I was in Chicago on Friday for an International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium and had an exciting opportunity to talk about protecting the health of women and girls in crisis zones. At AmeriCares, we’re working to make a difference in these areas every day.
We hear about disasters, conflicts and refugees and we’re led to believe that these crises are short term and acute. But that’s a myth. These disasters go on for long periods of time. Here in the United States, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina there are still people in New Orleans who are displaced from their homes. Yet the public expects communities in Nepal and West Africa to recover within a year from the earthquake and Ebola epidemic.
There are also dimensions of these crises that aren’t readily apparent. While the world was focused on treating Ebola, for example, I spoke with women in Sierra Leone and Liberia and they told me: ‘My kids are still getting sick and dying of malaria and diarrhea.’ And even though the Ebola epidemic has ended, West Africa is facing an ongoing health crisis. There’s an incredibly high rate of maternal and child mortality and another crisis has emerged. When schools were closed, girls were at home and at risk. In one community, more than 100 teenage girls became pregnant.
I’m encouraged and dismayed by the media attention on Syria. I’m encouraged because the media is finally covering this ongoing disaster, but also dismayed: If we wait until refugees are headed to Europe, we’re too late. We need to meet the needs of women and children in the countries surrounding Syria—Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Refugees are risking death to leave because their lives in these first entry countries are so desperate. I can’t think of anything worse than being on the run while pregnant or with a small child.
At AmeriCares, we’re supplying medicine to the Syrian American Medical Society, which operates over 100 medical facilities in Syria, including underground trauma hospitals. We are putting medicine in the hands of frontline health workers, where we can really make a difference. Most UN agencies and NGOs work in refugee camps. We are trying to reach the even more neglected 50 percent of refugees living in communities outside of the camps.
Now women are facing another crisis: Zika. The Centers for Disease Control has guidelines of what women of childbearing age should be doing to remain safe—use insecticide and consider family planning. But when we talk to our folks on the ground they tell us: ‘We don’t use insecticide.’ It’s important to ask women in the community, ‘What are normal practices here? What can we do to change behavior?’ Then we can find local solutions that will be effective against the epidemic. For example, our El Salvador clinic has seen an uptick in pregnant women asking for ultrasounds. With this information in hand, we can take into account not just the reality of Zika, but also the anxiety of Zika.
To best serve women and children in crisis zones, we need to ask them what’s really happening. As responders, we need to listen, then act.