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Hannah Maule-ffinch


Climate crisis, displacement, and sexual health – what are the links?

As the rate of climate emergencies continues to increase globally, the impact on healthcare and human rights will be severe.

“This community needs to survive… The problem now is you can’t survive with the sea rise levels.” – Takaria Ubwaitoi, community leader and organizer in Bikenibeu, Kiribati

The climate crisis is high on the global political agenda, but an aspect of it which is lesser explored is the displacement and refugee crisis that has already started to happen as a result – and with that the impact on sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights (SRHR). 

As the rate of climate emergencies continues to increase – particularly in the Global South – millions (or even billions) of people can be expected to be forcibly displaced in the coming decades, either within their home countries or across borders. More often than not, these climate emergencies are being driven by the overconsumption of countries in the Global North, but experienced most heavily in the South.

Impacts felt significantly by women and girls

The immediate and obvious impact on SRHR is the disruption of regular health services. In the wake of a climate disaster, clinics that were previously offering services such as streamlined STI testing and treatment, safe abortion care, contraception, and maternal care risk losing the ability to do so with the same consistency and reliability. Humanitarian responses often see SRHR needs deprioritized, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when in reality they are critical to a life-saving response. 





Climate Crisis

Related Member Association

Kiribati Family Health Association

A swab test

A swab test inside a sexual health clinic. Photograph: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Hannah Maule-ffinch

The gendered face of displacement is also clear. As with any humanitarian crisis, an increased incidence of sexual and gender‑based violence is likely. Child, early and forced marriages, and trafficking are also more likely to take place in times of crisis and displacement. The social, economic, and political barriers which women all around the world already face are exacerbated in the face of climate shocks. Women, trans, non-binary and gender non-confirming people are severely underrepresented in all formal decision-making bodies, and so any commitments around climate change mitigation and management is less likely to take them and their specific needs into significant consideration.

Kiribati’s imminent risk

One place that is facing serious imminent risk is the tiny island nation of Kiribati, comprising a collection of atolls located in the Central Pacific Ocean. Low topography, rising sea levels, and insufficient fresh water supply leaves the people of Kiribati more exposed to the effects of climate change, and some predict it may be the first entire country to be lost to the climate crisis. The climate crisis will slow the progress made in poverty reduction and may even reverse hard-won gains in development. This loss of livelihoods and economic fallout will also increase the mobility of populations who will be forced to relocate to other countries for greater opportunities. We spoke to several locals in Kiribati, and many of them expressed their worries about the future, and their fear of having to leave the homes they love.

Theta, Humanitarian Youth Club member

Theta, Humanitarian Youth Club member. Photograph: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Hannah Maule-ffinch

Theta, 25, is part of the Humanitarian Youth Club set up by the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA, an IPPF Member Association) in her village, which regularly experiences flooding. “I think in 20 years this whole village will be underwater. Though we love it here we have to believe the scientists that there is a possibility that it will sink. It's sad news for our country, and to be a refugee in another country. People are discussing migrating to Fiji, Australia or New Zealand,” say Theta. On her volunteering activities, she continued: “Our youth have been organized as a club since we were younger, we were very active. Now we are leaders… We share our ideas on sexual and reproductive issues such as sexually transmitted-infections, and we discus how it would feel to be a pregnant woman in a disaster.” 

This is something Tikatake, 19, also speaks about: “KFHA offers many training and workshops to this community – one of those training sessions was on humanitarian emergencies. For example, I learned we have to look out for pregnant women and so if a woman goes into labour during an emergency, we know what to do.” 

Education is key

Training and education has long been a prime consideration for KFHA, who over the years have impressively expanded their work to reach roughly three-quarters of Kiribati's population. When it comes to sexuality education, they do this because it is critical for young people to realising and claiming their human rights – but in times of crisis, it can often (and wrongly) be seen as less of a priority. It’s something that Takaria Ubwaitoi, community leader and organizer laments: “KFHA is doing a lot of workshops and outreach programmes on family planning and sexual diseases for young people – but the main problem is still education.”

Takaria Ubwaitoi, community leader and organizer in Kiribati

Takaria Ubwaitoi, community leader and organizer in Kiribati. Photograph: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Hannah Maule-ffinch

KFHA continues their critical SRHR outreach work and maintains strong relationships with the local communities across Kiribati’s islands in the face of increased disasters and the threat of displacement.

Julie Taft, IPPF’s Humanitarian Director, says, “The Asia-Pacific Region experiences 87% of the world’s climate-related disasters, many of these a direct result of the climate crisis. We know two things: that the severity and frequency of climate-related disasters such as cyclones and floods are on the rise, and that women’s sexual and reproductive health is directly impacted by these disasters. IPPF stands at the interlinkage of these two areas and has been preparing our Member Associations across the Asia and Pacific regions to be able to respond so people – especially women – are not forced to make a decision between their homes they love and their reproductive health and rights.” 

The climate crisis is one of the biggest threats we are facing as a global community, but if we act now, people like Theta will not be forced from her home and watch the life she once knew disappear underwater.

We urge Governments to hold polluting corporations and countries accountable as the biggest contributors of the climate crisis. Without systemic change, overconsumption and production will continue to negatively impact once habitable land, creating a humanitarian and displacement crisis possibly not seen in our lifetime. 

Likewise, humanitarian action and climate crisis mitigation policies must acknowledge sexual and reproductive healthcare as a major enabler of a communities’ resilience to climate crises and enabler to reach their full potential.

For more, read IPPF's position paper on the climate crisis and SRHR