UNFPA prepares to aid Iraqi women refugees

Years of conflict and international sanctions have severely weakened the Iraqi health system, with serious consequences for women and children. Maternal mortality rates have more than doubled, rising from 117 deaths per 100,000 live births in the late 1980s to 294 in the 1990s. Infant and under-5 mortality have also risen sharply.
Military conflict will further jeopardize the health of Iraqi women, especially displaced women who are pregnant. These women will face enormous risks, including premature deliveries, complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and lack of access to health professionals and care. The likely consequences include more miscarriages and an increase in pregnancy-related deaths.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has made contingency plans and is ready to respond to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi population, particularly its women and children.

The primary task for UNFPA will be to ensure that pregnant women (about one in five of childbearing age) have easy access to supplies and medicines needed for safe deliveries and obstetric emergencies-services that are too-often neglected in the rush to provide relief in crisis situations. The objective will be to allow pregnant women to deliver in a clean environment and to provide new mothers and their babies with essential care.

UNFPA has been active in Iraq since 1972, with brief interruption in the early 1990s. Our assistance has focused on improving access to reproductive health and family planning services. This contributed to a significant increase in the number of primary health care facilities providing reproductive health services, from 37 in 1995 to 146 in 2001.

To prepare for a quick response to any potential conflict, the Fund has already positioned basic reproductive health supplies inside Iraq, including equipment needed for 35 mobile health units and 4 referral-level facilities to serve the internally displaced.

In neighbouring countries, UNFPA is also working to address the anticipated influx of refugees from Iraq. We are closely coordinating with national authorities, other international agencies and non-governmental organizations to ensure that population and reproductive health concerns are included in any emergency response operations.

The Fund has deployed essential equipment, drugs and other supplies in these countries to be ready when needed. The life-saving equipment includes mobile health units, including emergency obstetric care surgery units, ambulances and ultrasound scanners. Other provisions include clean delivery and postnatal care supplies, contraceptives and other emergency reproductive health essentials needed for safe motherhood, family planning and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

In Jordan, for example, UNFPA has already provided the government with safe delivery supplies and mobile health units to service refugees.

Mobile health units and basic reproductive health supplies have also been provided to the government of Syria, where UNFPA has employed a local physician and a midwife to coordinate humanitarian response.

In Iran, which already hosts 200,000 Iraqi refugees, UNFPA has opened an office, staffed with an emergency coordinator and support personnel, in Kermanshah, one of the western provinces expected to receive the bulk of new Iraqi refugees.

The Fund has positioned reproductive health supplies in Diyarbakir in Turkey, and will also strengthen the logistics and supply system and establish a referral system for reproductive health services.

In all these countries, UNFPA will provide traumatized women in refugee camps and their families with access to treatment, rehabilitation and counselling. We will also work with other partners to protect girls and women in camps from exploitation and sexual violence. Those who have been subject to such violence will be provided with the necessary medical treatment and psychosocial support.

In these efforts, UNFPA is closely coordinating its work with other United Nations agencies and major national and international non-governmental organizations that would be involved in the relief efforts. These organizations include the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium (RHRC), Médecins du Monde, Enfants du Monde, Première Urgence, Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE and others.

UNFPA has a universal commitment to assist women, men and youth affected by armed conflicts, including refugees and internally displaced persons. That commitment is derived from the Programme of Action adopted by consensus by 179 governments at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The Programme of Action recognizes the need to ensure reproductive rights and provide reproductive health care, especially for women and adolescents, in emergencies that disrupt essential services. The Programme of Action also recognizes access to reproductive health services during crisis as a human right.

For more information, contact William A. Ryan,, +1-212-297-5279; or Omar Gharzeddine,, +1-212-297-5028.