Current World Population
Net Growth During Your Visit

Refugees and the ICPD

By Erika Larson

Pakistan's conflict, Darfur's unrest, South Asia's tsunami, Sierra Leone's civil war, Louisiana's hurricane Katrina…the list of recent and current crises and emergencies can feel endless. While the visible disaster is shocking, the severe and silent destruction occurs in the lives of women.

This year, we observe the 15th anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. ICPD was groundbreaking in many areas of reproductive health, especially in terms of refugees and internally displaced persons (paragraphs 9.22 and 10.25). ICPD marked the first time the international community recognized that quality reproductive health care is a right for refugees and women living in crisis situations.  

It has been 15 years since ICPD's Programme of Action embraced a comprehensive approach, but both funding and humanitarian priorities have been piecemeal.  Reproductive health in conflict has been propelled by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the increasing awareness that sexual violence and rape are being used as a weapon of war.1  But for the past eight years, comprehensive reproductive health, including family planning and emergency obstetric care, has largely fallen off the map.  Against the backdrop of today's violence and vulnerability, displaced women and girls are at high risk for unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and infant deaths, survival sex and unsafe abortions, especially when quality reproductive health services are far and few between.

Reproductive health is a recognized standard in emergency response.2  However, it is often left out of the ‘response package' which prioritizes water, food, and shelter.  There are over 40 million displaced people worldwide, and over the past decade, the nature of displacement has changed from camp-based settings to urban ones.  Cities have been a haven to people fleeing from emergencies; however this ‘invisible population' is often unable to access government services.  But perhaps the most astonishing fact is that these crises are no longer short term affairs; the average displacement is 17 years.   A woman might spend most of her reproductive years away from her home, without quality services.

While conflict and fragility often present challenges in implementing lifesaving services, providing reproductive health offers an opportunity.  As conflict-affected areas rebuild, reproductive health is not an end in itself but rather a critical step in strengthening communities.  Accessing quality reproductive health services, enables women to participate in the rebuilding of their community.  Offering displaced women that opportunity is the way forward.

Erika Larson is Reproductive Health for Refugees Program Officer, at JSI Research and Training Institute.


1 "Ensuring the Reproductive Rights of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Legal and Policy Issues," International Family Planning Perspectives, Volume 26: Number 4, December 2000.

2 The Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health (MISP) is included in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.