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More than 300 make use of first free clinic for refugee women in Kuala Lumpur

News Stories, 17 September 2007

© UNHCR/E.Oliveira
Volunteer nurses take down medical details from refugee woman at the free clinic.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, September 18 (UNHCR) An unprecedented free clinic for female refugees proved a huge hit at the weekend when more than 300 women queued up to see doctors at a community centre in Kuala Lumpur.

Volunteers turning up at dawn on Sunday to run the half-day clinic organized by the UN refugee agency with funding from the private Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia (OGSM) and the IS Puvan OBGYN Foundation were amazed to see dozens of women waiting for the medics.

Most of those using the facility were refugees from Myanmar. "We were taken aback. We'd never seen this before at any of our other clinics. It was only 6.00am and at least 50 refugee women were already there," said OGSM volunteer Chong.

The number had swelled to more than 300 women by the time the clinic opened three hours later offering services such as pap smears, breast examination, blood glucose and blood pressure tests, HIV testing and counselling, and consultations and referrals. Volunteer staff also gave advice on ante-natal care, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.

The OGSM holds free clinics for underprivileged Malaysians, but this was the first time they had held one for refugees. Some of the medics had never met refugees before, but the success of the exercise has prompted organizers to consider holding another session at a different location.

Sunday's session clearly filled a gap in a country where 30 percent of the 37,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers are women. Most of them could never afford a visit to the gynaecologist at a private or public hospital.

"The delivery was expensive and we had to borrow money from friends. So after that, I could not afford to see the doctor again even though I felt some pain," explained Pham, a 29-year-old ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar, who was seeking post-natal treatment a month after giving birth.

Many of the women who turned up at the clinic were young mothers or pregnant women who wanted advice on health care for themselves and their babies during pregnancy and after delivery.

"My son was born six months ago, but he hasn't been well," said Sui, another young Chin woman. "My husband earns only 15 ringgit (US$3.00) each day working at a market. This is not enough for the hospital bills. Our friends lent us money for my son's treatment because we cannot afford it."

Sui has been suffering from pains in her abdomen for several months, but could not afford the extra expense on top her son's medical fees. The free clinic was a chance for her to talk to a gynaecologist.

"We tend to only see the women at the later stages of illness," Susheela Balasundaram, a UNHCR senior programme assistant for health, said. "They don't see a doctor until they can't avoid it any more," she added.

"Cost of health care, fear of meeting doctors because of language barriers, all play a part in preventing refugee women from getting treatment. That is why this clinic is so important," Dr Balasundaram said.

Tang Boon Nee, treasurer of the OGSM, said the response to the free clinic was eye-opening. "Malaysians take health care for granted. We know we can get treatment when we need it. For refugees, there is no alternative they rely on free clinics like this," said Dr Tang.

The point was reiterated by volunteer Kavitha Ramachandran, a staff nurse at a local hospital who did not realize before Sunday that there were refugees in Malaysia. "The refugee women said they are scared to see doctors; I think they are scared that the doctors might report them. This is a safe space for them to get treatment," she said, adding: "I'm happy to help today and I will volunteer again at the next clinic."

By Yante Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia




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How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

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Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

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There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

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