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Forced to flee: Women's health and displacement

On International Women’s Day 2014, as on every day, thousands of women will be forced to flee their homes. They will join the 45 million other people worldwide who are displaced, whether due to conflict, persecution, or natural disasters. More than half of all those displaced are women and children. 

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has a long history of providing emergency medical aid to displaced populations, including refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). One of our first large-scale interventions in a refugee crisis was in 1975 as hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the Khmer Rouge. Today, MSF runs projects for IDPs and refugees in more than 30 countries, from the Philippines to South Sudan.

While the provision of medical care to displaced people is at the forefront of MSF’s work around the globe, so too is women’s health. Displaced women face particular health risks as societal support structures break down and access to healthcare becomes difficult.

This briefing paper focuses on the key medical issues facing displaced women and girls, particularly obstetric emergencies and sexual violence. MSF makes it a priority to provide services that address these two critical medical issues in any situation of displacement. Emergency obstetric care and response to sexual violence are both part of the Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health in Crises – a set of priority activities defined by international agencies, designed to minimise mortality and morbidity.

Once these key medical services are assured, Doctors Without Borders can work to respond to other medical issues facing displaced women, such as access to family planning and newborn care.