ESCALATING CONFLICT IN LIBERIA THREATENS HEALTH
OF MILLIONS ACROSS WEST AFRICA, UNFPA WARNS
(Reissued as received.)
AKOSOMBO, Ghana, 9 June (UNFPA)–- As Liberian rebels closed in on Monrovia and refugees began fleeing, a humanitarian strategy meeting convened by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has warned that conflict in the region was worsening an already immense humanitarian crisis, with devastating health consequences for women and girls, in particular.
“Wars and the forced displacement of millions are fuelling a dramatic deterioration in health throughout the region, especially in reproductive health”, read a declaration adopted by the conference in Akosombo, a town on the edge of Akosombo Dam. “The number of women dying in pregnancy and delivery has risen alarmingly, as maternal and infant mortality revert to levels not seen for decades. The disruption of families and communities, loss of access to education and health services, and sheer poverty have left young people dangerously susceptible to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.”
“The situation in West Africa demands urgent action”, said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA’s Executive Director. “War-affected women across the subregion are in dire need of counselling, skills training, health services, social support and, later, income possibilities for reintegration into society. The UNFPA is committed to supporting initiatives that will help girls and women regain control of their lives and build a peaceful future.”
The escalating fighting between Liberia’s rebel groups and the Government has driven hundreds of thousands of Liberians from their homes and threatens to destabilize the entire subregion. The Akosombo statement was issued one day before a United Nations-brokered peace conference brought eight African heads of State and leaders of Liberia’s warring factions to this town to negotiate an end to their country’s civil war.
The conflict in Liberia is severely endangering the health of nearly all Liberians, especially when more than a decade of civil war has left the country’s health services in ruins, according to UNFPA’s Representative in Liberia, Deji Popoola.
“Health care is virtually non-existent”, said Mr. Popoola. “Even in the few places where public services are functioning, teachers, nurses and other public sector employees have not been paid for 15 months.” The health crisis is exacerbated by the inability of international humanitarian agencies to gain access to more than 80 per cent of Liberia’s territory.
Last week’s meeting in Akosombo included UNFPA Representatives from eight African countries and regional officials from the International Centre for Migration and Health (ICMH), World Health Organization (WHO), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Delegates shared findings on the impact of conflict on women’s health and the transmission of HIV/AIDS. They also worked on national and subregional plans to better protect millions of displaced and otherwise war-affected women, men and children in West Africa.
The participants in the four-day meeting also warned of the spill-over effect of the crisis into neighbouring countries, as hundreds of thousands of refugees are moving back and forth across borders, mostly among Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. As the conflict spreads, so does the tragic situation of women and girls. The civil conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, has been accompanied by steep increases in unassisted births, maternal mortality, sexual abuse and violence and, almost certainly, increased HIV infection, according to Tamany Safir, UNFPA Representative in that country.
The extreme vulnerability of women and girls was confirmed by Ama Kwapong, of OCHA’s office in Ghana. “Pregnant women are always the most vulnerable group in situations of conflict and displacement”, Ms. Kwapong said at the meeting. “There is also appalling evidence of systematic physical and sexual abuse of women in war settings and in areas where civilian populations have fled from violent conflict.”
Delegates at the Akosombo meeting implored the international community, humanitarian agencies and other parties to take urgent action to address the mounting disaster. That includes working with governments in the region to end the conflicts and political instability underlying the humanitarian crises, as well as to ensure that pregnancy care, HIV prevention, and protection from exploitation are part of any emergency response.
The UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided about $6 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support development efforts.
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