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UNITED NATIONS, New York – Amid escalating conflict, some 30,000 women in South Sudan are at risk of dying in childbirth, according to estimates by UNFPA, and 200,000 pregnant women will be in need of urgent care before the end of the year.

The conflict, which broke out in December 2013, has displaced 1.3 million people and left 4.9 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian partners project that by the end of 2014, the crisis will have severely affected more than half the population.

Health systems, which were fragile before the outbreak of violence, are rapidly deteriorating as health professionals flee the country. UNFPA has deployed 33 midwives across 10 states throughout the country, and with its partners, the Fund has ensured the safe delivery of 3,500 babies in recent months. But the needs are escalating quickly.

“Women do not stop getting pregnant or having babies when a disaster strikes,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA’s Executive Director.

On 20 May, Dr. Osotimehin will attend a high-level pledging conference in Oslo, organized by the Government of Norway, for South Sudan. UNFPA is appealing for US$25 million to ensure that additional reproductive health care and gender-based violence services are put in place in South Sudan and affected neighbouring countries.

Risk of sexual violence

Even before the conflict, South Sudan had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and gender-based violence was a persistent problem. But crisis conditions have exacerbated the situation.

UNFPA estimates that 25,000 women affected by the conflict could be at risk of sexual violence this year.

“The challenges we face in South Sudan are grave, and we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to deliver lifesaving services to all the women and girls affected by the crisis,” UNFPA Regional Director Julitta Onabanjo said at a recent meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Psychosocial and medical services for survivors of sexual violence have been made available in major displacement camps. UNFPA has also provided reproductive health supplies to affected populations, including IV fluid, antibiotics, clean delivery kits and rape treatment kits.

Need to scale up response

UNFPA’s activities include outreach to youth in displacement camps, who are receiving reproductive health information and services.

And with partners, UNFPA has placed emergency reproductive health supplies in flood-prone regions of the country, in anticipation of the onset of rainy season. Huge swaths of the country become inaccessible during rainy season, a situation that threatens to undermine the humanitarian response.

Meanwhile, food production has been disrupted, violence against civilians is widespread, and the health ministry recently declared a cholera outbreak in the capital, Juba, increasing the risks facing pregnant women.

And the needs have spilled over into neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, where more than 300,000 South Sudanese refugees – 80 per cent of them women and children – have taken shelter. In those areas, health services are badly overstretched.

There is an urgent need for UNFPA to scale up its activities, but the organization’s response remains significantly under-funded.

“We have a duty and responsibility to protect and care for the women and girls of South Sudan,” said Dr. Osotimehin. “If we don't, who will?”