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Women’s reproductive health worsening

The reproductive health of Kazakh women is deteriorating, with the most chronic problems among those living in the northeastern Semipalatinsk region, where nuclear weapons testing under the former Soviet Union continued for more than 40 years, according to a survey released on Friday.

The study, conducted by the national NGO Women of Kazakhstan and funded by the US Embassy, unveiled some alarming statistics to highlight the negative effect which the country’s ecological problems were having on women’s reproductive health.

Over 10 percent of respondents in the former nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk were found to have children with pre-natal malformations, compared to only 4 percent in the city of Almaty and the capital Astana. More than 20 percent of pregnancies in Semipalatinsk resulted in still-birth, according to the survey.

Women of Kazakhstan’s study included interviews with approximately 1,500 women of fertile age (which it took as 18-25 years), including the three regions of Taraz, Semi and Atyrau which have suffered from acute environmental damage.

Women in Semipalatinsk, surviving on a monthly income of US $7, identified their living conditions and nutritional status as very poor. More than 60 percent of the respondents considered that their health had been deteriorating.

Every woman in Kazakhstan could be included in a high-risk category for health, according to Judy Moon of the US Embassy’s information centre, which funded the project.

“Regardless of where the survey was conducted, the reproductive problems encountered were significant,” Moon said. She added, however, that the survey was “indicative” and that more research was needed to identify the source of the health concerns, and gauge to what extent they could be attributed to poor living conditions or truly environmental problems.

Poor health among Kazakh women is not a new phenomenon. According to WHO Kazakhstan, the maternal mortality rate has been rising and more than half of pregnant women suffer from anaemia. The child mortality rate is persistently high, as are the rates of abortion and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The environmental disasters that have befallen Kazakhstan have compounded the health crisis. Over half the women interviewed blamed their health problems on a series of ecological disasters. During the Soviet era, water from the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers was diverted for large-scale irrigation projects, causing an acute shrinkage of the Aral Sea and seemingly irreversible damage to the riparian ecology. Chemical residues from agriculture found their way into the rivers and into Kazakhstan’s drinking water.

As a result of Soviet nuclear testing between 1949 and 1989, around 40 million people were estimated to have been adversely affected by radiation.
Many Kazakh cities had seen a gradual rise in air pollution, which could also be linked to poor health of the population, according to Moon.

In June last year, Aitkul Samakova, chairperson of Kazakhstan’s National Commission on Family and Women’s Affairs, told a UN conference in New York that the nuclear testing and Aral ecological catastrophe had directly resulted in a rise in the incidence of breast cancer and female mortality.

She said the Government was taking all possible measures to improve the situation in health care, but it was struggling with the post-Soviet transitional period, and had not been able to resolve health issues as it would have liked.

Meanwhile, Kazakh women maintain that they feel powerless and cannot exert any influence on government policy to resolve environmental problems, motherhood and childhood health issues, according to the survey report on Friday. Every third woman polled said she was dissatisfied with her working conditions.

Women of Kazakhstan hopes to use the survey findings to influence national legislation and to work towards the provision of improved medical care for women.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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