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OPINION: Turning the tide for women & girls caught in Cabo Delgado crisis

As governments and communities rallied together to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, other humanitarian crises caused by conflict and natural disasters continued unabated. This is the situation faced by Mozambique, a nation that was still wrestling with the devastating impact of two cyclones in 2019 when a tropical storm and another cyclone hit recently – amid the violent conflict in its northern reaches.

By the time the New Year rang in, more than 1.3 million Mozambicans were in need of humanitarian aid and protection.

The northern tip of Mozambique, the resource-rich land of Cabo Delgado province, presents a growing conundrum. In this province has developed one of the continent’s most complex and layered crises, which impact the lives of millions, especially women and girls. From the pandemic to flooding and related disease outbreaks, on top of the ongoing conflict leading to mass displacement, it exists as a perfect storm of instability.

Since the conflict started in 2017, more than 2,000 have reportedly been killed, while women and girls live in fear of being kidnapped, raped, or forced into marriage or prostitution. By December 2020, close to 530,000 people (nearly a quarter of Cabo Delgado’s population) had fled into the province’s inland districts and neighbouring Nampula and Niassa provinces. More than half of them are women, nearly 15,000 of whom are pregnant, and of them 1,660 women will require medical services within the month to ensure they deliver safely – yet 36% of health facilities across the province have been damaged or destroyed.

Throw into this already devastating mix the more recent climate-related disasters of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which wreaked havoc in 2019, as well as COVID-19, which emerged as a significant health threat in 2020. Then as 2021 was being ushered in, the people of Mozambique were lashed once more by Tropical Storm Chalane, with Cyclone Eloise riding on the damage just three weeks later.

While the number of displaced people continues to surge, protection risks are exacerbated by pre-existing vulnerabilities, including poverty, marginalization, and harmful social and gender norms, such as child marriage. COVID-19 has compounded the problem: critical services such as sexual and reproductive health care, immunization activities, and continuity of care for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera have been disrupted due to restrictions on movement and gatherings, as well as disruptions to livelihoods.

To understand the extent of the crisis and determine the urgent needs of the displaced population, the United Nations Development System organized a joint mission to Cabo Delgado by its Regional Directors. Apart from the capital city, Pemba, and Ancuabe district, the delegation visited the most populated part of the province, Chiure district, where some 300,000 inhabitants are host to more than 22,000 internally displaced people.

Of particular concern is the plight of women, who typically form the frontline of such crises as first responders, caregivers to their communities, and rebuilders of livelihoods. Yet they are also at greatest risk of gender-based violence (GBV), poorer health outcomes due to a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, and the negative health and economic consequences of gender inequality – all of which impact the humanitarian response and recovery efforts.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the conflict due to their particular vulnerabilities. When we recognize their unique needs as half of the population, then we must acknowledge that Mozambique’s humanitarian crisis response will not achieve the desired results unless women and girls are adequately protected.

If women and girls are to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, through the current crisis they must be enabled to give birth safely and be properly equipped to get back on their feet. To this end, UNFPA is supporting the Government of Mozambique to prioritize continuity of life-saving health services linked to sexual and reproductive health, and the prevention of and response to GBV.

To date, mobile health services supported by UNFPA have provided 20,000 women and girls in hard-to-reach areas, who would otherwise have limited access to health facilities, with sexual and reproductive health and GBV services. UNFPA has also supported a government initiative to install 14 women and girl-friendly safe spaces and sexual and reproductive health tents in relocation sites. These offer psychosocial support, first aid, GBV case management, and empowerment activities. The latter include income-generating vocation and livelihood training for the support of more than 70,000 women and girls in need of humanitarian assistance.

In a resettlement village in Cabo Delgado, I met some of the most resilient women and girls, including girls who had dropped out of school due to the conflict and were excited now about the possibility of returning to school in their new community. I spoke to a woman who had lost everything she owned when she was displaced, but was motivated to restart her life with just the ‘small things’, such as clothing, bedding and menstrual health products. Babies were being delivered safely at health centres equipped with institutional delivery capacity and better quality service.

A community’s ability to recover from a crisis can only begin when women and girls are able to live free from any type of harm, including violence and discrimination, and with access to the health services they need most, including sexual and reproductive health services.

In 2021, we must work collectively to create much-needed hope for women and girls caught in crisis situations everywhere. This is a watershed moment for us together to turn the tide on their sexual and reproductive health and safety as prerequisites for claiming their rights. I witnessed that hope in the resettlement villages of Cabo Delgado.

Our march must continue in 2021, on the promise we made to women and girls at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, and again at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD twenty-five years later. That promise right now means helping the displaced women and girls of Cabo Delgado regain their strength, dignity and agency to restart their lives.

Dr Julitta Onabanjo is the United Nations Population Fund regional director for east and southern Africa. You can follow her on Twitter on @JulittaOnabanjo

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