Modern conflicts continue to uphold the old adage “when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Women and young children are the most vulnerable members of society for a variety of reasons, meaning they must endure the hard end of the stick when conflict rolls through their communities.
Children are vulnerable for obvious reasons – they are physically weak, ideologically malleable and typically do not have nearly as many financial resources as adults. Their plight is apparent on the United States’ southern border, where thousands of Central American children are seeking shelter after fleeing rampant violence in their home countries.
Women also lag behind men concerning access to financial resources. Widows are left in a rough position after their husbands are killed during armed conflict, having to care for their children and make a livelihood in the absence of a male head-of-household. In addition, rape is a prominent consequence of war and can leave the victim physically, emotionally and socially scarred. Women are often the target of sexual violence, which leaves stigma, disease and unwanted pregnancies in its wake.
Women are most exposed to the setbacks of conflict when they are with child. The World Health Organization reports that out of the 10 countries with the highest maternal mortality rates, eight of them are experiencing conflict.
A recent publication by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that, “Conflict can negatively impact all aspects of reproductive health, directly through damage to services, gender-based violence and forced displacement of populations, and indirectly through reductions in the availability of basic health care and breakdown of normal social institutions.”
The RCOG report also states that humanitarian emergencies lead to 170,000 maternal fatalities each year, and that 15 percent of displaced women face life-threatening complications during pregnancy.
Conflict prevents women from accessing reliable contraceptives as well. An increase in unwanted pregnancies leads to a rise in dangerous abortion practices, which account for 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.
In light of rising global migration and ongoing conflicts, humanitarian workers must continue to be particularly sensitive to reproductive health issues if they wish to help the most exposed victims of violence.
– Kayla Strickland