Health and wellbeing of mothers and children in emergencies

Published: 1 June 2015 15:43 CET

By Ombretta Baggio and Aradhna Duggal, Health Communications

 “Sixty per cent of maternal, 53 per cent of under-five and 45 per cent of new born mortality takes place in humanitarian and fragile settings. Of the more than 80 million people who were in need of humanitarian assistance, in 2014, over 75 per cent of them were women and children”, emphasized Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan in her statement at the side event on health and wellbeing in emergencies during the 68th World Health Assembly.  

Without access to emergency obstetric services, many women can die due to pregnancy related complications and children from preventable diseases. Furthermore, risks for adolescents are compounded due to increased exposure to sexual and gender-based violence and reduced access to adolescent sexual and reproductive health services.

How do we ensure that every woman, every child, every adolescent everywhere has access to the much needed healthcare services in humanitarian and fragile settings?

“Local organizations can play a critical role in improving access to life-saving preventive and curative services when others might have left the area. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are rooted in the community. Not only do we support communities, but we – the Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff – are from the communities we serve. Building trust is at the core of all we do. In emergencies and as health systems struggle under the burden of a humanitarian crisis, National Societies are the first and often times the only responders until outside help arrives. This is critical to keep in mind as we reflect on how to sustain maternal and child health services in humanitarian settings”, said Conrad Sauvé, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Red Cross and IFRC’s representative for reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.

As an example, the damage and destruction caused by the recent earthquakes in Nepal have left the health systems overwhelmed. The Nepal Red Cross Society has not only been able to mobilize its network of 6,500 trained community-based volunteers spread across the country but also call upon support from other National Societies to provide emergency health assistance by setting up field hospitals, mobile health services and clinical care, ensuring services for mothers and children are immediately available.

In fragile situations, National Societies extend the reach of health systems by providing community-based health services to mothers and children in some of the world’s most remote communities. In places like Somalia, Syria and Pakistan, Red Cross’ principle of neutrality and the strong cooperation between the Red Crescent Societies and the local health authorities has enabled hard-to-reach communities to access healthcare.

Sharing his experience, Conrad went on to emphasize, “Success has come where communities truly were our partners. Not merely mobilized but engaged. I am just back from Sierra Leone one of the Ebola affected countries. Our work  there is grounded in the trust, respect and two-way dialogue with communities. Our volunteers have safely but respectfully buried more than 22,000 people,  requesting communities to change customary practices of decades. I was deeply moved to see the commitment and compassion extended by our volunteers and their dedication to sustain important services for mothers and children while the health system collapsed”.

Red Cross Red Crescent’s focus on the power, potential and participation of people ensures strengthened community resilience and a sustained focus on RMNCAH throughout times of stability, during disasters and conflict.

We believe that health and wellbeing of mothers and children in emergencies,* requires:

  • Strengthening accountability to people and communities. The effective delivery of quality, culturally appropriate and sustainable services for mothers and children requires that the central role of people as users and stakeholders is recognized. People-centred approaches lead to trust, accountability and ultimately better health for all.
  • Investing in community health systems and their local organizations to build resilient health systems. This includes recognizing, training, supporting and funding a critical network of community health workers and volunteers and thus increasing local capacity in the longer-term. It also includes ensuring safety of health workers at all times.
  • Reacting fast and staying engaged well beyond the immediate humanitarian intervention. It is not about one project or one vertical intervention, it is about building a system that works from a crisis situation to development. And for this to happen, reliable and predictable funding and critical mass of community health workers and volunteers is required.
* Note: The side event focused on three aspects: (i) safety and health of health care workers; (ii) RMNCAH; and (iii) mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian emergencies. Since the IFRC intervention was concentrated on RMNCAH in emergencies, this piece mainly highlights this aspect.

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Recognizing that resilience can increase significantly through an investment in community capacities, the National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies play a key role in strengthening community service delivery systems to ensure access to RMNCAH services at all times

The side event on health and well-being in emergencies was organized by the governments of Netherlands and New Zealand and cosponsored by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) together with other partners. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have been delivering reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health programmes in both humanitarian and development contexts for more than 20 years. In 2013, the IFRC reached approximately 77 million people through health programmes. You can also follow the hashtags #WHA68 and #EWECisME.