Press Release

UNFPA News Conference: Saving Afghan Women's Lives

22 October 2001

Afghan women and girls in need of life-saving reproductive health assistance was the topic of a UNFPA News Conference Call held for international reporters on Monday 22 October, 2001.

Reporters were briefed on the situation in Afghanistan, UNFPA's humanitarian assistance to the refugees and the special needs in emergencies of women and girls.

The news conference heard testimonies from Olivier Brasseur, UNFPA's Representative in Pakistan; Pamela DeLargy, Manager of the agency's Humanitarian Response Group and Phyllis Oakley of the United States Committee for UNFPA, former Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. The testimonies emphasized that lifesaving and dignity-protecting reproductive health services should always be part of humanitarian interventions at the earliest possible stage.

"We often forget about the special needs that women and girls have, particularly reproductive health care," said Pamela DeLargy.

"What we are trying to do is to make sure that very basic reproductive health supplies also go in with the other supplies and reach those who have some capability for using them. This is not rocket science," Ms. DeLargy said. "We are talking about some very basic supplies, one of which is a simple home delivery kit, which consists of a plastic sheet, a clean razor for cutting the umbilical cord and a piece of string for tying the umbilical cord; this can be used by a midwife or someone in a woman's family to help her deliver cleanly at home."

Most Afghan women deliver at home, she noted and pointed out that they faced serious risk of infection and complications "if they do not have these kinds of clean supplies."

UNFPA had recently issued an appeal based on the assumption of a massive refugee movement out of Afghanistan and the need for access to a small portion of the population inside the country, Ms. DeLargy explained. That appeal, for $4.5 million, would cover basic equipment, supplies, training, information and education interventions on the safe motherhood issues as well as care and prevention for reproductive tract infections and HIV prevention during the first phases of the emergency. To complete the later stages such as health system reconstruction, rehabilitation and training, UNFPA expects to need about $20 million.

An estimated one million Afghan refugees are expected in Pakistan and half a million in Iran while another 200,000 would spread among the northern countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Eighty per cent would be women and children.

Dr. Olivier Brasseur, UNFPA's Representative in Pakistan, said that despite the closure of the Afghan borders, the Fund continued to send supplies and some money into the country, using local non-governmental organizations. "We are maintaining a very thin operation," said Dr. Brasseur, noting that the women were totally destitute and that "receiving some care means a lot" to them.

Prior to recent developments in Afghanistan, the UNFPA had been supporting 50 clinics inside the country, continued Dr. Brasseur. Very often the clinics functioned with unofficial approval from the authorities but every so often, people wearing long beards would storm them and the women would get beaten up and thrown into the streets. It would then take about a month or two before the women would summon the confidence to return.

The UNFPA was already looking ahead to what it would do inside Afghanistan once the situation allowed it to get back in, said Dr. Brasseur. "We will have to address emergencies. We will have to address rehabilitation and, at a later time, a reconstruction program. When I say reconstruction, I do not mean bricks. I mean people. We will have to help these people to reconstruct themselves."

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UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided more than $5 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support sustainable development efforts

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