What Fiji’s Cyclone Winston Can Teach Us About SRHR and Climate Change

Our sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are not only negatively affected by climate change but opportunities to realise SRHR offer a way to help mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change.

It has been one month since Tropical Cyclone Winston decimated my home country of Fiji. While I sat in New Zealand, anxiously refreshing Facebook, the world of my family and friends was turned upside down by the world’s second most intense tropical system on record at landfall. They awoke to scenes of utter devastation. With communications to the outer islands and rural areas down, the extent of the damage was not known until two days later, when a New Zealand Defence Force plane did an aerial survey. Among the photos shared by the Fiji Government on Facebook was this:

Blog photo 1Photo of Nasinu (after), Credit: NZDF/Fiji Government

A Village and a Contraceptive

Above is a photo of Nasinu Village in Dawasamu Province, a village which adopted my father when he needed somewhere to go and which subsequently adopted my siblings and me. It used to look like this:

Blog photo 2Photo of Nasinu (before), Credit: Kesaya Baba

On my last visit to Nasinu I was talking to a young mother who explained that she was getting the Depo Provera injection in order to space her children. Sure, she thought it was making her fat, but she still travelled two hours on a crowded bus along a dirt road to get it every 12 weeks. She’s lucky; in the Pacific Islands it is estimated that 650,000 women have an unmet need for family planning [1], and this statistic only captures women who are married or in a union – the UNFPA estimates that worldwide the rate of unmet need among adolescents is double that of married women [2]. Further to this, the adolescent fertility rate in Fiji is 44 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 (compared to 24 per 1,000 in New Zealand and 16 in Australia) [3].

But what does my friend’s contraceptive choice have to do with Cyclone Winston?

SRHR in Humanitarian Settings

During and after a crisis, some of the most vulnerable members of the community and in the greatest need of immediate assistance are children and lactating and pregnant people. This applies not only in immediate disasters such as Cyclone Winston, but also slow-onslaught crises such as the drought currently gripping the Pacific. An aid worker filed the following report from Vanuatu in November 2015:

“Rosalie is eight months’ pregnant, and she knows she’s not eating enough food or drinking enough water for her unborn baby, but there’s nothing else she can do. Cyclone Pam ripped out the crops in March, and El Nino has meant that very little is growing back.” [4]

This is a situation playing out across the world, as climate change contributes to more frequent, more intense and longer-lasting weather events. Rosalie’s health and the health of her baby were seriously undermined by the weather event of the El Nino-induced drought. Around 7,000 pregnant and lactating women in Fiji are in the same position now in the wake of Cyclone Winston. The situation is particularly dire for pregnant adolescents, who already face increased risk from complications in pregnancy.

To compound the dangerous situation, access to and the availability of emergency obstetrics services are restricted in the wake of sudden disasters. In fact, this is the same for most health services and services in general. Meanwhile, communities are at increased risk of health issues such as infection, water-borne disease and mosquito-borne disease. Sexual- and gender-based violence also increases. Vulnerable and marginalised segments of the community are particularly susceptible and this includes young people, especially children, pregnant adolescents and young people living with a disability.

Addressing SRHR Will Help

As the effects of Cyclone Winston and the El Nino cycle wear on and the recovery gets underway, people in Fiji and across the Pacific may wish to delay childbearing. This will be difficult for many with such high unmet need for contraception, low contraceptive prevalence rates and restrictive abortion laws in most Pacific Island Countries and Territories. There is also pervasive gender inequality in many communities.

However, if everyone who wanted to control their fertility could do so like my friend in Nasinu, it would contribute significantly to community resilience to climate change by freeing people up to focus on adaptation and survival, reducing the number of vulnerable people and dependants and, in the long-term, through better health and education outcomes. Cost-benefit analyses by Family Planning New Zealand of meeting the unmet need for family planning in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu show this would cost just 8.55 million USD across the two countries but would save 112 million USD  in health and education expenditure [5].

Meeting other SRHR needs and the rights of young marginalised people also contributes to resilience to climate change. This includes ensuring young people are able to keep themselves safe from sexually transmissible infections, are safe from sexual and gender-based violence and are involved in adaptation and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, many young people are overlooked in such efforts due to discrimination based on age, physical ability and/or gender orientation or sexual identity.

Click here for an excellent toolkit from UNFPA and Save the Children: Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings.

SRHR and Resilience

When people are able to choose the number, spacing and timing of their children, they are much more capable of adapting to the effects of climate change. The same applies when people are not battling the scourge of HIV & AIDS and other sexually transmissible infections or fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, for example.

In conclusion, sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, to which everyone entitled. And while climate change impinges on all human rights, by helping people to realise their SRHR we can also help mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change. With such high stakes, governments and humanitarian agencies would be wise to work to ensure the SRHR of all people, both for their inherent value and for their role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Blog photo 3

Photo: Me with my little brother Jale and his best friend Bati, Nasinu Village, 2013. Credit: Kesaya Baba

Kesaya Baba is the Chair of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and has been a member since 2014, having worked in the field of SRHR since 2012. Kesaya was born in Fiji and undertook her secondary and tertiary education in Australia and New Zealand, gaining bachelor degrees in Economics and International Development and a master’s degree in International Development.


 

[1] New Zealand Parliamentarians’ Group on Population and Development (NZPGPD). 2009. Report of the New Zealand Parliamentarians’ Group on Population and Development: Making Maternal Health Matter. Open Hearing on Maternal Health in the Pacific 21 September 2009. New Zealand: Wellington.
[2] UNFPA. Making Reproductive Rights and Sexual and Reproductive Health a Reality for All: Reproductive Rights and Sexual and Reproductive Health Framework. UNFPA, 2008.
[3] World Bank. “Adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19)”. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.ADO.TFRT. 2015.
[4] World Vision. “Kiwi aid workers return from El Nino-stricken Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu”. https://www.worldvision.org.nz/news-blog/stories-from-the-field/el-nino/kiwi-aid-workers-return-from-el-nino-stricken-papu. 2015.
[5] Kennedy et al. “The case for investing in family planning in the Pacific: costs and benefits of reducing unmet need for contraception in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands”. Reproductive Health 2013, 10:30 http://www.reproductive-health-journal.com/content/10/1/30