In honor of International Women’s Day and to kick off our annual conference on women and health, SAIS Global Women in Leadership hosted a panel discussion on March 8 entitled Accessing Care in Crisis: Ensuring Women’s Health and Protection in Complex Emergencies. The three panelists were Dr. Pamela Lilleston of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Christina Fleming (MA, MSN, RN, CNM) of Georgetown University, and Francisca Vigaud-Walsh of Refugees International. Dr. Jennifer McCleary-Sills, also of ICRW, moderated the panel. The panel’s expertise allowed for a broad look at the issue of women’s healthcare access during complex emergencies such as refugee crises, from on the ground experience in a number of different regions to data-driven research at NGO headquarters.
Francisca began the event by explaining why “complex emergencies” like refugee crises are so truly complex—so many basic aspects of life break down, from access to services, particularly healthcare, to law and order and access to livelihoods. The lack of stability in each of these areas affects all the others—for example, when refugees and internally displaced persons are cut off from economic opportunities, for women this often leads to an increase in transactional sex, which raises health risks that are not adequately addressed. Francisca also discussed the barriers to improving humanitarian responses in such emergencies, including funding, supply chains, cultural barriers, and problems with humanitarian agencies themselves.
Christina continued this discussion of barriers using her experience serving in a clinic in South Sudan. She explained that in the U.S., clinical physicians are expected to see three to four patients per hour. In refugee settings, they are expected to see a minimum of 45 per day, and often they see closer to 90. She shared her experience getting between seven and 12 hours of sleep per week for the three months she worked there. While Christina also shared heartbreaking stories of her time in the labor and delivery ward of the clinic, she also emphasized the amazing resilience, strength, joy and support that these women demonstrated as a community.
Pamela shared her current research project conducting an evaluation of an innovative approach to providing care and overcoming the challenges described by the other panelists. The approach is to implement a mobile health services delivery system in Lebanon to reach Syrian refugees, most of whom live in urban settings. The IRC mobile services program meets displaced women and girls where they are. Roving teams that include a caseworker, counselor, and community mobilizer travel to different communities and spend one day per week in each of the communities putting on programs. Initial evaluation of the program shows that it has increased the confidence and sense of well being among participants, and strengthened their social networks. This has increased their safety and support within their communities, where harassment and violence can be a problem.
The panelists were unanimous in how much work is yet to be done on so many of these issues. All agreed: a call to action is needed to protect women and girls in complex emergencies.
If you missed the event, watch a recording on YouTube. To attend the fourth annual SAIS Global Women in Leadership Conference, Access to a Healthier World: Sustaining Women, Communities, and Our Future, register here.