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International Women's Day 2014

On International Women’s Day 2014, as on every day, thousands of women will be forced to flee their homes, due to conflict, persecution, or natural disasters.

Displaced women face particular health risks as societal support structures break down and access to healthcare becomes difficult.Pregnant women will be a part of any displaced population. Lack of access to routine care puts pregnant women and their babies at risk, but lack of emergency care can be life-threatening.

During conflict, sexual violence including rape can be used as a weapon, and women who have been forced to flee their homes are at particular risk. Sexual violence is a medical emergency, with consequences for physical and mental health.

There are currently 45 million displaced people around the world. 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. 

Read the Briefing Paper: Forced to Flee: Women's health and displacement


Donor engagement

“It’s too painful to think about their pain”

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Sarah Dina, MSF mental health officer in Pakistan

A girl sits next to relief items her family received in an MSF distribution. Photo: Eymeric Laurent-Gascoin

“For many people, telling the story is half the healing. We can’t take the pain away completely. But we can be there for people. Be there in their sadness, their guilt and their fear.

Imagine making the decision to leave your home country, the place of your birth, your childhood, your people, your land... Imagine leaving your home locked but fully furnished, with boxes and suitcases of your things that you can’t carry with you. You can’t carry them with you because you are leaving on foot. You can’t travel across the mountains by car. The roads aren’t good, and even if they were, you might get stopped. Imagine that you are leaving because you are scared. Scared you will be killed. Scared your sister will be raped. Scared your brother will be shot.

Imagine that before you left, you saw the dead bodies of multiple family members. Imagine these bodies weren’t intact. They were in pieces. A leg, metres away from the body it belongs to; an arm in the other direction. Imagine the fear you would have if you were to stay behind. Imagine the guilt you feel about leaving. Imagine that on your month-long trek across the mountain to safety, you have little food and water. You have blisters on your feet from your shoes at the start; you have cuts on your feet from walking barefoot at the end. Imagine walking through the snow, up a steep incline, hiding in the shrubbery when you hear a blast.  Just imagine that as you walk, you see small children along the way who have been abandoned by their parents because it was impossible to carry them any longer through such rough terrain and in such harsh conditions. I tried to imagine how these parents felt. But I stopped myself. It’s too painful to think about their pain.”

MSF has been present in Pakistan since the early 1980s and today still provides emergency medical care to vulnerable populations, including Afghan refugees and displaced persons.

Living with the fear and the effects of sexual violence in Haiti

2011. Mental health department, MSF hospital, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Yann Libessart

Four years after the earthquake, tens of thousands Haitians are still living in insecure makeshift camps around Port-au-Prince. Teenage girls are particularly exposed to sexual violence.

Mildrène, 14 years old: “My family lived in Solino before the earthquake. Not well but we had a roof and could sleep without fear. On January 12, 2010, our house was destroyed. We only had the time to run out and we later retrieved what we could from the rubble. My parents could not find the money to rent another house. After that night we lived in a displaced camp called Accra.

One day I went out to buy food for my dad. On my way a man asked where I was going and gave me money to buy him a meal too. When I came back with his plate, he took my hand and told me he would kill my parents if I did not do whatever he asks. I knew one of his friends had already killed a man in the camp and I was very scared. Then he raped me.

I went home covered with shame and fear. I said nothing to my parents, thinking I had to protect them. A few days later the same man called me to his home but I refused to let him do the same thing.  In the evening he and his friends came to my house and threatened my family. I had to tell my mom what had happened. No one blamed the man but we eventually left the camp and I have not seen him since.

A few months later I was not feeling well and my mom took me to the hospital. The doctor was embarrassed to tell her that I was 5 months pregnant. I suffered a lot throughout my pregnancy until I gave birth shortly before the due date.

My mother sells soap bars and my dad has no job. They are trying to take care of me and my baby but things are not great. I would like to go back to school but that’s impossible. I feel lucky only because I am alive”

A dangerous start in Bor, South Sudan

Road between Leer and Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan. Photo: Jean-Pierre Amigo

South Sudan has faced an outbreak of violence since mid-December, displacing hundreds of thousands of people as the humanitarian situation deteriorates. Lack of access to routine care puts pregnant women and their babies at risk, but lack of emergency care can be life-threatening.

Rhoda, 24 years old: “I was always attending the health clinic in Bor town during my pregnancy. When we had to flee the area, I ran for my life, but being 8 months pregnant, it was not easy. This was the toughest time of my life. My husband was stuck in Juba and I was in the bush convinced I was going to lose our child.

One night, my mother and I got into one big boat with 100 others crossing to Awerial County. People travelled with very basic things, although some came with their animals. The journey was awful, lying in dirty water mixed with animal faeces. When we arrived to Minkaman, my mother found a small area with a few trees, big enough for the two of us to settle. Soon I started having some persistent pains and my mum helped me deliver a baby boy. Two days later he started having high fever and convulsions. My mother went to look for help and by chance met a team from MSF who referred us to the clinic. The baby had an infection of the umbilical cord that spread to his whole body. He is fine now.”


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