The world has watched in horror and disbelief at the events unfolding in Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022. But civil society has stepped up to care for all those who find themselves without a home. We all acknowledge that we only pull through by pulling together.
As of July 2022, around 11.8 million people have been forcibly displaced, with 6.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and nearly 5.6 million who have fled the country, seeking a safe haven in neighbouring countries (check out the UNHCR Ukraine portal for the latest data). The majority of displaced people and refugees are women and children.
With millions on the move, people are forced to shelter in crowded spaces with limited sanitation facilities and limited access to life-saving health care, including sexual and reproductive healthcare. The risk of infectious disease outbreaks, including COVID-19, has increased, alongside the increased threat and terrifying reported incidence of abuse, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and trafficking.
What does sexual and reproductive health mean in a crisis ?
Amid the terrifying devastation experienced during a humanitarian crisis, people’s greatest need is safety and protection. Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services can save lives and prevent further suffering. SRH in crisis means access to safe delivery and newborn care, access to safe abortion, and access to contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancies which could further endanger the lives of women and their families. It also includes other key elements like prevention, detection and treatment for SGBV, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, menstrual health products, and comprehensive sexuality education for young people. Ensuring SRHR for all in crisis situations also means protection of people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity.
Women's Health and Family Planning Ukraine
IPPF’s Member Association in Ukraine, Women’ Health and Family Planning Ukraine, is a small organisation with six staff members, whose main areas of longstanding work include advocacy and engagement on reproductive health policy development, comprehensive sexuality education, youth engagement, training for medical professionals, public awareness campaigns on cancer prevention among women and rehabilitation programs for breast cancer survivors.
Following armed conflict in the East of Ukraine in 2014, which left 1.7 million people officially displaced, they provided support and training to medical professionals working on reproductive health and SGBV in emergencies. As of now, the organisation’s staff and volunteers are safe, and most have moved out of Kyiv to the West of Ukraine.
In the countries surrounding Ukraine (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovakia), SRHR, gender equality and women’s rights NGOs alongside human rights defenders are providing the bulk of frontline support to women and girls in need of SRH care. Many of these organizations in countries with authoritarian governments are under direct attack by their governments and operate in incredibly challenging financial and political circumstances.
IPPF is working with our Member Associations and partners in the region to contribute to the frontline response. Our focus is on delivering sexual and reproductive health and SGBV support to those in need, particularly people who face additional systemic barriers to accessing care.
Through our network, we are providing contraceptives, STI and HIV care, safe abortion access, clinical management of rape and psychosocial support, as well as distributing dignity kits and menstrual hygiene items.
In Poland, we are supporting the Polish Women’s Strike to be able to share dignity kits and to link refugees with essential healthcare services. In Hungary, we are supporting Budapest Pride to facilitate the safe passage of LGBTQI persons out of Ukraine, deliver SRH care for refugees, and to provide SGBV referrals and support. In Hungary, we are working with Patent and Emma Association to provide care to survivors of SGBV, and information and access to obstetric and maternity care, especially for Roma people, who are facing more obstacles in accessing healthcare due to systemic discrimination.
Eastern Europe has long been a difficult place for women, girls and LGBTI persons in need of sexual and reproductive healthcare, due to harmful laws that restrict access. Notably, in Poland abortion care is virtually banned, making it impossible for people to access care even in cases of rape. We are working with the Abortion Support Network to support displaced Ukrainian people with access to abortion information, counselling and care in places where they would otherwise be turned away.
We urge the European Union and governments to ensure safety and dignity for people affected by the war
The European Union and governments throughout the region must uphold international humanitarian law and support the humanitarian needs of the Ukrainian population (displaced persons and refugees), wherever they are. The EU must provide direct funding for civil society organisations and local authorities supporting refugees. In countries where access to SRHR is limited, the EU must especially support groups focused on SRHR, SGBV and women’s rights.
When EU funds are going through the governments of EU Member States, the EU must ensure that funds are (only) used, efficiently and effectively, to respond to the needs of the Ukrainian population, with effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms in place, especially in countries like Poland and Hungary where there are grave concerns about the rule of law.
The EU and host countries should also ensure that refugees coming from ethnic groups marginalized by systemic oppression receive the same level of care, empathy, support and attention as all others and are guaranteed safe passage.