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Afghanistan is ‘not a hopeless crisis’, top UN aid official says

Afghanistan is “not a hopeless crisis,” Edem Wosornu of the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, told journalists in New York, following a recent visit to the country, Pakistan and war-wracked Sudan. 

Ms. Wosornu was part of an all-woman delegation in Afghanistan, where the climate crisis has caused widespread water scarcity, generating new food, health, and nutrition needs.  

Overall, 23 million people rely on humanitarian assistance – five times more than in 2019, and over 15 million now face high levels of food insecurity.  Recent deadly floods in central and northern regions have added to the suffering. 

Courageous women colleagues 

Ms. Wosornu said restrictions imposed by the de facto Taliban authorities on Afghan women aid workers have added a layer of complexity to humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. Relatedly, some 1.4 million women and adolescent girls are still under an education ban. 

“While delivering humanitarian assistance, our courageous Afghan female colleagues face many challenges and assume personal risks every day to and from work,” she said. 

Meanwhile, humanitarian partners continue to negotiate with Taliban authorities on the issue.   

Let women work! 

Ms. Wosornu also raised the clampdown in talks with various senior officials, including the Taliban’s economic and foreign ministers, during her four-day visit. 

It was a constant part of my messaging: Afghan women need to work, and it is essential,” she said. 

Asked about the education ban, she said the de facto authorities repeated the message that they need time, to which she responded, “we don’t have time because the numbers speak for themselves”. 

“I was also very clear that the more we wait, the more millions of children will be affected and the more it will impact the society,” she said. 

She also reported that some members of the “de facto authority community…were turning a blind eye to some of the activities that we were doing”.  In some provinces, the UN humanitarians were allowed to move freely. 

“So, there is hope to continue pushing. And the message, as I said before, at all levels was you need to lift these restrictions because we need to do our job in the education sector and the health sector.” 

Remain engaged 

Ms. Wosornu reported that the Afghan people need three things from the international community: continued humanitarian assistance; sustainable solutions, including livelihood and agricultural support, and, finally, to be heard. 

Noting that a $3.6 billion appeal for the country is just 16 per cent funded, she urged the international community to remain engaged in Afghanistan.  

“This is not a hopeless crisis,” she said. “At least I was encouraged to see that the people of Afghanistan continue to fight and push for what they believe in.  The world cannot abandon the people of Afghanistan at this point.” 

Saving lives in Pakistan 

Like Afghanistan, Pakistan has also been hit by recent flooding caused by heavy rains. Ms. Worsonu saw firsthand the impact on agricultural families in Peshawar who have lost their crops and whose children cannot get to school. 

She visited the Government’s emergency centre in the capital, Islamabad, “where they are trying their best to ensure that predictability is key, where they can prevent massive loss of life from the early warning systems”, adding that the authorities have asked for UN support. 

A destroyed building in the Omdurman area of Sudan, where the war that has been ongoing since April 15th has caused widespread destruction to infrastructure.
Nezar Bogdawi

A destroyed building in the Omdurman area of Sudan, where the war that has been ongoing since April 15th has caused widespread destruction to infrastructure.

‘Five-alarm fire’ in Sudan 

She also used the briefing to keep focus on the crisis in Sudan, which she called a “five-alarm fire of the worst kind”.  

Some 18 million people are facing acute hunger after two years of war between the national army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Five million “are a step away from starvation” and the risk of famine is real. Rampant human rights violations have been committed. 

The fighting has forced nine million people to flee to safety, whether elsewhere in Sudan or across the border to countries such as South Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia. 

The UN has repeatedly been pushing for safe humanitarian access and aid delivery, whether across frontlines or borders. 

Ms. Wosornu was asked if she participated in any crossline negotiations, and if progress on this issue can be achieved. 

She said the UN met with the RSF’s so-called civilian arm in Nairobi and with the Government of Sudan in Port Sudan. She expressed hope that the negotiations will be successful, “but what I can tell you is every day we delay in that ability to get across to people, that is when we will lose lives.” 

UN forum in Bahrain closes with calls to support women entrepreneurs in conflict areas

Hailing from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and Gaza, women entrepreneurs were in the spotlight at the closing of the 2024 World Entrepreneurship Investment Forum (WEIF), which has been running since Tuesday in Bahrain’s capital, Manama.

During a panel discussion on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ and later in exclusive interviews with our UN News team that has been reporting from the forum venue, the businesswomen shared moving stories of how their projects inspired them to help others, and of the need for more funding.

Gaza conflict hampers women-led projects  

Tahani Abu Daqqa, a Palestinian businesswoman from Gaza has been in the enclave since the start of the most recent conflict, about seven months. She left three weeks ago and was about to return, but the crossing was closed, giving her the unexpected opportunity to attend the WEIF.

Ms. Abu Daqqa said she was “the first Palestinian woman to work in Gaza to create job opportunities for women such as clothing and biscuit factories, so that they could…remain in Gaza because many Gazans were going to work outside the Strip.”  

Tahani Abu Daqqa (on the screen,) a Palestinian businesswoman from Gaza.
UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

However, her work towards women’s empowerment has faced challenges. Recurring conflict in the Gaza Strip since 2007 has impeded the progress of her projects.  

By example, she said: “I established the Damour Foundation, focusing on environmental initiatives, like water-attracting devices and sewage treatment units powered by solar energy. I also created ‘Gaza Life for Renewable Energy,’ while facing financing challenges. Eventually I succeeded, only to see the project destroyed before completion.”

After the outbreak of the current conflict, everything changed.  

“Suddenly I became displaced in an area near the sea. I could have rented a small place to stay but the women and children were staying on the streets in the rain because they had been displaced and I had to do something to help them. We had nothing, no banks, no money.”  

Ms. Abu Daqqa said she completed a recent project but fell into more than $2.5 million worth of debt, yet “I forgot all the problems I was going through…I started thinking about the women who stay with their children in the rain [without shelter], so I began collecting money from friends and relatives to build camps.”

Participants take part in a panel discussion on women entrepreneurs in conflict zones at World Entrepreneurs Investment Forum in Bahrain.
UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

Unfortunately, she continued, there were no tents because international institutions were not prepared. “So, for this work in a time of emergency, I started buying wood, gathered relatives and volunteers, and started building tents day and night.”

“Jewish friends raised $5,000 for me to get out of Gaza, but I allocated the money to build tents for the people,” she explains to UN News.

‘Sudanese lives and dreams matter’

Alaa Hamadto, a Sudanese mother of three daughters, is the CEO and founder of Solar Food, a clean tech startup and a pioneer in the dried foods industry in Sudan.  

“Solar Food uses a solar drying process to produce a variety of organic dried food products which are packaged in environmentally friendly packaging, catering to both the retail and wholesale market.”

Ms. Hamadto’s factory was destroyed amid the conflict in Sudan. “We used to export our products to seven countries, including the UK, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar. My business was located at the factory premises in Sudan,” she explains.

She went on to say, “My ultimate vision was to have a good impact on people’s lives. This can be achievable by helping smallholder farmers. I’m also trying to spread the concept of solar drying and how it’s beneficial to the people.”

Alaa Hamadto is a Sudanese mother of three daughters and she is also the CEO and founder of Solar Food.
UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

After war broke out a little more than a year ago, Ms. Hamadto says she lost everything.  

“Sudanese lives matter. Sudanese dreams matter. We have faced horrible things. Sudanese people lost everything. Their factories have been destroyed. We lost our valuables. We lost our people. Women have been raped.”

“Everybody says what is happening in Sudan is a… civil war, but that’s not true. It is a war over resources that has [become] an ethnic [conflict].”

When the conflict erupted, Ms. Hamadto at first fled to Egypt, but later decided to return to Sudan.  

“I chose to go back again to establish a drying factory, but it’s really difficult to operate again in Sudan,” she said, citing such challenges as inflation, equipment scarcity, communication barriers, frequent power cuts, and security threats like bombings and drones.

Despite all this, she stated: “I think we’re building resilience. We know that nobody is coming to save us, and it is up to us to get up again.”

Empowering Afghan mothers 

Malalai Helmandi, Chief Operations Officer of the solar energy-producing organization Helmandi Solar in Afghanistan, and her husband Hamid Helmand are implementing projects to empower women in the Asian nation.

Over the past two and a half years, their company has been setting up greenhouses for women affected by conflict and crises, she explained and added that 47 years of war in Afghanistan have weakened the role of mothers as the backbone of the household.  

Malalai Helmandi, Chief Operations Officer of the solar energy-producing organization Helmandi Solar in Afghanistan, and her husband Hamid Helmand, the head of the company.
UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

“[A mother] spends most of the time in the most important years of a child’s development. And in a culture like Afghanistan, where the family unit is so strong, I find that those families [are more stable] where the mother is empowered, has knowledge, and is given an opportunity to either bring in her own income, or at the very minimum, be part of a decision making through something that might be… income generating.”

For his part, Mr. Helmand said that after three days at WEIF, he will return home believing that “with our efforts, ideology and thoughts, I think we can restore those responsibilities and jobs to women because 80 per cent of those women have lost their jobs due to war and due to what has been happening in that area.”  

‘Conflict in Iraq could not stop me’

In 2018, the Iraqi Government was combatting the ISIS militant group, but these conditions did not deter Basima Abdulrahman, Founder and CEO of the KESK company, which seeks Greentech energy solutions through technology.

“I decided to build a sustainable business because I loved sustainability, [but] I didn’t know that it would end up a climate action business,” Ms. Abdulrahman told UN News.

Basima Abdulrahman, Founder and CEO of the KESK company.
UN News/Hisae Kawamori

She added: “I was not afraid of the ongoing conflict because climate change is as big a threat as ISIS, so actions to counter [both] must go together and not be fought in a specific order, so I decided it wasn’t too early, but it could be too late.”

Ms. Abdulrahman believes that for Iraq, the transition to renewable energy is not just a strategic plan or a luxury but a necessity. There is a 50 per cent shortage of electricity in the country, and this gap is currently being filled by generators that pollute the environment and which do not actually close the gap. Above all, they are expensive.  

She urged women entrepreneurs in conflict areas or in areas where there is peace, but where patriarchy is entrenched, to “start a big business and grow it. You can always be resilient and strengthen your business and move forward despite any challenges you face.”

A group picture of participants at the World Entrepreneurs Investment Forum (WEIF) in Manama, Bahrain.
UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

Entrepreneurs’ voices have been heard  

As the curtain fell on WEIF2024 here in Manama, Dr. Hashim Hussein, Head of the UNIDO Office for Technology and Investment Promotion in Bahrain, which facilitated the forum, said he was proud that “we have been able to ensure that entrepreneurs raise their voices.”

“We have seen that entrepreneurs within the United Nations system had the opportunity to speak. And, young people, we are listening to them now; they used to be just listeners.”

“I think the greatest achievement of WEIF 2024 is that we have…involved the international community in recognizing and understanding the problems and hardships of women in conflict and how we can help them,” he went on to say.

He told UN News on the margins of the forum that such support should be through economic development, to ensure that they sustain their families “and, of course, the communities and the countries which they are living in. I think this is going to be our major achievement this year of the World Interference Investment Forum 2024.” 

Justice officer from DR Congo mission wins UN Trailblazer award

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First awarded in 2022, it acknowledges the exceptional contributions made by women justice and corrections officers serving from Member States across the world, who challenge gender stereotypes and barriers.

In an interview with UN News, Major Bouzi said she was deeply honoured and grateful to have been recognized for her efforts.

First of all, it means a lot to me and to my country, Tunisia. And also it encourages me to continue what I have started and to aspire for greater responsibility and more achievement,” she said.

Combating stereotypes

Maj. Abouzi received her award on Tuesday at the UN Secretariat in New York.

In a video played following the ceremony, she said being a trailblazer means having the “courage and desire to pave the way for women in order to eliminate the systematic and persistent obstacles such as stereotypes and gender discrimination that prevent women from fully participating on an equal footing with men in a significant way to peace operations.”

When speaking to UN News, she detailed her daily commitments which include contributing to expanding support to authorities through “cutting-edge” technical expertise for investigations and fighting against impunity in attacks against UN peacekeepers, such as a recent incident in North Kivu.

She said she is the only woman working with the Justice Support section in regional capital Goma and in the military justice field – which comes with its own challenges.

“But I find it’s good to try to break down the gender barriers” Maj. Bouzi said, and to “embrace challenges and to show that women are capable to work as equally with men.”

Further, she said, women make up half of our society and we can only achieve sustainable peace if women are included in all fields.

Major Ahlem Douzi, winner of the UN Trailblazer Award for Justice and Corrections Officers, addresses attendees at the award ceremony.
UN Photo/Mark Garten

Major Ahlem Douzi, winner of the UN Trailblazer Award for Justice and Corrections Officers, addresses attendees at the award ceremony.

Advocating for women’s inclusion

Major Bouzi said she is most proud of being the first armaments and ammunition expert working in the Prosecution Support Cell of her section and being the only female expert working with the Congolese military authorities.

She said she is not just an award recipient but a fervent advocate for women peacekeepers who continually make vital contributions in secondary roles.

I want them to strive to make meaningful contributions for sustainable peace, but also, in the decision-making positions and operations,” Maj. Bouzi said, adding that she encourages all of them to be role models for women in the future.

Peace or war, midwives keep delivering

This year the vital role of midwives during the ongoing climate crisis is in the spotlight. 

Every two minutes, a woman or girl dies due to pregnancy-related complications, a figure that climate change threatens to exacerbate said UNFPA, underscoring the crucial role that midwives play in mitigating these risks. 

“When crisis strikes, midwives are often first on the scene, especially in remote communities. They know that babies arrive no matter a childbearing woman’s circumstances – whether she’s resting at home or fleeing it due to conflict or disaster,” UNFPA chief Dr. Natalia Kanem said in a statement marking the Day. 

Alongside their immediate task of attending births, midwives deliver up to 90 percent of other sexual and reproductive health services.

When war strikes

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The importance of midwives as critical healthcare providers has soared during a time when conflict seems to be proliferating. Their role goes far beyond assisting women in labour, extending to vital psychological support for women and children in distress.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) marked the day with a video, showcasing Samar Nazmi Muwafi, the staff midwife and head nurse at the Al-Emarati hospital in Gaza. 

Despite the enormous workload – up to 500 female patients go through the hospital’s emergency room every day – she stays strong by focusing on patient care. 

“I learned to smile. I always draw my smile to make the patients feel comfortable,” says Samar Nazmi Muwafi.

Acute deficit

There is a severe shortage of around a million midwives globally. Challenging working conditions, gender discrimination contributing to low wages and reports of harassment, have deterred many from entering the profession. 

According to UNFPA data from 2023, 287,000 women continue to lose their lives giving birth each year. Around 2.4 million newborns die and an additional 2.2 million are stillborn. 

Universal access to midwives offers the best and most cost-efficient solution to end preventable maternal deaths, UNFPA says. By closing the deficit in the number of midwives, two thirds of maternal and newborn deaths could be prevented, saving over 4.3 million lives a year by 2035.

UNFPA has already helped countries educate and train over 350,000 midwives in line with international standards to help improve the quality of care they provide, and the work continues. 

First Person: Women in Madagascar too ashamed to seek help giving birth

The predominantly rural region of Androy has been beset by a series of humanitarian crises which have affected the most vulnerable people there, including mothers-to-be, however the delivery of simple, inexpensive maternity kits is encouraging more women to access a range of services that will help keep them and their babies healthy.

Ahead of the International Day of the Midwife, celebrated annually on 5 May, Jeanne Bernadine Rasoanirina, a midwife in Behara, in Androy, spoke to UN News’s Daniel Dickinson about the challenges of reaching the poorest women.

“This is a very poor rural area, and many women are too ashamed to come to the health centre to have their babies delivered because they don’t even have the money for transport or to buy clean cloth in which to wrap their newborn. They don’t want other people to know they are poor.

A baby is weighed at the primary health care centre in Behara.
UN News/Daniel Dickinson

The mothers-to-be who come here get all the support they need to give birth, and it’s free of charge, thanks to the government as well as UN agencies, including [the UN reproductive health agency] UNFPA.[The UN Children’s Fund] UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) provide important nutrition advice and support, which complements our work and is essential to keeping mothers and their children healthy.

Even though I have done this job for 19 years, it still really saddens me when women arrive who don’t have the means to look after themselves. They may be wearing dirty clothes, which is a sign of poverty, but also a lack of knowledge or respect for cleanliness.

In the last week, I have delivered three babies and over the past month, I attended over 330 antenatal and postnatal consultations, so there is definitely a demand for services.

Jeanne Bernadine Rasoanirina sits at her desk with the recently delivered maternity kits.
UN News/Daniel Dickinson

Jeanne Bernadine Rasoanirina sits at her desk with the recently delivered maternity kits.

Maternity kits

I think more women will be encouraged to come to the health centre, as yesterday we had a delivery of 240 maternity kits [supported by UNFPA] for the first time in over a year, which will last about three months.

The kits include everything a mother needs to give birth – gloves, gauze, umbilical cord clip and a syringe for the delivery and then cloth wraps and clothes in which to dress the baby. They will remove the shame that mothers feel.

It is frustrating that we have not had a consistent supply as this small item can make a big difference. It means more women will come to our health centre, which is a safer place to give birth. In 2023, we had only successful births; there were no deaths. We don’t know how many women gave birth at home nor how many children and mothers died as a result. There is definitely a risk of death if a woman doesn’t come here to deliver her baby.

Polygamy

There are still many cultural barriers to safe childbirth in the south of Madagascar. Children are considered a sign of wealth, even if families don’t have the means to look after them properly, so it is common to have many children, sometimes as many as 10.

Polygamy is also practiced, and some men have up to five wives and want to have children with all of them. We provide information here and offer training about these issues, but we must always be sensitive about the local culture.”

UNESCO report spotlights harmful effects of social media on young girls

In an interview with UN News, Senior Policy Analyst from the GEM report team Anna D’addio said the report examines the issue of technology in education through a gender lens.

She said the report highlights progress in the reversal of discrimination against girls over the past two decades but also exposes the negative impact of technology on girls’ education opportunities and outcomes.

Harassment online

Girls on social media are much more exposed to different forms of harassment. Cyber cyberbullying is much more frequent among girls than among boys,” Ms. D’Addio said.

“It’s something that affects their well-being, and their well-being is important for learning”, she added.

Guterres stresses internet access

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The report coincides with the UN telecoms agency (ITU) led International Girls in ICT Day.  

In a post on his Twitter account, the Secretary-General called for more equipment and support for girls in the Information and Communication Technology field, pointing out that fewer women than men have access to the internet – and that stands in their way of getting an equal opportunity for work. 

Mental health, body disorders

Based on the report’s findings, social media exposes young girls to a range of unsuitable video material including sexual content – and the promotion of unhealthy and unrealistic body standards that negatively affect mental health and wellbeing.

It was reported that adolescent girls are twice as likely to feel lonely than boys and suffer from an eating disorder.

There is increasing evidence that shows that increased exposure to social media is related to mental health problems, eating disorders and many other issues that condition and distract social media users, and particularly girls, from education which affects their academic achievement,” Ms. D’Addio said.

Instagram has reportedly accounted for 32 per cent of teenage girls’ feeling worse about their bodies after consuming the platform’s content, according to a Facebook statistic cited in the report.

The Senior Policy Analyst said social media usage can have positive effects on young girls, especially when used to increase knowledge and raise awareness on social issues.

“I think what is important is…to teach how to use social media and technology,” Ms. D’Addio said.

Girls in STEM

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She said the report calls attention to the fact that girls are at a disadvantage in accessing science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) careers which shows a lack of diversity in the production and development of cutting edge tech.

Data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (IUS) showed that women only make up 35 per cent of tertiary education STEM graduates globally, and only hold 25 per cent of science, engineering and information and communication technology (ICT) jobs.

“There are still too few girls and women that choose…the STEM subjects and work there,” the Senior Policy Analyst said.

She said having more diversity will allow stronger contributions to science and developments without bias.

How does it get better?

The report’s results reveal the need for a greater investment in education and smarter regulation of digital platforms.

Ms. D’Addio said UNESCO is constantly working on remedying the exclusion of girls’ access and attainment to education that remains by advocating for policies that make the education system more inclusive, and “promoting laws and regulations that guarantee equal access to education for girls and protect them from discrimination.

Silence the guns, amplify women’s voices for peace to end rape in wartime

Presenting her annual report, Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, noted that weapons continue to flow into the hands of perpetrators while most victims remain emptyhanded when it comes to reparations and redress. 

“The essential, existential task we face is to silence the guns and amplify the voices of women as a critical constituency for peace,” she said

An underreported crime 

The report covers incidents, patterns and trends across 21 situations of concern, including Israel and Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, Haiti, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

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She said the rise in recorded cases was particularly alarming in a global context where humanitarian access remains severely restricted and constrained. 

Most cases, 95 per cent, involved women and girls. In 32 per cent of the incidents, children, overwhelmingly girls, were victims, while 21 cases were found to target lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons. 

While the report conveys the severity and brutality of these incidents, she stressed that it does not reflect the global scale or prevalence of what is a chronically underreported, historically hidden crime. 

“We know that for every survivor who comes forward, many others are silenced by social pressures, stigma, insecurity, the paucity of services and the limited prospects for justice,” she said. 

Gaza conflict 

For the first time, the report contains a dedicated section on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. 

In the wake of the 7 October Hamas-led attacks on Israel, the Government invited Ms. Patten to visit the country. She and her team confirmed that there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred in at least three locations and that sexual violence was committed against individuals held as hostages, which may be ongoing. 

They also visited the occupied West Bank where, according to UN-verified information, the arrests and detention of Palestinian women and men by Israeli security forces following the October attacks have often been accompanied by ill-treatment, including forms of sexual violence. Similar allegations have emerged from Gaza, she added. 

“These findings in no way justify or legitimise further hostilities, and I continue to echo the calls of the Secretary-General for a humanitarian ceasefire to end the unspeakable suffering of Palestinian civilians and to bring about the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages,” she said. 

Access and impunity 

The report documents how sexual violence has curtailed women’s access to livelihoods and girls’ access to education amid record levels of displacement. 

“For instance, in eastern DRC, the climate of interlinked physical and food insecurity has driven many displaced women and girls into prostitution out of sheer economic desperation,” she said. 

Meanwhile, “sexual violence perpetrated with impunity remains profitable in the political economy of war,” she noted. For example, armed groups in Haiti continue to generate revenue and use the threat of sexual violence to extort even higher ransoms.

Survivors silenced

The report lists 58 parties that are credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for sexual violence, mainly non-State actors. Over 70 per cent are “persistent perpetrators”, meaning they have appeared on the list for five or more years.

Another trend has been the “unprecedented level of lethal violence” to silence survivors of sexual assault, including reports from the DRC and Myanmar of rapists subsequently killing their victims. Armed actors have also threatened healthcare workers in Sudan, while human rights defenders in South Sudan, DRC and elsewhere have faced reprisals.

“Across time and space, we see that the availability of weapons directly facilitates these attacks,” Ms. Patten said. 

Hope on the horizon

Stressing that “we cannot address sexual violence without shifting power dynamics,” she called for greater women’s participation, weapons regulation and embargoes, financial support for human rights defenders and change on the ground. 

“Women in the war-torn corners of our world need to see hope on the political horizon,” she said.  

 

“Our words, deeds and decisions in this Chamber and beyond must give them cause for hope and must contribute to peace with justice, peace with gender equality, peace with dignity and development, peace that endures.” 

 

Violations of women’s reproductive health rights trigger rise in preventable deaths

Interwoven Lives, Threads of Hope: Ending inequalities in sexual and reproductive health and rights, reveals that more than half of all preventable maternal deaths occur in countries which are in a state of crisis or distress.

It highlights the role that racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination play in blocking progress on sexual and reproductive health issues. 

Women and girls trapped in poverty are more likely to die prematurely due to lack of sufficient healthcare if they belong to minority groups or are trapped in a conflict setting, according to the findings. 

Overall, there have been significant advances in sexual and reproductive health it became a global sustainable development priority three decades ago.

In the space of a generation, we have reduced the unintended pregnancy rate by nearly one fifth, lowered the maternal death rate by one third, and secured laws against domestic violence in more than 160 countries,” UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem said, launching the report.

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Stalled progress

But progress is slowing down or stalled in several key areas. In a world where a quarter of women cannot say no to sex with their partner and nearly one in 10 have no say over contraception, 800 women die every day giving birth – a disturbing figure that has remained unchanged since 2016.

Nearly 500 of those preventable deaths per day are happening in countries living through humanitarian crises and conflicts. 

The world made zero progress in saving women from preventable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth,” said Ms. Kanem, adding that for the first time, data was collected on whether women’s bodily autonomy is strengthening over time.

In 40 per cent of countries where information is available, autonomy is weakening due to an inability to reach “those furthest behind”, she added.

There is a clear disparity between the global North and South, West and East, when it comes to contraceptives, safe birth services, respectful maternity care, and other essential services, the report documents.

Pockets of inequality

Yet, even within those regions there are “pockets of inequality”, the report underscores. Women of African descent in the Americas face higher maternal mortality rates compared to white women, which is especially evident in the United States where it’s three times the national average. 

Indigenous and ethnic minorities also face elevated risks related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

Within Europe, in Albania, for example, over 90 per cent of Roma women from the most marginalized socioeconomic groups had serious problems in accessing healthcare compared with only five per cent of ethnic Albanian women from the most privileged strata. 

Additionally, women with disabilities are up to ten times more likely to experience gender-based violence, and individuals of diverse sexual orientation and gender expression encounter significant violence and barriers to care.

 

No ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions 

The report highlights the importance of tailoring programmes to the needs of communities and empowering women and girls to craft and implement innovative solutions. 

It also calculates that if additional $79 billion are invested in low and middle-income countries by 2030, 400 million unplanned pregnancies could be averted, a million lives saved and $660 billion in economic benefits could be generated

The ability to secure reproductive health rights, the UNFPA Executive Director believes, is another major challenge.   

“It is indeed the responsibility of men to be champions of women’s reproductive rights, of everyone’s reproductive rights,” Ms. Kanem said.

World News in Brief: ‘Reckless attacks’ on Ukraine nuclear plant must cease, Chibok abductions 10 years on, action against plant pests

Rafael Grossi told ambassadors that the first direct attacks since the Russian invasion began. earlier this month, on what is Europe’s largest nuclear facility, constituted a “step change increase in risk to nuclear safety and security”.

Although the damage from drone strikes on the Russian-occupied power plant’s Unit 6 reactor building was superficial, it sets “a very dangerous precedent of the successful targeting of the reactor containment”, said the IAEA Director-General.

‘Dangerously close’ to disaster

“We are getting dangerously close to a nuclear accident”, he added, and must “do everything in our power today” to minimize risk.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), briefs the UN Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security.
UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), briefs the UN Security Council meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security.

He assured ambassadors that IAEA staff are “continuously present” at the ZNPP and all other nuclear plants across Ukraine.

On Saturday, the so-called “cold shutdown” of all six reactors at the plant was carried out for the first time since late 2022, a move which had long been recommended by the atomic watchdog. The move builds in an extra level of safety were cooling systems to fail. 

In the past 10 days there has been a drone strike on the oxygen and nitrogen production facility, two attacks on the training centre and a drone shot down above the turbine hall of Unit 6.

Both sides have blamed the other for targeting the plant. 

“Let me put it plainly. Two years of war are weighing heavily on nuclear safety” at the plant, he said, and the IAEA’s work remains essential there.

“Despite huge challenges, the IAEA has kept open the indispensable lines of communication and will continue doing so. The support of your nations and of the Council as a whole is a necessity”, he said.

Step up child protection efforts UNICEF urges Nigeria, on 10th anniversary of Chibok abductions

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Monday called on Nigeria to intensify child protection efforts, 10 years on from the mass Chibok abductions in the country’s northeast.

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Some 90 of the girls continue to be held captive, and just last month, another abduction of schoolchildren took place in Kaduna state.

UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Cristian Mundate, said the “kidnapping of the Chibok girls was a wake-up call to the severe risks our children face in their pursuit of education.” With even more recent abductions, she said there is an obvious need for amplified safeguarding of our children’s futures. 

On Monday, UNICEF released the ‘Minimum Standards for Safe Schools (MSSS) Monitoring Report,’ which revealed that only 37 per cent of schools across 10 Nigerian states have early warning systems that can assist in identifying attacks.

This means much remains to be done to ensure Nigerian children can learn in a safe school environment.

Still an ‘unattainable dream’ for many

“Given these alarming statistics, we must address not only the symptoms but also the root causes of this crisis. Education is a fundamental right and a crucial pathway out of poverty. Yet, for too many Nigerian children, it remains an unattainable dream,” Ms. Mundane said.

UNICEF’s analysis examined six areas of concern across Nigerian states relating to school safety – a strong school system, violence against children, natural hazards, conflict, everyday hazards, and safe school infrastructure – and found that only a few had managed to boost standards. 

UNICEF Nigeria is urging governments, partners, and international communities to help secure the right to education in a safe environment for all children.

Thus far, the agency has provided school grants, safety kits, training, and awareness raising to boost the implementation of school safety standards.

UNICEF says this ‘sombre anniversary’ of the Chibok abduction should prompt change so that together, “we can restore trust between educational institutions and the communities they serve, ensuring schools are sanctuaries for learning and growth,” said Ms. Munduate.

UNICEF is working with the Nigerian government to ensure every child has access to a safe learning environment.
© UNICEF/Dawali David

UNICEF is working with the Nigerian government to ensure every child has access to a safe learning environment.

Grower experts mull action to tackle spike in plant pests

A key UN taskforce that tackles plant pests and diseases gathered on Monday to brainstorm new measures to limit “irreversible” damage to the global food supply, as rising global temperatures threaten “unchecked” destruction of crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) panel’s work has been complicated by changing weather patterns and warmer growing conditions globally that have changed the geographic distribution and intensity of plant bugs and blight.

Early detection key

Early detection, rapid response and coordinated control efforts worldwide are indispensable, said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

The work of the FAO Commission on Phytosanitary Measures includes efforts to eradicate the banana fungus TR4; it has spiked because of climate change and caused yield losses affecting more than 400 million farmers.

Iran: Repression continues two years after nationwide protests

Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the International Fact-Finding Mission on Iran – a group of Council-appointed independent experts – said that Ms. Amini’s death in September 2022 was “unlawful and caused by physical violence” for which the State is responsible.

Chairperson Sara Hossain told the forum’s 47 Member States that after Ms. Amini’s death, young women and schoolchildren “were at the forefront” of nationwide protests. 

“The entire State apparatus was mobilised with security forces using firearms, including AK-47s and Uzis as we documented in some areas, resulting in injuries and deaths,” she said.

Acts of defiance

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There are “credible figures” that indicate there were 551 deaths, at least 49 women and 68 children, “and we found that those occurred in 26 out of the 31 provinces of Iran over multiple months”, the Mission found.

Ms. Hossain explained that many protesters “removed their hijab in public places as an act of defiance against long-standing discriminatory laws and practices”.

Men and boys joined in the protests in solidarity too, the Council heard, along with minorities who demanded equality.

”What we found was that security forces shot at protesters and also at bystanders at very short distances in a targeted fashion, causing injuries to their heads, necks, torsos, genital areas, but particularly to the eyes,” reported Ms. Hossain. “We found hundreds of protesters had these life changing injuries, with many of them now blinded and branded essentially for life marked as dissidents.”

Challenges gathering evidence

Despite the many challenges the Mission was facing, such as total lack of access to the country and no cooperation on the part of the Iranian Government, it was able to collect and preserve over 27,000 items of evidence.

It conducted a total of 134 in-depth interviews with victims and witnesses, including 49 women and 85 men, both inside and outside the country, and gathered evidence and analysis from experts on digital and medical forensics and on domestic and international law.

The human rights probe noted that 30 September 2022 had become known as “Bloody Friday” in Zahedan city after credible sources indicated that security forces had killed 104 protesters and bystanders, mostly men and boys.

The probe also took note of the Iranian Government’s claim that 54 security officers had been killed and many others injured.

Spike in executions, including children

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran also presented his report to the Human Rights Council on Monday. 

Addressing the Geneva-based UN rights body, Javaid Rehman offered an overview of the most grave violations registered, which include a spike in death penalty sentences and executions, including children, and a continuous clampdown on women’s rights.

Now, at the end of his six-year tenure, Mr. Rehman has never been granted access to the country, despite frequent requests. 

Javaid Rehman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses the media. (file)
United Nations

Javaid Rehman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses the media. (file)

The Special Rapporteur stated that 834 people were executed in 2023, marking a 43 per cent rise from the previous year, with a significant portion related to drug offenses. 

“Despite serious concerns expressed by my mandate and by the international community, children continued to be executed in Iran with at least one reported execution in 2023,” he said, adding that at least 23 women were executed last year.

He also raised concerns about the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities and the harassment and detention of human rights defenders, journalists and trade union activists.

Citing the violent suppression of protests in 2022 following the death of 22-year-old Ms. Amini, he described how public protests had grown into the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. 

State authorities had behaved “with complete impunity” and unlawfully killed hundreds of people, including dozens of women and children.

‘Chilling’ use of AI

Ms. Hossain told the Human Rights Council that the Fact-Finding Mission had received “chilling reports on the use by the State of artificial intelligence (AI), including through new mobile apps, to monitor and enforce compliance by women and girls with mandatory hijab rules,” explained Ms. Hossain. 

The Special Rapporteur, too, criticized Iran’s enforcement of “gender segregation and draconian measures”, such as threatening unveiled women with vehicle confiscation and imposing harsh punishments, including flogging, for “improper veiling”.

Gains overshadowed by violations 

Despite some positive steps, such as amendments to drug trafficking laws, widespread human rights violations persist, overshadowing progress. Urgent action is needed for Iran to uphold its international obligations, underscored the Special Rapporteur. 

Rapporteurs and other rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council are not UN staff and are independent of any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and receive no salary for their work.

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