Sexual health essential during disasters

Sexual and reproductive health are extremely important during natural disasters or emergencies. This is prevent unwanted pregnancies and assault.

So says Samoa Family Health Association programme coordinator, Leiloa Asaasa, who has just returned from Vancouver, Canada, where she presented in the annual Women Deliver conference on the topics of sexual health and disaster management, for marginalised groups.

Ms. Asaasa said men and women of all ages need to add sexual health to the usual “shelter, food, water,” list of needs during a natural disaster. Samoa’s experiences during Cyclone Evan proved this, she said.

In one notable case, a rape occurred inside an evacuation centre, and authorities struggled to manage that situation.

“We try to tell people, these things happen in evacuation centres,” Ms. Asaasa said.

“People don’t know where to go when these things happen so they go to the hospital but they don’t always get what they are looking for.”

Today, S.F.H.A has a close working relationship with the Disaster Management Office and they travel across Samoa to villages delivering the Community Disaster and Climate Risk Management programme (C.D.C.R.M.). 

“The reason we go do these programmes is to tell people, we are here if these things happen,” Ms Asaasa said.

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They have travelled to 70 villages, educating villagers on what each government and civil society’s responsibilities are during a crisis, training locals to support disaster management efforts and even simulating a disaster to practice. 

Ms. Asaasa said their work deal with when the lack of space and privacy in evacuation centres coupled with the traumatic experience of surviving a disaster can lead to sexual activity, or even rape.

But it is not just sex that S.F.H.A is concerned with. Under strenuous circumstances, pregnant women and new-born babies require a lot of potentially inaccessible care.

“One Member of Parliament questioned us, after my presentation he asked ‘who would want to have sex during a crisis?’ which we understand, but I tried to explain that we are not there to just talk about sex.”

Communities need to learn how to look after pregnant women and new born babies, how to keep areas of even crowded evacuation centres clean, and even how to deliver a baby.

In one C.D.C.R.M. simulation session, the Member of Parliament learned S.H.F.A’s real value.

“When we did our simulation activity, a pregnant mum was evacuated to that Member of Parliament’s house. So he called for assistance from one of our staff, so I was happy that happened and he kind of clicked of where we are coming from.”

Unfortunately, S.F.H.A faces negative reactions like his often. People are not always receptive of the messages promoting safe sex, reproductive health and family planning.

When the team discusses having boxes of condoms at evacuation centres, people accuse them of promoting sex, especially among youth. But that is not the case, Ms. Asaasa said.

“People don’t really support us when we talk to the community, especially on sexual or reproductive health in national disasters.

“But we are not just talking about sex, we are not promoting sex, we are just telling them we are there if they need us.”

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