Press Release

Overcoming War's Devastating Health Legacy in Africa's Great Lakes Region

17 June 2002
Author: UNFPA

Geneva--Decades of violence, war and civil strife have had a disastrous impact on women and men's reproductive health, international experts on refugees and health noted today. Efforts to address this crisis, they said, must include adolescents and men as target groups.

The experts spoke at a special event on reproductive health challenges in Africa's Great Lakes region, organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) at its annual Executive Board meeting. They pointed out that most of the basic health infrastructure in the region-which includes Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda-has been shattered, HIV/AIDS continues to spread at previously unseen levels and sexual violence remains rampant.

"Traditionally, young people in our society do not talk about sexual matters with their parents or other grown-ups. The little information they get is from their peers, and the result is a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies and abortions. In a crisis situation, they become even more vulnerable, and it is of vital importance to create youth centres and offer qualified peer education," said Dr. Mashako Mamba, Minister of Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is also important to reach men, particularly traditional authority figures like clan chiefs, political and religious leaders, to change their attitudes about empowering girls and women, said Dr. Mamba. "When a boy is born, everybody rejoices. When a girl is born, there is sadness in the family."

Dr. Françoise Bigirimana, representative in Burundi of Cordaid, a Netherlands-based relief agency, was not optimistic about changing adult men's attitudes and behaviour, and she emphasised the need to reach young people "before it is too late". The best hope, she said, is to reach out to men as fathers of young girls and boys, who want the best for their children.

While peace is slowly re-emerging in the Great Lakes region, it is still home to the world's most desperate humanitarian emergency and the world's highest maternal and infant mortality rates. Thousands of combatants are demobilizing and need help to change behaviours and habits in order to be reintegrated into society.

"We see how young people, especially those who have lost their protective family network, easily fall victim to sexual violence including sexual bartering in refugee camps. The efforts we make to organize the camps in a safer way are very important," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. "A lot of the sexual exploitation and bartering would stop if the world community was willing to sufficiently fund the World Food Programme." He added, "A refugee camp can offer important help for people to reintegrate into society."

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya A. Obaid chaired the discussion. Also taking part were: Walter Fust, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; Hakan Sandbladh, senior officer of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Rose Mukantabana, vice-president of Pro-Femmes, a Rwanda-based nongovernmental organization.

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UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided some $5.6 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support sustainable development efforts.

Contact Information:

Kristin Hetle
Tel.: +1 212-297-5020

Population : 8.7 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 99%
Girls 0.96%

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