Hesperian Health Guides

Reproductive Health

Refugee and displaced women often find it very difficult to get proper health care. Health workers may have difficulty reaching displaced persons in dangerous or faraway areas. Or, if services are available, health workers may not know the language of the women they help or the cultural beliefs and practices that affect health care.

In addition to these general problems, women’s specific health needs are often overlooked. These needs include:

a health worker meeting with a pregnant woman outside a tent
  • care during pregnancy and birth. Women need regular care before giving birth (prenatal care) and traditional birth attendants (TBAs) who understand a woman’s traditional birthing practices.
a health worker speaking to a woman carrying a child
There are no family planning services available here. This is a clinic for emergencies.
  • family planning. In many refugee communities, the birth rate is very high. Part of the reason for this is that agencies often do not provide family planning information or supplies. Also, crowded refugee camps offer little privacy to use these methods, or secure, personal space to keep things.
  • supplies for monthly bleeding.
  • information about and treatment for STIs and HIV.
  • health workers trained to detect serious health problems of women, like pelvic infections and cervical cancer.
  • safe abortion. This is often unavailable, especially if the agencies providing health care are against it.
  • extra calcium, iron, folic acid, iodine, and vitamin C in the diet, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women (see "Eating for Good Heath").
  • being cared for by women health workers. Some women cannot be examined by men because cultural beliefs forbid it.

Ways to improve women’s health

one woman speaking to another in a group that is learning about condoms
I'm glad they are also teaching us about family planning at these nutrition classes!

You may be able to improve health services by becoming a link between health services and your refugee community. Help staff understand the traditions and needs of your people. You can also request some of the following changes:

  • If the clinic is far away, ask for it to be open more hours at least one day a week. Ask for women health workers to be available on that day, especially if the women in your community cannot be examined by men.
  • If the health workers do not speak your language or understand your birthing practices, ask to have a birth attendant or midwife from your community explain these practices to those at the health center.
  • Ask for classes for adolescent girls and women on family planning, HIV, STIs, prenatal care and birth, and nutrition. Remind health center staff that women need a private area for discussing STIs.
  • Request extra feedings for pregnant and breastfeeding women. If there is not enough food available for a healthy diet, these women should receive vitamin pills.
  • Request that health workers receive training in treating the special health needs of women.
Becoming a health worker

Many camps train refugee women to be health workers, community health workers (CHWs), TBAs, and health educators, since they can speak the language of the other women and help improve the health of the whole camp.

In Camp Kakuma in northern Kenya, for example, southern Sudanese refugee women are very involved in health care. Many TBAs have been given more training and birthing kits, and other women are now CHWs and health educators.
a health worker teaching a woman about nutrition outside a tent
They are being trained in a way that will allow them to work in both the southern Sudan and in Kenya when they leave the camp. Sara Elija, a refugee from the Sudan, says that her new role as a TBA trainer has given her hope for work when she is no longer a refugee.

This page was updated:01 Feb 2021