Cathline Neels, the GBV and Humanitarian Program Analyst with UNFPA Namibia, spoke to New Era about the World Humanitarian Day, which is observed on August 19. UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) is the UN agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.
What is the World Humanitarian Day all about?
World Humanitarian Day is a time to recognize those who face danger and adversity, in order to help others. The day was designated by the General Assembly to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. This year’s theme is Inspire the World’s Humanity.
When an emergency strikes, life can change in an instant. Conflict and natural disasters can destroy cities, villages, homes and people – resulting in flight for safety. Forced to flee or find shelter elsewhere, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, families and individuals find themselves without basic necessities – from obvious things like food and water to hygiene supplies, contraceptives and medical care. Additionally, displaced people face more risks and vulnerabilities during displacement and therefore rely on the support of government, NGOs and development partners. Humanitarian assistance is all about saving lives and restoring dignity.
UNFPA assists and protects women, men, boys and girls made vulnerable by natural disaster, armed conflict and other causes. This includes refugees, internally displaced persons and people made homeless or vulnerable by natural disaster. UNFPA works with partners to ensure that the specific needs of women are factored into the planning of all humanitarian assistance.
Why does UNFPA collect data during emergencies? Isn’t this significantly less important than providing medical care, food and housing?
Data is the cornerstone of any intervention to understand the severity and complexity of the crisis. Reliable data through rapid assessments about the size, health, needs, income, housing conditions, age and sex of affected populations – is crucial in planning an effective and efficient response following a humanitarian crisis, be it a natural or conflict crisis.
However, we should note that crises often disrupt the collection and analysis of such data on the ground as systems are disrupted, hence the need for special mechanisms to be in place to operate in these circumstances when need be.
UNFPA provides assistance to communities as they move beyond an acute crisis and into a reconstruction phase through data collection activities such as censuses, which provide detailed information for planning, and rapid health assessments, which allow for appropriate, effective and efficient relief.
For example, in Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda and many other countries, UNFPA has helped to conduct the first censuses after an emergency. This has provided essential information to rebuild countries. In Namibia, we are lucky to have good governance and stability to be able to carry out successful periodical census surveys on population, health proximities and livelihoods. These are all useful data in pre- and post-disaster planning for any country.
Everybody in society is affected in a crisis. Would you say some groups are more affected than others, and why?
Yes they are, especially boys, girls, women and the elderly. Violence, especially gender-based violence, is common during humanitarian settings. It may become more acute in the wake of a natural disaster, and it occurs at every stage of a conflict. Women and adolescents, whose vulnerability is exacerbated in the chaos of a crisis, be it a chronic crisis like drought or a fast onset like a flood, are usually more at risk. Being separated from one’s family and community, or undertaking certain roles, such as collecting food or firewood further away, can put them at even greater risk of exploitation and abuse. The challenge is that most violence cases go under-reported during these crises. Also, we must remember that men are affected too. Crises cause many communities to lose their independence and dignity.
Does UNFPA make any special efforts to meet the needs of men affected by emergencies? Aren’t men also important?
Yes, of course the needs of men and boys are important too! In an emergency situation, males and females face different risks and vulnerabilities. Men and boys are more often forced to fight and be killed (in armed conflicts), or lose their livelihood which has a huge impact on men for not being able to provide for their families any more, or the family have lost their crops, animals and home. As the perceived head of household, men are traumatized when they lose their crop fields, animals and homes, making them vulnerable to a sense of inadequacy, as he no longer can provide for his family. He now relies on handouts from friends, family or government. UNFPA in Namibia, and globally, strives to meet the needs of both men and women.
Namibia has a relevant young population, what effect does emergencies have specifically on young people?
Yes, young people often represent a large proportion of those affected by crises. In Namibia, 69 percent of the population is young people up to the age of 34 years and when displaced, they are particularly vulnerable to HIV and urgently need information and services to protect themselves from diseases, unintended pregnancies and sexual abuse and exploitation.
What would you say is UNFPA’s comparative advantage to respond to the drought and flood disasters in Namibia?
UNFPA Namibia is often well placed to respond because of its ongoing reproductive health, gender and data programming, and its relationships with relevant ministries, and the UN and NGO partners. In order to respond in a comprehensive and timely manner, emergency preparedness is part and parcel of UNFPA’s development planning and the country programme. UNFPA can also support countries during their transition from emergency response to recovery and reconstruction because the Fund remains in a country after the traditional humanitarian actors have departed.
What practical examples can you give us of UNFPA’s comparative advantage during disasters?
UNFPA moves quickly with governments, UN agencies, community-based organizations and other partners to protect the reproductive health of communities and to mainstream protection concerns in crisis. Examples include: UNFPA sends the equipment, medicine and supplies needed for clinical delivery assistance and emergency obstetric care; provides training for health workers and midwives to make sure women receive the care they need during all phases of pregnancy and childbirth; leads the organization and distribution of ‘dignity kits’ to displaced women and their families. These kits contain soap, washcloths, toothbrushes and other toiletries, sanitary supplies for menstruation and other items based on local needs and preferences. The Fund also provides clean delivery kits – soap, cloth sheets, gloves and new razor blades and string for cutting and tying the umbilical cord – to prevent fatal infections in women who cannot reach a medical facility in time; ships male and female condoms and other family planning supplies within hours of an emergency and coordinates GBV prevention and response strategies.
You recently returned from a long humanitarian deployment to the crisis in South Sudan. Tell us about that?
In December 2013, violence broke out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and spread rapidly across the country. I was deployed to Bentui and Malakal, the UN Mission bases in South Sudan in Unity and Upper Nile states. I was working in camps with up to 70 000 internally displaced people due to the crisis. Even before the crisis, the country had one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. The conflict has further deteriorated the health system, leaving many pregnant women without access to basic care. Currently, UNFPA and partners are providing life-saving reproductive health services to populations affected by the crisis, and are working to establish mechanisms to prevent and address gender-based violence.