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In Yemen’s man-made catastrophe, women and girls pay the price

Abia – whose name we have changed for her privacy and protection – was worried, too. 

Since I got pregnant, I had been living in constant fear…

“Since I got pregnant, I had been living in constant fear”, she told workers from the UN sexual and reproductive health agency UNFPA. “I heard of many girls in my village losing their lives and their babies giving birth at my age.” 

Escalating hostilities had forced her family to flee from the contested major southern city of Taizz, to the camp. There, Abia said, “we could not afford to travel to a hospital, and did we not know where we could find one.” 

Those concerns were well founded: When Abia went into labour, she began bleeding profusely. 

Childbirth or death sentence? 

© UNFPA Yemen | Midwife Lena Al-Shurmani holds Abia’s newborn baby shortly after delivery.​

Six years of relentless conflict have made Yemen the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than 20 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. 

The health system hangs together by a thread; only about half of all health facilities in Yemen are functional, and of those still operating, only 20 per cent provide maternal and child health services. A woman dies in childbirth every two hours, says UNFPA. 

The country’s looming famine could make things worse. Already, more than a million pregnant and breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished, a number likely to double as food insecurity rises. 

High-level pledging conference 

Yet life-saving humanitarian aid has been chronically underfunded. 

In 2020, more than 80 of the 180 UNFPA-supported health facilities closed due to funding gaps, causing more than 1 million women to lose access to critical care and safe childbirth. Preventable maternal deaths have been documented in districts where these facilities have been closed.  

On 1 March, the governments of Sweden and Switzerland and the United Nations are convening a virtual high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis. UNFPA is appealing for more than for $100 million to provide reproductive healthcare as well as services for survivors of violence and emergency relief through to the end of 2021. 

A stroke of luck 

In the end, Abia was lucky. 

After she began to haemorrhage during labour, her husband rushed to find Ms. Al-Shurmani. The midwife arrived at Abia’s side around 2AM in the morning. 

© UNFPA Yemen | The maternal health and protection needs of women and girls greatly outstrip available resources.​​​

“She lost consciousness many times during the delivery. I really feared for her life,” Ms. Al-Shurmani recalled. 

Fortunately, she was able to get the bleeding under control. 

Abia survived, and she delivered a healthy baby girl. “I am very grateful to the midwife,” she said later. “She travelled far in the middle of the night to save my life and my baby.” 

Last year, despite the tremendous funding shortfall, UNFPA was able to reach three million people with life-saving reproductive health and women’s protection services.  

Those efforts were supported by Canada, the Central Emergency Response Fund, the European Union Humanitarian, Iceland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the Yemen Humanitarian Fund. 

Gender-based violence, child marriage 

Those services are only possible through the extraordinary efforts of women like Ms. Al-Shurmani. Trained by UNFPA to identify and assist survivors of gender-based violence, she works on an outreach team providing health services, psychosocial care and other support. 

“My work targets the most vulnerable and poor displaced families who live in camps and spontaneous settlements, especially as they are unable to reach health services”, she explained. 

Her work is often gruelling. “One of the main challenges I face is going out at night without a means of transportation, which forces me to walk with my companions on foot.” 

Emotional toll 

The job takes an emotional toll, as well. Ms. Al-Shurani has seen the vulnerabilities of women and girls increase dramatically. Child marriage rates are also rising as families struggle with poverty and insecurity. A recent UNFPA study across three governorates showed that one in five displaced girls, aged 10 to 19, were married. Among host communities, this number was one in eight. 

We not only need funding to sustain services but we urgently need to scale up to save the lives of women and girls…

Abia was one of those girls – she was married off a little over a year ago, at age 14. Ms. Al-Shurmani’s outreach team was able to provide her with psychosocial care, warm clothing, and referrals to emergency food and cash assistance.  

Tragically, that outreach team is the last one still in operation. Three other UNFPA-supported outreach teams in Ibb and Taizz have stopped providing services due to funding shortages. 

Some 350,000 women lost access to gender-based violence services in 2020, following the closure of 12 UNFPA-supported safe spaces. An estimated 6.1 million women and girls are in need of such services. 

“We not only need funding to sustain services but we urgently need to scale up to save the lives of women and girls,” said Nestor Owomuhangi, UNFPA’s Representative in Yemen. 

Supermodel Natalia Vodianova joins UNFPA to tackle stigma and advance women’s health

“For too long, society’s approach to menstruation and women’s health has been defined by taboo and stigma”, said Ms. Vodianova, stressing that the situation “has undermined the most basic needs and rights of women.”

In her new role with UNFPA, officially known as the UN Population Fund, Ms. Vodianova will seek to help culturally redefine menstruation, as a normal bodily function.

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are actively menstruating. In many countries, taboos surrounding the cycle leaves girls vulnerable and can even be life-threatening, says UNFPA, as they are excluded from public life, denied opportunities, sanitation and basic health needs.

Major mission

The agency said in a press release, that the issue has been starved of the attention it deserves, but in recent years that has started to change, and “achieving this, is central to UNFPA’s mandate”.

“It’s a tragic irony that something as universal as menstruation can make girls feel so isolated…We all have a role to play in breaking the taboos around menstruation”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, underscoring the significance of spotlighting the damage caused.

She added that the agency “is pleased to partner with such a powerful and committed advocate. Societies prosper when girls are confident, empowered and making their own decisions!”

Building on past momentum

Over the past three years, Ms. Vodianova has teamed up with UNFPA to launch a series of “Let’s Talk” events worldwide, which have mobilised policy makers, civil society and the private sector to help tackle shame, exclusion and discrimination, faced routinely by millions of women and girls.

Leaders from various sectors such as fashion, politics, sport, technology and media have also gathered in Turkey, Kenya, Switzerland, Belarus and India to advance women’s health.

Raised in poverty by a single mother in Russia, along with caring for a half-sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, Ms.Vodianova is a passionate advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights and the rights of people living with disabilities, UNFPA noted.

The agency said it was looking forward to working with her in her role as a bridge builder across the fashion and technology industries, where she’s an influential international voice, to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

FROM THE FIELD: The Indian women weaving a digital web

Women weavers in Gujarat, India, feared the worst for their livelihood when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and work practically ground to a halt. However, thanks to their proficiency with online tools, they have been able to thrive through this difficult period.

Self-employed rural Indian women learn how to carry out basic online transactions. Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

The weavers had taken part in an initiative managed by the World Bank, the Leelavati Project, which is improving the digital and financial literacy of around half a million women across six Indian states.

As well as being able to promote and sell via Instagram and Facebook, they can carry out online transactions, avoiding the need for face-to-face cash sales. These kinds of skills were becoming important for Indian workers in the informal economy before the pandemic: today they are indispensable.

You can read the full story here.

FROM THE FIELD: Women scientists on the power of education to reach gender equality

At the UN University in Maastricht, which focuses on innovation and technology, women scientists have been at the forefront of research into COVID-19, producing several research reports and policy briefs on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on 11 February, the UN spoke to two PhD fellows at the university, both of whom are studying the impact of Covid-19 in Africa, to find out what inspired them to become scientists, and how to attract more women and girls to study science.

You can read the full story here.

FROM THE FIELD: Life after conflict in the Central African Republic

Conflict and insecurity in the Central African Republic (CAR) has taken a heavy toll on civilians for many years. 

In 2004 Aicha was brutalized and raped by armed men. She moved to another town to start a new life but, 10 years later, she was abducted and raped by another group. When her husband found out, he left her.

Madame “R”, a mother of 7 children was raped by two men as she returned home in Damala in the Central African Republic. ICC-CPI/Rena Effendi

A woman identified as “R” suffered a similar fate in 2017, on her way home from an early morning trip to the market. She kept the incident from her late husband, never feeling able to share what happened and, for her, the subject is still taboo.

Her testimony is included in the “Life after conflict” series, which seeks to demonstrate the way in which the UN-backed Court allows two-way dialogues to take place with affected communities. 

'We had to run for our lives’: The pregnant women fleeing Tigray

“When you think about your future, you never plan to be uprooted from the comfort of your home and find fragile safety in a tent,” said 24-year-old Hiwot, from Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray Region.

Yet this is exactly where she found herself in early December, while she was seven months pregnant. Fighting intensified around her neighbourhood, forcing her and her husband to flee. “As fighting came close to our house, my safety and that of my baby became my utmost priority. We had no choice but to run for our lives,” she told the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

Hiwot’s journey was long and dangerous: “We had to travel from Shire in the Tigray Region to Dabat in Amhara Region. It took us three full travel days to reach our destination. We were first on foot, but then, I became so tired that we took the risk and hitchhiked.”
Throughout, her main concern was safeguarding her pregnancy: “I was afraid that I’d fall sick, there would be no one to help me on the way, and I would lose my baby.”

Leaving everything behind

Before the conflict in Tigray erupted in November, things were looking good for Hiwot and her family. She made an income as a chef, something she greatly enjoyed. And about eight months ago, she found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

“My husband and I were thrilled. We were finally going to have a baby, and we were going to pamper him or her. We started planning for the child’s future.” Those plans have been abandoned.

“I had to leave everything behind—my belongings, my jewellery, and my livelihood that gave me some independence and strength: my cooking set. I only managed to bring with me two dresses and some underwear, as well as the little money we had kept at home,” she said. 

Three days of walking and hitchhiking brought them to Dabat, in Gondar, where aid groups have established a site for internally displaced people . There are currently 630 households, around 1,870 individuals, staying in the Dabat displacement site. Of them, 490 are estimated to be women and girls of reproductive age.

© UNFPA Ethiopia/Salwa Moussa
Hiwot (not her real name) at a displacement site in Gondar, Ethiopia.

Support after trauma

Displacement and uncertainty have already taken a serious toll on Hiwot. “We are desperate now,” she said. “Both my husband and I are unemployed and have become reliant on others. We are not sure what we will do when the baby arrives next month.”

Where to give birth and under what conditions are major concerns. She is not alone in this. There are an estimated 36 pregnant women in the Dabat displacement site, all in need of reproductive health care as well as other support, including psychosocial services.

UNFPA is working to urgently provide this care. In close collaboration with the Gondar City Administration Health Office, UNFPA is hiring midwives for the health centres serving the women and girls at the Dabat site. UNFPA is also distributing reproductive health kits to birth attendants, which will ensure midwives on-call have the supplies needed for safe deliveries. 

Women who are six months or further along in their pregnancies will also receive clean delivery kits, which contain emergency supplies—including a sterile sheet, gloves and razor—to help them deliver whether at the displacement site or in the health centre.

UNFPA will also establish a women’s safe space and a child-friendly space where women and children can seek mental health and psychosocial support and receive important information. These services are critical for those, like Hiwot, struggling to come to terms with their new reality.

“I have nightmares,” she told UNFPA, tearing up, “about how will I keep the baby alive with no income and living in such difficult conditions.”

*Name changed for protection

‘Women and girls belong in science’ declares UN chief  

“Advancing gender equality in science and technology is essential for building a better future”, Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “We have seen this yet again in the fight against COVID-19”. 

Women, who represent 70 per cent of all healthcare workers, have been among those most affected by the pandemic and those leading the response to it. Yet, as women bear the brunt of school closures and working from home, gender inequalities have increased dramatically over the past year.  

Woman’s place is in the lab 

Citing the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) he said that women account for only one third of the world’s researchers and hold fewer senior positions than men at top universities, which has led to “a lower publication rate, less visibility, less recognition and, critically, less funding”. 

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning replicate existing biases.  

“Women and girls belong in science”, stressed the Secretary-General. 

Yet stereotypes have steered them away from science-related fields.  

Diversity fosters innovation 

The UN chief underscored the need to recognize that “greater diversity fosters greater innovation”.  

“Without more women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], the world will continue to be designed by and for men, and the potential of girls and women will remain untapped”, he spelled out. 

Their presence is also critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to close gender pay gaps and boost women’s earnings by $299 billion over the next ten years, according to Mr. Guterres. 

“STEM skills are also crucial in closing the global Internet user gap”, he said, urging everyone to “end gender discrimination, and ensure that all women and girls fulfill their potential and are an integral part in building a better world for all”. 

‘A place in science’ 

Meanwhile, despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28 per cent of engineering graduates and 40 per cent of graduates in computer science and informatics, according to UNESCO.  

It argues the need for women to be a part of the digital economy to “prevent Industry 4.0 from perpetuating traditional gender biases”.  

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay observed that “even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender”.  

As the impact of AI on societal priorities continues to grow, the underrepresentation of women’s contribution to research and development means that their needs and perspectives are likely to be overlooked in the design of products that impact our daily lives, such as smartphone applications.  

“Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and that they have a right to share in scientific progress”, said Ms. Azoulay.

© UNICEF/Omid Fazel
A girl in Afghanistan shows a robot she has built at an exhibition in Kabul.

‘Pathway’ to equality

Commemorating the day at a dedicated event, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir informed that he is working with a newly established Gender Advisory Board to mainstream gender throughout all of the UN’s work, including the field of science. 

“We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to derail our plans for equality”, he said, adding that increasing access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, for women and girls has emerged as “a pathway to gender equality and as a key objective of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. 

Mr. Volkan highlighted the need to accelerate efforts and invest in training for girls to “learn and excel in science”. 

“From the laboratory to the boardroom, Twitter to television, we must amplify the voices of female scientists”, he stressed. 

STEM minorities  

Meanwhile, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation honoured five women researchers in the fields of astrophysics, mathematics, chemistry and informatics as part of the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science.  

In its newly published global study on gender equality in scientific research, To be smart, the digital revolution will need to be inclusive, UNESCO shows that although the number of women in scientific research has risen to one in three, they remain a minority in mathematics, computer science, engineering and artificial intelligence. 

“It is not enough to attract women to a scientific or technological discipline”, said Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant UNESCO Director-General for Natural Sciences.  

“We must also know how to retain them, ensuring that their careers are not strewn with obstacles and that their achievements are recognized and supported by the international scientific community”. 

FROM THE FIELD: The teenage Uzbek girls using science to help their community

Young women in Uzbekistan are using technology to help improve the lives of other Uzbeks., by Rimma Mukhtarova and Sabina Baki

Originally from a small desert town in Uzbekistan, 14-year-old Malika, moved with her family in the capital, Tashkent. She remembered that many of her relatives, and parents of her friends from back home, had to leave the country to find work.

Malika took part in a UN-supported science competition to come up with a technological solutions to help migrants.

The competition, the Technovation Challenge, has provided hundreds of girls with the opportunity to pursue their interests in science, supporting Uzbekistan’s national goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Find out more here about the Challenge, and some of the tech solutions that Uzbek girls are developing.

FROM THE FIELD: COVID-19 increasing risk of female genital mutilation

In 2018, it was estimated by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) that globally 68 million girls were at risk; now the figure stands at 70 million.

FGM, which many societies consider a cultural tradition, can result in long-term health and psychological problems.

The UN says that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected girls and women, resulting in what it calls “a shadow pandemic” disrupting the elimination of all harmful customs including, female genital mutilation. 

On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation marked annually on 6 February, read more here about how girls and young women are speaking out against the practice.

Hopes and fears of mother-to-be in Afghanistan

Arfia Omid works for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Afghanistan where one in three girls are married before their 18th birthday and only  19 per cent of females under 15 years old are literate. 

She has written this letter to her unborn child.

“My lovely baby, I haven’t met you yet, but I already know how beautiful you are — with your dark eyes, smiling face, soft, brown hair and golden heart. I have dreamed of having you my entire life.

I count the days and nights until I will finally hold you in my arms and love you as much as I can. Now you are only seven months and I can feel you when you move. ‘Naughty daughter’, I laugh quietly to myself.

Do you know, before you were even in my womb, I went to buy clothes for your brothers, and I saw a baby girl’s dress in the market? I stopped there for a while and wished to God to give you to me. You know what? I bought that dress. I knew that my next child would be a girl. I can’t wait to see you in it; you will be an Afghan princess.

© UNICEF/Omid Fazel
In Afghanistan, one in three girls are married before their 18th birthday.


But with all the happiness and excitement that I have, I am also nervous for you and your future in this country. I hear such sad stories about Afghan girls, but I also see how strong they are – so do not be afraid. You will also be strong.

Together, we will help more women realise their promise and potential. This is my dream for you.

The suffering of Afghan mothers

Afghanistan is a tough place to be a girl. Just two months ago, I cried for a mother who had just given birth to a baby girl. The father killed his wife because she delivered a baby girl. He escaped with the baby. I really can’t process the suffering and fear this mother endured. She had the most painful time delivering her baby — I know how hard it is for a woman to deliver at home without any healthcare facilities. 

Then, after enduring labour and birth, she waited for her husband and relatives to congratulate her. Instead, her partner killed her with his own hands. Nobody knows where the baby is – or if she’s alive. I worry about how she’s surviving without breast milk. Or if her father really cares for her, or if he sold her?

I hear such sad stories about Afghan girls, but I also see how strong they are – so do not be afraid. You will also be strong

I thank God that our circumstances are different. Your father loves you, as I love you. And your brothers love you. Together, we will protect you.

When I went for the sonogram with your father, the doctor asked me, ‘What do you want? A boy or a girl’?
I said, ‘I want a baby girl’.

She said, ‘Do you know, you’re the first mother I hear that wants a girl’? Then she told me that the woman who came before me came from a remote area. She told the doctor that if this time she gives birth to a girl, her husband will leave her and get married to another woman.

‘Luckiest baby and mother in Afghanistan’ 

My little girl, I know that we are the luckiest baby and mother in Afghanistan. And I want you to know that things will be better for you than they were for me, just  as they were better for me than for my mother.  When my mother gave birth to me, she did so in a poor family. We didn’t even have our own home. When she was in second year of university, your uncle was born. Despite her hard work and dreams, she couldn’t continue her lessons. She sacrificed her life to support and protect her children.

Only a fifth of girls under 15 years old are literate in Afghanistan.© UNICEF/Frank Dejo

So, years later, I found a way to thank her.

When I was in second year of university, I searched for a month and found her documents from the Ministry of Higher Education and her university. Then, I sought a permission letter from the Ministry to support her to join a private university. I gave her the registration paper of the new university as a gift for Mother’s Day. I remember, she cried and laughed at the same time.

She joined the university and graduated with her diploma just two years later. I can’t tell you how proud I felt. That day, she was the happiest woman in the world.

So, my lovely daughter, your grandmother is your reason to hope and to believe in change. Every day, Afghan women like her battle against the odds to bring their dreams to life. They empower each other, hand-in-hand, step-by-step. You will join that tradition, as I did. Together, we will help more women realise their promise and potential. This is my dream for you. And just as I turned my mother’s dream into reality, I think you will breathe life into mine.

I think about this at night when you keep me awake with your wriggling. I pray to God for a future where women and men have equal rights; and for blessed peace so I can send you to school without fear. I pray for your health and happiness. Mostly, I pray for you to be bold and courageous.

And you will be because you’ll be standing on my shoulders, my darling.

With love, Your mother, Arifa”.

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