Why We Can’t Ignore Refugees’ Sexual Health

By Ashley Judd

As I recently saw in Jordan, Turkey and Ukraine, refugees need a chaos-free, safe place to live. They need to eat and drink. Their children need schooling. They exercise and relax. They paint, cook, act, sing, dance, do yoga and shop.

They also become intimate. Girls and women become pregnant. Babies are born. Families grow. It’s amazing. While bombs drop, unaccompanied minors as young as 4 flee on foot, and generations of families seek whatever approximates order in that most abnormal of settings. But even in refugee camps, and while dispersed in host communities, there is desire. There is the joy of procreation.

Yet in fragile and humanitarian settings, this most deeply natural and automatic of human behaviors and needs is largely unaddressed. If ever there was a time girls and women need to know how to regulate their fertility, and be empowered to make thoughtful choices about their family size, it is when they’re on the run from armed conflict.

Equally, while girls and women always need to be able to prevent and address sex’s unrelated facsimile, gender-based violence, they especially need to, and cannot, as refugees. Gender-based violence, which is really about power and control, escalates in fragile settings. Human rights abuses abound.

I spent two phenomenal, deeply moving weeks with Syrian refugees in Jordan, and then I traveled to Turkey and eastern Ukraine, in my capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

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