEF, 11 million children in Yemen urgently need humanitarian assistance. Child poverty in Yemen is continuing to rise, and more than 2.3 million children could starve by the end of 2021. This represents an unprecedented hunger crisis. Of these 2.3 million, expectations have stated that 400,000 will face acute malnutrition and could die without urgent treatment. Additionally, 1.2 million pregnant and breastfeeding mothers may experience malnourishment by the end of 2021, meaning that over 1 million children will be born in hunger. Between 2015 and 2020, over 3,000 children have been killed as a result of the war. As a result of facing so much trauma and conflict, an astonishing half of the children in Yemen are struggling with depression.

Impact on Education

Beyond the fact that the pandemic and conflict in Yemen are impacting children’s basic needs such as food, education is also under threat. Before the pandemic, 2 million children were out of school and 3.7 million more were at risk of leaving school altogether. Pandemic closures increased the number of kids at risk to 8 million, and teachers are not receiving pay. At least 4.7 million children are in need of educational assistance. Schools lack funds, resources and adequate sanitation, especially for girls. According to UNICEF, Yemen now owes $70 million in stipends to teachers. In addition to the pandemic preventing attendance, the conflict has destroyed about 2,000 schools.

Finding Hope

The Yemenis are resilient and are searching for solutions despite all of the turmoil. Communities are rebuilding their own schools and providing these schools with essential resources. The vast majority of schools in Yemen have no electricity. This means that kids have no access to clean water and sanitation services. The Yemen Emergency Electricity Access Project is working to install solar energy systems in schools. Solar energy can provide sanitary resources to students and the community. It also improves children’s experience in the classroom by providing light and a comfortable environment. This project should help at least 1.3 million people. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) put up nine solar microgrids to improve energy access.

In order to combat the mental health crisis in Yemen, social workers are providing mobile counseling. In 2018, UNFPA established six psychological support centers. Since then, these centers provided mobile psychological support to about 18,000 people, and the demand for these services is rising due to both the pandemic and continuing conflict.

Spreading the Word

The crisis in Yemen is vast and will take a united effort to address. One important factor in working to end this crisis is awareness. Social media posts, conversations and contacting U.S. government representatives are all methods to spread the word. While the U.S. did suggest a ceasefire in Yemen, this request will likely go unheeded if it does not take sufficient action to halt military support to the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition. The resilience of the Yemenis and help from the rest of the world can fight child poverty in Yemen and aid in the overarching crisis.

– Jacqueline Zembek
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19’s Impact in Bolivia Since September 2020, COVID-19’s impact in Bolivia has greatly improved. The country’s COVID-19 cases have reduced, possibly due to the fact that 25% of the population is fully vaccinated. Compared to the fact that less than 0.1% of the population was fully vaccinated in March 2021, this is good progress.

Small Town Controversies

In the small town of San Jose de Chiquitos, they immobilize the virus for a period of time via a controversial method. They use a chlorine dioxide solution (CDS), which is produced from the public university of Santa Cruz de la Serra, and administered by professional healthcare workers to treat people with coronavirus strains.

The town came about this alternative treatment due to the fact that it does not have a lot of advanced equipment, such as respirators, to keep up with COVID-19’s impact in Bolivia.

Originally, the government did not exactly approve of the treatment; however, the lower house has approved a special bill that authorizes the production and therapeutic use of the CDS. It is known as MMS (Miracle Mineral Solution).

Tourism Hit and Recommendation

Bolivia was one of the most tourism-dependent countries in South America, and the hit was felt by many since tourism provides 110,000 jobs for the people. Even domestic travel has suffered greatly. Even though the total percentage of unemployment in 2020 was only 5.61%, according to Statista, COVID-19’s impact in Bolivia has affect many. These people are eager to get back to work in any way possible.
Travel to Bolivia is still not recommended, and it is not allowed if it is deemed nonessential. According to the CDC, Bolivia is still at level 3, and it is ranked among the 10th highest for coronavirus cases in South American countries and countries in the Caribbean. Those who are fully vaccinated are permitted to go, but upon returning, they should get tested three to five days afterward. According to Statista, due to the lack of tourism, the tourism economy has taken a big hit in domestic tourism, with a loss of $530 million.

Vaccines for Everyone

On September 7, Bolivia received a shipment of 150,000 doses of the vaccine from Mexico. President Luis Arce’s administration estimated that some 7.5 million out of 11 million inhabitants are a vulnerable population that should receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. The country has already seen a dramatic increase in vaccinations in just a short period of time.
The country has also been encouraging and promoting everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated, including the indigenous groups in rural areas. The country tends to spread the awareness of the vaccine, and just like many South American countries are now doing, they want to help all of their people.
Rinko Kinoshita, Bolivia’s representative for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), did a 5-question interview with The Pivot. She stated, “Through United Nations interagency collaboration, we also are supporting the government with communication campaigns to promote COVID-19 vaccination, especially in indigenous rural communities on the border with Brazil”.

– Veronica Rosas
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 on FGMThe COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of female genital mutilation, especially in African communities. The Orchid Project reported this elevated level after communicating with organizations and activists who are working to end FGM. COVID-19 has certainly negatively affected FGM. Women are prevented from leaving their communities to escape the practice because governments are obliged to implement lockdown measures. The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened issues of gender inequality. The pandemic has deprived women of essential health services and resources. The lack of access to adequate medical assistance is especially dangerous because FGM practices can lead to serious health consequences.

The Traditional Practice of FGM

According to the World Health Organization, “traditional circumcisers” mostly conduct FGM, but FGM is also often administered by healthcare providers who believe the practice is safer when performed by a medical professional. However, FGM has no health benefits and only harms women and girls. Women undergo FGM because of cultural norms. In many communities, women’s fears of rejection make them more likely to endure FGM for social acceptance. Moreover, some communities believe that FGM increases marriageability, which provides economic reasons for FGM as marrying off a girl means the economic burden on the family is eased. FGM practices also link to “cultural ideals of femininity and modesty.” COVID-19 has increased incidents of FGM because people see lockdowns as “an opportunity to carry out FGM undetected.”

The Severity of FGM

FGM has immediate and long-term health implications such as extreme pain, urinary tract issues, hemorrhaging, sexual problems and even psychological problems. The mutilation of the genital tissue may necessitate further medical surgeries in order to address the damage and resulting complications. COVID-19 has significantly increased the rates and severity of FGM because of restrictions preventing women from leaving communities to seek medical assistance and lockdowns providing an opportunity to carry out the practice discreetly.

The Joint Programme on FGM

One of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals includes the elimination of FGM by 2030. In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF created the Joint Programme on FGM to support the goal of putting an end to FGM practices globally. The initiative works at all levels to raise awareness about the devastating consequences of FGM and encourage communities, girls and women to renounce the practice. The initiative focuses on 17 key countries where rates of FGM are notably high.

By 2019, the initiative had already “helped more than 3.2 million girls and women receive prevention, protection and care services related to FGM.” Furthermore, 31.6 million people in 15 countries agreed to stop the practice of FGM. The program has led to countries such as Nigeria banning FGM entirely. The Joint Programme on FGM acknowledges that COVID-19 has exacerbated incidents of FGM. To address this, the initiative has advocated for governments and humanitarian organizations to include FGM response and prevention efforts in their COVID-19 response plans.

Female genital mutilation is a culturally entrenched practice requiring interventions to include communities in order to break through cultural barriers. Organizations are working to create awareness of this human rights violation and create lasting change to end female genital mutilation by 2030.

Ainara Ruano
Photo: Flickr

LMIC MidwivesAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), utilizing well-trained midwives could be a game-changer. Globally, midwives could decrease maternal, newborn and stillborn mortality by 83%. This is why WHO advocates for a midwife or other skilled health professional at every birth globally. Midwives are health professionals trained to manage uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries and guide the family through the immediate post-natal period. More low-to-middle-income country (LMIC) midwives are needed to reduce maternal mortality rates.

Midwifery

Midwives can deliver 87% of the maternal health service need. However, only 42% of skilled midwives work in the 73 countries with 90% of the maternal, newborn and stillborn deaths. Further, a 2020 University of Dundee study found that midwifery is less effective in low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs). Where it does exist, there is a lack of standardization in education, training and regulation. Fortunately, organizations are focusing on increasing the number of LMIC midwives, midwifery education options and midwifery regulation.

Role of the Midwife

Not only do midwives deliver babies but they also play several other key roles. As members of their communities, they are culturally sensitive. Because they have community trust, they effectively promote strong health measures. Midwives help patients with family planning and breast and cervical screenings. They advocate for female rights and the elimination of genital mutilation practices. Midwives counsel teens on sexual and reproductive health and counsel victims of gender-based violence.

The midwife-led model of care is one in which the midwife is the lead medical provider for childbirth. According to a 2020 study, the holistic midwife-led model leads to more patient satisfaction and fewer unnecessary procedures. The study, however, suggests that the model needs stronger implementation in LMICs.

As the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) declares, “The deficits are highest in the areas where needs are greatest.” Luckily, the UNFPA and other programs are pushing to increase the number of LMIC midwives, midwifery education and midwifery regulation.

UNFPA: Supporting LMIC Midwives

Supporting LMIC midwives and building an LMIC midwifery workforce has been the focus of UNFPA since 2008. The organization works with more than 40 global partners and more than 300 national partners. Together they work on strengthening competency-based midwifery training and bringing it to scale. The focus is developing strong regulatory processes to analyze outcomes, supporting midwives in gaining a stronger voice through the creation of midwife organizations and increasing funding for midwife services. As of the end of 2018, the UNFPA trained more than 105,000 midwives and 8,500 midwifery tutors in 650 midwifery schools. This has helped create 250 midwifery associations and branches. The UNFPA’s midwifery support extends to more than 120 countries, including 39 countries with the highest global maternal mortality rates.

Tunza Mama: Midwifery Network in Kenya

While the UNFPA works globally, there are also national programs striving to support LMIC midwives. There is a shortage of midwives in public health facilities in Kenya because the government cannot afford to pay them. The African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) International University launched the Tunza Mama network in 2018. This provides an alternative option to access midwives and improve the socio-economic status of Kenyan midwives.

Tunza Mama midwives visit women at their homes. Clients pay directly to the Tunza Mama bank account and the midwives get 95% of the fee. Tunza Mama spreads awareness of its existence using social media, which is how 70% of mothers came to know about the program. During the COVID pandemic, Tunza Mama is using mobile and e-learning digital platforms to reduce the need for in-person sessions by 75%. Some challenges include the fact that Tunza Mama is a paid service so only the middle-class can use it. The next steps include subsidizing the system so marginalized women can also gain access.

SWEDD Midwifery Training in the Sahel

In Mali, according to 2016 demographic data, the shortage of midwives and obstetric nurses is severe. There are only 1.4 midwives per 10,000 people versus the WHO recommendation of 23 doctors, nurses or midwives per 10,000 people. Also, according to 2018 data, 36% of teenagers have begun childbearing. Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.

Mali is part of the Sahel, the semi-arid region of north-central and western Africa. The Sahel also includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The maternal and neonatal mortality rate in this region is one of the highest rates in the world. In response, in 2016, the World Bank began working with Sahel governments with support from the UNFPA to launch the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) project, which provides midwifery training. Since the launch, more than 6,600 midwives have been trained. In addition to training LMIC midwives, SWEDD’s overarching goal is to achieve the “demographic dividend” by empowering women and girls through education, family planning and more.

Together, global organizations such as the UNFPA, local networks such as Tunza Mama and regional collaborations including SWEDD are pushing to boost the number of LMIC midwives. This will significantly lower maternal and newborn mortality in areas that need it the most.

– Shelly Saltzman
Photo: Flickr

Mental Health in Yemen
Mental health in Yemen requires attention due to the country’s ongoing troubles. For six years now, Yemen has been facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world—more than 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children who have no hand in the fight for power and status. To make the matter worse, the outburst of COVID-19 drove the country into “an emergency within an emergency.”

Only half of Yemen’s health facilities are capable of functioning in the worst of circumstances, and amidst the shortage of masks, gloves, clean water and sanitation, the number of cases rose up to 2,221 as of February 25, 2021, with 624 losing their lives due to the lack of supplies to treat the virus. The country is facing a huge crisis, and the crisis is affecting the mental health of its citizens as much as their physical bodies. Amidst the lack of functioning facilities and death surrounding them from every direction, the increased pressure on the Yemenis worsened their mental health further. Here is some information about mental health in Yemen.

Mental Health in Yemen

Due to the crippling stress on the backs of the Yemeni people, an estimate of one in five people in Yemen suffer from a mental health disorder, according to a study that the Family Counselling and Development Foundation conducted in 2017; this includes depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, due to the lack of education and facilities, the number of psychiatrists is small with almost 0.2 psychiatrists per 100,000 people as of 2016. This amounts to 40 psychiatrists for the entire population. Additionally, to add to the misery and the deteriorating mental health in Yemen, some of the few existing mental health services closed due to the pandemic.

UNFPA and Psychological Support Centers

However, amidst all the odds, and all the difficulties that Yemen is facing in trying to stay afloat, UNFPA has not ceased to offer its mental health services to the survivors of gender-based violence and improve the mental health in Yemen. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the United Nations sector that works
to protect youth’s potential and ensures that every childbirth is safe.

In the beginning, social workers carried out the work, however, in 2018, the UNFPA offered its help and assistance through psychological support centers as well. These centers were capable of providing “specialized and clinical mental health care, including through telephone assistance.” Currently, even during the coronavirus outbreak, six UNFPA- supported psychological centers are operating and helping those in need—the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid provides support to two of these centers that provide crucial assistance to the Yemenis when they need it most.

Due to the increased demands for mental support, UNFPA increased the number of counselors available for people’s convenience. The counselors became available to deliver telecounseling services via 18 toll-free telecounseling hotlines in order to assist survivors of gender-based violence and educate the population on COVID-19 prevention. The results were so impressive: nearly 18,000 people received specialized psychological support through the toll-free hotline from 2018. Moreover, more than 25,000 survivors of violence received psychological support in the form of in-person counseling. UNFPA aims to help assist 5.5 million people via essential and life-saving services by 2019.

The Internationational Organization of Migration (IOM)

Moreover, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) provides a safe place for children to escape from the blood and hunger in the country they must reside in—a place to feel a sense of normalcy and to live in the beauty of their childhood, even for a few hours. The children participate in a variety of activities to help them learn and play, such as storytelling, artwork and more.

Beginning in March 2016, IOM offered community-based psychosocial support to nearly 400,000 children. More than half of these children watched their homes getting destroyed and had to live in informal sites.

Yemen has been facing a depilating economic and social crisis until now, and this has been affecting mental health in Yemen every day. However, with the help of various organizations, the citizens of Yemen will receive sufficient treatment and care to help rebuild their country gradually.

– Reem Agha
Photo: Flickr

Child Marriages in the Middle East
Globally, more than 700 million females living today were child brides. Annually, the Middle East contributes 700,000 child brides to its total of 40 million child brides. Although the number of Syrian child brides has decreased, there has been an increase in the number of child brides in all Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) communities that have seen internal displacement and are otherwise facing conflict. In Iraq, 15% of marriages were child marriages in 1997, but this rose to 24% in 2016. About 5% of those in child marriages in Iraq were younger than 15. In Yemen, which does not have a minimum legal age for marriage, two-thirds of marriages involve child brides, including 44% under the age of 15. Here is some information about child marriages in the Middle East.

Reasons for Child Marriages in the Middle East

In pre-war Syria, 15% of women between the ages of 20 and 25 were wed before they were 18. The number of child brides in all Syrian communities has risen nowadays, even among those not displaced. Among the internally displaced, including migrants whose limitations are conspicuous as opposed to hosting communities, the figures have also increased drastically.

Through forced migration and war, child marriages represent negative coping factors, reinforcing tradition. Families worry about the safety of girls and their “honor” and see marriage as a means of care and protection for their daughters. The girls’ families often desire that they enter marriages with local men in order to gain host community recognition and dowries.

Dangers of Child Marriages

Child marriages affect the development of young girls, which frequently results in childbirth and subsequent emotional withdrawal of the young mother. Early marriages often lead to limited schooling, increased fertility rate and poverty. The development and implementation of the legal minimum age for marriage are necessary to protect girls, who the culture of child marriage influences more than boys. Many countries in the MENA region have minimum marriage age laws, ranging from 13 years of age in Iran to 20 years of age in Tunisia for women and from 15 years of age in Yemen to 21 years of age in Algeria for men.

Plans to End Child Marriages in the Middle East

The Regional Accountability Framework to End Child Marriage in the Arab States/Mena (RAF), a partnership between UNICEF and UNFPA, promotes encouraging women through schooling, health services, character building and employment prosperity through improving their rights and services. Community commitments alter social norms and actions by improving public policy structures and encouraging cross-sectoral efforts to gain skills through collaborative initiatives on health, education, child security and social security. Further approaches include more years of mandatory education, establishing and implementing the legal minimum age of marriage and growing awareness in the community about the damage that early marriage causes. Engaging families in finding ways to avoid child marriage is another solution to ending child marriage that some government officials are discussing.

Overall, awareness of child marriage could save many children. It is a problem that is getting out of hand that has been taking away from girls’ childhoods and leaving them in miserable situations for the rest of their lives. The help of organizations all over the world can make a significant change in the lives of these victims.

– Rand Lateef
Photo: Flickr

Female Genital Mutilation in Somalia
Female genital mutilation (FGM) impacts more than 200 million women all around the world. The practice, which girls mostly experience between their infancy and teenage years, encompasses a range of procedures that involve the partial or total removal of external genitalia. It usually occurs in an informal setting without anesthesia. FGM is a global concern, but sadly there is a collection of nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that grant it legitimacy. One of these nations is Somalia, and as the COVID-19 pandemic forces many people to stay at home, circumcisors are subjecting women to door-to-door mutilation. Here is some information about female genital mutilation in Somalia and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting it.

A Universal Ritual

While the prevalence of FGM varies greatly across the many countries that practice it, Somalia has the highest percentage at 98% according to UNICEF. Many nations, including the United Republic of Tanzania and Togo, have met the practice with disdain and objection; however, more than half the women in Somalia think it should continue.

To most people, this would seem outside the realm of possibility, but tradition runs deep in Somalia, and disputing the practice of genital mutilation holds a gravity on par with blasphemy. The procedure itself is a family experience and a rite of passage where, according to Islamic Relief Worldwide, local women use “knives, scissors or razor blades to remove parts of the genitals, while female relatives hold the girl down.”

Cutting Season

There is no law in the Somali Constitution that specifically criminalizes and punishes the practice of female genital mutilation in Somalia, so the tradition remains stable; so much so that experts recognize summer vacation as “cutting season” for girls. Breaking from school means they have time to undergo and recover from the procedure before the next school year starts.

While there is little formal data to strengthen this case, Somali circumcisors agree that the months of July and August are their peak season for FGM. They even pride themselves on the fact that girls travel from other countries like Djibouti to undergo circumcision in Somalia; however, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) saw a “massive” jump in the number of girls who underwent the procedure in 2020 due to coronavirus lockdown.

COVID-19 and FGM

The UNFPA projected that 290,000 girls experienced cutting in 2020 and that an extra 2 million girls could undergo cutting in the next decade due to the setbacks of prevention programs along with the vitality of circumcisors in their efforts to lobby the public into believing that FGM is a healthy rite of passage into womanhood. The lockdown has also led to this massive increase in FGM and the economic state has driven circumcisors to go from door to door, offering to cut the girls stuck inside. While the frequency of mutilation rises, the awareness declines as advocates cannot access communities where FGM is popular.

Solutions

The pandemic has had detrimental effects on efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation in Somalia, but the country has not lost hope. Young women from all across the region are taking a stand against female genital mutilation and those who perpetuate it. The Y-Peer Youth Network is one such group. In 2002, the UNFPA founded the network to educate young people, communities and even health care workers about sexual and reproductive health. Other topics of advocacy are gender-based violence and child marriage.

While FGM is a widespread issue in Somalia, the young girls working to stop it are making waves and shaking the status quo to its core. To learn more about the Y-Peer Youth Network, check out its website.

– Matthew Hayden
Photo: Flickr