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Women need safer access to health care in war situations

05-03-2009 News Release 46/09

Geneva (ICRC) – In the run-up to International Women's Day, 8 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned that the specific health-care needs of women are often ignored or insufficiently taken into account in war situations.

" People wounded in fighting are given priority for medical treatment, but women, even pregnant mothers, are often given scant attention despite their special needs, " said Nadine Puechguirbal, the ICRC's adviser on issues relating to women and war.

In the world’s least developed countries, many of which are at war, women are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than in developed countries, according to UNICEF. While armed conflicts and other violence affect entire communities, women are particularly at risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence. Because of poor security conditions or because they have no means of transportation, it is often impossible for women to reach a health-care facility so as to give birth safely.

" International humanitarian law stipulates that the specific health-care needs of conflict-affected women must be met, including in places of detention, " explained Ms Puechguirbal. " Parties to a conflict have an obligation to comply with the law and do everything possible to ensure that women receive the health care they require. "

During the recent conflict in Gaza the lives of numerous women were put at risk when ambulances couldn't get through to them because of the fighting. The conflict also prevented women in labour from reaching a safe place to have their babies. Women are currently facing the same difficulty in Somalia, where the death rate of pregnant women and newborn babies is among the highest in the world. According to UNICEF, only nine women in a hundred thousand actually make it to a hospital to give birth in Somalia.

The ICR C is addressing the specific health needs of women in war-torn countries around the world by supporting hospitals and basic health-care services. In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is making counselling services available to victims of sexual violence. " The first priority after a rape is to obtain medical care, " explained Charlotte, a Red Cross volunteer providing counselling. " But medicines can only treat the body. The victims of these attacks bear invisible, psychological wounds. "

For further information, please contact:
  Anna Schaaf, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 22 71 or +41 79 217 32 17