Giving birth under the most precarious conditions – reproductive health in humanitarian crises

The “Mother and child” programme of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA)

Pregnancies and births also take place in humanitarian crises, often under the most precarious conditions. In armed conflicts or natural disasters, sexual and reproductive health needs are often overlooked – with devastating consequences. The risk of life-threatening complications increases when pregnant women no longer have access to medical services, as does the risk of unintended pregnancies if contraception is no longer available. In addition, women and girls in particular, are increasingly exposed to the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, with serious consequences.

The Swiss Parliamentary Group for Sexual Health and Rights organized a meeting on the topic of reproductive health in humanitarian crises during the spring session in the Parliament Building in Berne. Martin Jaggi, Head of the Humanitarian Aid Unit and Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Olivier Hagon, medical doctor and Head of the SHA’s Health Division, and Chantal Abouchar, midwife and expert in sexual health who has participated in several missions of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, shared their experiences, the needs in the field and reflected on Switzerland’s commitment.

The experts pointed out, that in most countries at risk of disaster where they operate, 40-50% of the population are mothers or children. The care of this particularly vulnerable group is not only often overlooked – it also requires specific skills and specific health materials. Swiss Humanitarian Aid has developed and repeatedly implemented a special mother and child programme adapted to needs of this group, which became the first and so far the only one certified by the WHO. To implement this programme, Switzerland works closely with local health professionals and UNFPA, among others. This programme with the focus on mothers and children is urgently needed and should always be considered in the context of humanitarian crises.

Healthcare in the context of pregnancy and childbirth, but also the availability of information and resources for family planning, support for victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, the prevention of HIV transmission and safe abortion care are of crucial importance in humanitarian crises, but also in international cooperation as a whole, and must be a priority in Switzerland’s engagement worldwide. With the development of the “Mother and Child” programme, Switzerland has built up in-depth expertise. In view of the current humanitarian crises, it is now important to boost this programme and provide the necessary financial resources.

The Swiss National Councilor and minister of Foreign affairs stated in a response to a parliamentary question raised by the co-president of the Swiss parliamentary group for sexual health:

“Sexual violence is a widespread evil in conflict regions. Interventions targeting sexual and reproductive health rights, including in such contexts, are a priority for Switzerland. The SDC supports emergency assistance in the area of sexual and reproductive health and aims to increase the availability and quality of protection services, especially for women at risk.”

However, the new forecasts for Switzerland’s expenditure in the context of international cooperation are heading in the wrong direction. The Federal Council had published in summer 2023 the draft of the new international cooperation strategy 2025-2028 including the relevant budgets and has submitted it for consultation.

CHF 11.45 billion has been earmarked for the IC Strategy 2025–28. Of this, CHF 1.5 billion is to be allocated for support to Ukraine, and CHF 1.6 billion to combat climate change. This means, that despite additional priorities, there is no additional money included in the new budget.

The Swiss Parliament will have the final say. The Parliamentarians will vote on the new strategy on international cooperation 2025-2028 and the related budgets in autumn. The expenditures for humanitarian aid including for the mother and child program of the SHA will be part of both the strategy and the budgets. A broad alliance of civil society organizations, including SEXUAL HEALTH SWITZERLAND, have participated in the consultation and called for a gradual increase of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of gross national income (excluding asylum costs) by 2028.


Photo Credit: IPPF/Jon Spaull/Nepal