Opinion

Preserving the dignity and security of women and girls during emergencies: An undervalued priority in emergency response

18 March 2016

Written by Naomi Kitahara, Representative, UNFPA Mongolia

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia, 14 February 2016

Recently, even as Mongolia’s ongoing dzud emergency escalated, I was told that we would not need UNFPA’s trademark dignity or hygiene kits because women and girls from Mongolia’s herder communities had never expressed the need for such essential items in any needs assessment related to the crisis.

My reaction was: Did you really speak to herder women and girls, and not just the men? How did you conduct the assessment, and how sensitive were you socially and culturally? Who spoke to them, women or men, Mongolians or foreigners, locals or outsiders? Mongolia is in the middle of a unique disaster where extreme winter conditions and nomadic and agricultural livelihoods intersect: a ‘dzud.’

A ‘dzud’ results in wide-scale losses of livestock, undermining the welfare and security of herding communities across rural Mongolia. In some parts of the country, temperatures have dropped below -50 degrees Celsius, with almost 190,000 livestock lost as of February 24.  In an unfortunate coincidence, an outbreak of sheep-pox has taken hold after ten years of dormancy, starting in Eastern provinces and spreading across the country.

According to the State Emergency Commission, as of January 18, 90 soums in 20 aimags were classified as experiencing a “white dzud” – characterized by the most extreme temperatures and snow cover. Although the current loss of animals is fewer compared to the dzud of 2010, more deaths are expected as hay stocks are depleted and disease continues to spread. From previous dzud events, we know that the heaviest losses of livestock occur during spring, not winter.

For most people in dzud-affected areas, animals are their only source of food, transport, heat, and purchasing power through both cash and barter, and therefore also their means of accessing healthcare and other services. As the winter months continue, families are quickly exhausting their food and cash reserves. With further livestock losses expected, there are fewer resources to meet basic needs and herder families are more likely experience severe hardship and poverty.

In such conditions, herder families naturally prioritize food for themselves and their animals, not surprisingly at the expense of women’s special needs – including in relation to sexual and reproductive health. This, however, can quickly lead to a deterioration of health among women – including pregnant women, as well as new mothers and newborns. As seen in emergency situations around the world, women's special needs, protection and dignity can be gravely neglected as they are not perceived as priorities.

But pregnancy and menstruation do not stop in an emergency. In dzud-affected areas, roads get blocked, severely restricting movement and access to public services. Herder families also lack available and disposable cash for transportation, further limiting access to public services -- including health care -- and shops to purchase the basics, including food, clothes and sanitation items. During menstruation, without sanitary pads, women use pieces of cloth, which are washed and reused. This common practice increases a woman’s risk of reproductive and urinary tract infections, which can have short-and long-term health impacts. Moreover, socio-cultural barriers in Mongolia mean that most women and girls will not discuss their specific needs in relation to pregnancy and menstruation even within the family unit.

To ensure that the specific needs of women and girls are met, even in emergencies, UNFPA has been providing “dignity kits” in humanitarian settings around the world since the mid-1990s. The distribution of these hygiene kits which contain essential items is a standard humanitarian intervention, outlined in the SPHERE standards for humanitarian response.

UNFPA’s approach is to prioritize the development of country-specific, socio-culturally appropriate “dignity kits” which:

  • primarily target women and adolescent girls
  • not only meet basic needs, but also ensure safety, security and dignity
  • are procured and assembled locally
  • have content selected in consultation with local communities
  • are distributed in coordination with other humanitarian organizations (to avoid duplication) and
  • are customized to meet the needs of affected populations.

In Mongolia, UNFPA has customized a dignity kit composed of standard hygiene items such as sanitary napkins, underwear, hand soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and protection items including whistles and lights.

An initial quick response shipment of 120 dignity kits, each containing 19 items, costing a total of approximately USD 12, 000 (equivalent to 24, 370,000 MNT), have been procured and distributed thus far in most affected communities through the National Emergency Management Agency in early February.

Now, with support from the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), UNFPA will procure about 8,000 dignity kits and distribute them to the women and girls of almost 4,400 herders’ families in the six most affected aimags of Mongolia.

Without access to culturally appropriate clothing and hygiene items, the mobility of women and girls is restricted and their health is compromised. Preserving dignity is essential to self-esteem and confidence – and critical to protection. Gender-based violence is known to increase in emergency situations, and these items can also help to reduce risk of harassment, abuse and violence. We have seen this time and again in emergencies across the world, including, most recently after the devastating Nepal earthquake and the sweeping Myanmar floods of 2015, and, in an ongoing emergency, the post-cyclone Winston response in Fiji.

Dignity kits aim to allow women and girls to live with dignity even during some of the worst humanitarian crises and are tailored to the needs of women and girls of reproductive age.

While dignity kits are equipped with basic hygiene items, their purpose extends beyond immediate and practical objectives. At UNFPA, we know that dignity both includes and surmounts physical and mental well-being. Dignity is at the core of our very being. , Dignity encompasses the values and beliefs of individuals and communities, and strengthens our shared humanity, including the respect for human rights.

In Mongolia, the provision of dignity kits is about meeting the special needs of the women who hold together the fabric of our communities in times of crisis.

Dignity kits are a first and essential step in our efforts to work together to ensure that women and girls’ safety and dignity are protected during this dzud – and in the future.

This story was also printed in the Daily News on March 17th and UB Post News Papers on March 18th. For up-to-date information on UNFPA's response to the 2016 Dzud, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

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UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, delivers a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.