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UN agency urges fundamental change to address women's health in conflicts, disasters

UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 3 (Xinhua) -- The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) on Thursday said that the health needs of women and adolescents are too often neglected in humanitarian response to natural disasters and conflicts around the world, calling for a fundamental change to address women's health in conflicts and disasters.

According to UNFPA's latest State of the World Population Report (SWOP), entitled Shelter from the Storm, the world needs to set a new agenda for humanitarian response that will ensure that millions of people, especially women and adolescents, are not left behind.

Out of the 100 million people in need of humanitarian assistance around the world today, an estimated 26 million of them are women and adolescent girls in their childbearing years.

The report added that sexual and reproductive health services critical to the health and survival of women and adolescents remain the scarcest at the time when they are needed most.

The majority of maternal deaths occur in countries that are considered fragile because of conflict or disaster, and pregnancy and childbirth kill more than 500 women every day in these settings.

"One of the weakest areas of resilience currently is among women and girls, and the institutions that serve them," the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said in its annual report this year. "As long as inequality and inequitable access short-circuit their rights, abilities and opportunities, women and girls will remain among those most in need of humanitarian assistance and least equipped to contribute to recovery or resilience."

The demand for humanitarian assistance has grown every year since 2011, but funding has not increased at the same pace, leaving unprecedented gaps, translating into inadequate or insufficient responses for millions of people in need, according to the report.

UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin wrote in a foreword that every day, 507 women and adolescents die from pregnancy and childbirth complications in emergency situations and in fragile States, despite the "remarkable progress" of the past decade to protect their health and rights.

"Together we must transform humanitarian action by placing the health and rights of women and young people at the centre of our priorities," he said. "Together we must strive for a world where women and girls are no longer disadvantaged in multiple ways but are equally empowered to realize their full potential, and contribute to the development and stability of their communities and nations -- before, during or after a crisis."

The report noted that in a fragile world, women and girls pay a disproportionate price due to discrimination and gender inequality that see them enjoying less of almost everything -- income, land and other assets, access to health services, education, social networks, a political voice, equal protection under the law, and the realization of basic human rights.

"By many measures, more countries are considered fragile than five or six years ago, leaving them more vulnerable to conflict or the effects of disasters," the report said. "When a crisis strikes, women and girls are disproportionately disadvantaged and less prepared or empowered to survive or recover."

It called for moving sexual and reproductive health to the center of humanitarian action. "A fundamental shift is needed: away from reacting to disasters and conflicts as they unfold and sometimes linger for decades, towards prevention, preparedness and empowerment of individuals and communities to withstand and recover from them," said the report.

"The health and rights of women and adolescents should not be treated like an afterthought in humanitarian response," Osotimehin said. "For the pregnant woman who is about to deliver, or the adolescent girl who survived sexual violence, life-saving services are as vital as water, food and shelter."

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