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Why We Need to Protect Maternal Health During the Refugee Crisis

TIME Health
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It’s estimated that there are 22.5 million refugees today, and many of them are women and children. The ongoing refugee crisis has been a topic of discussion during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) happening this week in New York City. During a side event on maternal health, panelists—including Lynsey Addario, a photographer documenting the "Finding Home" series for TIME Magazine—described the needs of women who are between homes.

"People take for granted the fact that women give birth every day. What is that like for a woman on the run?" said Addario, explaining her ongoing project for TIME Magazine, which has followed three Syrian refugees as they prepared to give birth and raise a child in a foreign land.

During the panel—hosted by TIME and Merck for Mothers—Addario described the maternal health issues she witnessed during her reporting, including women giving birth with severe complications or dealing with postpartum depression without the necessary resources.

"These women carry an extraordinary amount of pressure to provide for their families" says Addario. "To give birth and get up and go after giving birth. I've worked almost everywhere, and the one constant is that women are resilient and they are trying to hold their families together."

Access to quality health care, including reproductive services and emergency obstetric care is important when it comes to cutting back on the number of women who die in childbirth, though it can be difficult in the kinds of conditions women are living in at refugee camps around the world.

"It's hard not to get emotional," said Dr. Hara Tziouvara, a pediatrician-neonatologist with Doctors of the World, who described her own personal experience treating women in refugee camps. "Most of the women were dehydrated from hours at sea. They were malnourished, [without] everything a woman would need during their pregnancy."

Before she became the president of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca told the audience that she remembered the horror she witnessed on the shores of Malta, when a boat of 500 Syrian refugees capsized, and only about 120 people survived.

"It was horrific experience," she said. "It was devastating. A 7-year-old boy who had seen his parents and siblings drown in front of his eyes."

To improve the health and outcomes of these mothers, the panelists said family planning care is important, as well as access to mental health treatments.

"Having access to a doctor or clinic when something goes wrong [is important]," said Addario. "There's a lack of people on the ground. There are certain countries clearly taking the bulk of these refugees...They are being very generous helping the refugee population."

Making refugee and migrant health a political priority is also critical, argued Coleiro Preca.

"We need maternal health in our migration action plans," she said. "We need a holistic approach to it. The issue of maternal health is not a woman’s issue. It is a fundamental human rights issue."

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