A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, launched in Dublin, shows that women and girls suffer disproportionately in, or fleeing from, natural disasters and war.
Minister of state for overseas development Sean Sherlock said heads of state needed to acknowledge the gender divide and target humanitarian assistance and development aid accordingly.
“Until male political leaders begin to understand fully the effects that crises or conflict has in relation to female health and access to health services, then I think we’re going to continue to be behind the curve,” said Mr Sherlock.
The report says 100m people currently need emergency aid — among them almost 60m who are refugees or internally displaced people. While all have pressing needs, women and girls face extra challenges in relation to pregnancy and childbirth, post-pregnancy care, sexual violence, and access to contraception and sanitation.
Irish-born UNFPA senior advisor Jacqueline Mahon said sexual and reproductive health programmes are chronically underfunded and the sensitivities around them sometimes makes it harder to place them high on the humanitarian and development aid agenda.
“When you talk about a young girl in transit because of conflict and she’s menstruating and she wants to access sanitary towels, you’re talking about a critical need for her,” said Ms Mahon. “When you’re talking about young girls and women not being able to go the toilet because of lack of privacy in makeshift camps, or going at night when it’s dark and they’re at risk of rape, you’re talking about really critical issues.
“We have to move beyond the squeamish and present the facts. These are the realities that women and girls are dealing with every day and we have a moral obligation to address them.”
The UNFPA report shows that during the ebola crisis, when medical facilities were swamped and travel was restricted, the proportion of births attended by a skilled health professional in Liberia fell from 52% to 38%; while in Guinea, the drop was from 20% to 7%.
Where medical facilities are destroyed or where women are in transit, the impact is far greater again, and while official records show some 507 women die in childbirth each day, the true figure is likely much higher.
“We need to remember that for every one who dies in childbirth, 15 to 20 will suffer long term or life-long consequences — for example fistula or other complications,” Ms Mahon said.
The UNFPA responded to humanitarian emergencies in 38 countries last year and provided reproductive health kits and medicines to some 35m people.
Mr Sherlock said Ireland had contributed €2.8m to that effort this year and more than €18m since 2010.