Accountability strategies for sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in humanitarian settings: a scoping review

Schaaf, Marta; Boydell, Victoria; Sheff, Mallory C.; Kay, Christina; Torabi, Fatemeh; Khosla, Rajat

Many of the 35 million women and girls aged 15–49 requiring humanitarian assistance have inadequate access to the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services to which they are entitled. Ensuring accountability is critical to realizing their SRH and reproductive rights (RR).

This scoping review examines the extent and nature of existing evidence on accountability strategies for SRH in humanitarian settings in different geographical scopes/contexts, and contextualizes these findings in the larger thematic literature. This review seeks to answer the following questions: What accountability strategies are employed to address the availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of SRH in humanitarian settings? What do we know about the successes and challenges of the given strategies? What are the implications for practice?

We consulted public health, social science, and legal databases including SCOPUS, PubMed, ProQuest, and LexisNexis for peer-reviewed articles, as well as Google Advanced search for grey literature; the search was conducted in March 2019. We searched for relevant articles and documents relating to accountability, humanitarian, and SRH and/or RR. To identify key challenges not reflected in the literature and additional grey literature, 18 key informants from international NGOs, local government bodies, academia, and donor agencies were interviewed from March–June 2019.

A total of 209 papers and documents were identified via our literature searches and interviews for review. We identified three categories of approaches to accountability in our background reading, and we then applied these to the papers reviewed a priori. We created a fourth category based on our findings. The categories include: (1) humanitarian principles, codes of conduct, and legal instruments; (2) technical, performance, and impact standards; (3) efforts to solicit and address the rights and needs of the affected populations, or “listening and responding,” and, (4) accountability demands made by affected populations themselves. Almost all papers identified referred to challenges to realizing accountability in humanitarian contexts. There are promising accountability approaches – some specific to SRH and some not - such as open-ended feedback from affected populations, quality improvement, and practical application of standards. Reflecting a largely top down orientation, papers concentrate on accountability mechanisms within humanitarian work, with much less focus on supporting affected populations to deepen their understanding of structural causes of their position, understand their entitlements, or access justice.

In the last 20 years, there has been increasing standard and guideline development and program experiences related to accountability in humanitarian settings. Yet, the emphasis is on tools or mechanisms for accountability with less attention to changing norms regarding SRH and RR within affected communities, and to a lesser extent, among implementers of humanitarian programs or to institutionalizing community participation.


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Conflict and Health

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September 22, 2023


Sexual and reproductive health, Reproductive rights, Accountability, Governance, Humanitarian/ development nexus, Humanitarian