“WHEN the guns fall silent, it does not mean the suffering of women and girls stops. The suffering and abuse that women and girls are exposed to is long-term,” said UNFPA Regional Director for Arab States Luay Shabaneh, as she described the plight of women and girls in Syria last year. In fact, Ms Shabaneh’s words can be applied to the at least 630m women and children, who, according to a new study published in The Lancet, face serious health risks as the indirect effect of living in or near a conflict zone. The four-paper series of the medical journal, released over the weekend, provides compelling evidence that more women and children die from the indirect consequences of warfare — malnutrition, easily preventable infectious diseases, inaccessibility to proper reproductive health services, sexual violence and poor mental health — rather than the violence itself. The report explains through the data it has gathered over a decade that the risk of dying from non-violent causes increases drastically when people live in the vicinity of an ongoing conflict.

Citing one case study, the study maintains that between 1995 and 2015, at least 6.7m infants and more than 10m children under the age of five years born within 50 km of an active armed conflict died from the indirect consequences of fighting across Africa, Asia and the Americas. Moreover, according to the research, more than half the world’s women and children reside in countries that are in the throes of active conflict. In 2017, around 10pc of women and 16pc of children around the world were either living close to the site of conflict or had been displaced by the latter. Surprisingly, around a third of these women and children lived only in three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria and India, states that can hardly be described as active war zones but that continue to experience intermittent bouts of violence. These findings, as well as others contained in the report, have led researchers to call for a “radical rethink” of the world’s response to situations involving insecurity, and the logistics of high-priority interventions for women and children who live in or close to politically unstable environments. As Ms Shabaneh indicated, violence goes beyond the conventional meaning of the word where women and children are concerned. Already vulnerable because of unfair gendered norms, they are the ones who bear the brunt of the conflict.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2021

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