Women’s sexual and reproductive health hazards during floods

(This article was originally published here)

Every year at least two climatic disasters occur in Bangladesh causing significant losses to life and property of those affected. Over the years, the number of deaths caused by natural disasters has fallen sharply with 31,105 deaths in 2011. A study conducted by Professor Dr Mahbuba Nasreen from the University of Dhaka shows that most people in flood prone areas live under the poverty line and among them, women are disproportionately affected due to lack of proper social services.

The impacts of a disaster are more profoundly felt by the poorest and most disadvantaged people, who have the least amount of assets and capacities to bounce back with. Women and girls have lesser knowledge on disaster preparedness and receive disaster warnings much later than men. Consequently, they suffer more and have higher death rates following a disaster. The flood of 1991 is a cautionary indicator of the plight of women following a disaster. Of the 140,000 reported dead in the country, 90% were women.

Women are unable and sometimes unwilling to evacuate before a disaster strikes. Many cyclone shelters lack separate rooms, cooking spaces, and toilets for females, which stops them from seeking shelter during a storm. Women living in the char (islands) areas are especially vulnerable, where reproductive health facilities are not available at all. In the absence of any proper healthcare facilities, traditional unhygienic practices (using torn and dirty clothes during menstruation, for example) are performed.

Poor living conditions and institutional responses during floods cause immense sufferings for women especially to their sexual and reproductive health. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Dhaka looked at the reproductive health status of women and the effectiveness of existing health care services during a disaster. The study collected data from 46 women in six villages in the study area: Faridpur, Shariatpur and Sirajgonj. Women in these areas suffered from menstruation problems, urinary infection, leucorrhoea, waist pain, pregnancy related complications, and malnutrition during disasters. Most of the respondents mentioned that they did not get any type of support regarding their reproductive health during disasters. Our study findings reveal that the biggest problem women face is not being able to visit health care centers due to disrupted communication systems during a disaster.

The study reveals the issues faced by women in their sexual and reproductive health during disasters are mainly due to the absence of institutional support and the effectiveness of existing institutional services. Providing suitable healthcare services in affected areas requires more attention from policy makers. Women in these areas reported that they would benefit from having boats or a similar service that would help them get emergency treatment.

Having an emergency medical team at the shelter centre could also reduce their suffering. It is our recommendation that raising awareness among women on sexual and reproductive health care services can help women know how to reduce their suffering. Based on the findings of our study, we recommend mobile health care services to serve the sexual and reproductive health care needs of women living in these areas following a disaster.

Written by: Abu-Hena Mostofa Kamal is a researcher from Jagannath University in Dhaka.

Photo: Sabita Biswas, 45, runs a women’s group in Mongla. The crops Biswas grows and sells to support her family are constantly at risk of being swept away in floods and sea-water has made her land salty and infertile. Help from CAFOD has empowered her and her community with simple solutions to improve their crops.