Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Women the Hidden Victims of Violent Conflict in Africa

Women the Hidden Victims of Violent Conflict in Africa

by Anne Marie Williams

No matter how hopeless peace may seem in Africa's many violent conflicts, it is our responsibility as members of the international community to make this impossibility a reality. To give up would be a betrayal to the entire populations of women who are caught in the middle of these wars, brutalized, raped and then forgotten during the peace process. We need to remember these hidden victims and work to ensure peace on their behalf.

As militias and government forces fight to control a territory they rape women and rule the population by fear. These rapes and beatings terrorize villages and breakdown the economic and social systems in the area. Unable to work, women and their families are deprived of income. During community raids, girls and women are enslaved as wives for militia commanders and kept captive for years.

Systematic rape is a crime against humanity according to the International Criminal Court. Despite this, rape is a standard weapon in wars on the African continent and around the world. Thousands of women have fallen victim in the militia wars or genocides in Rwanda, Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D'Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo. At this very moment, the conflict in Darfur, Sudan claims hundreds more victims

Even as peace agreements are made, widespread impunity protects the perpetrators of these heinous crimes from punishment. Often these atrocities are accepted as an inevitable effect of war. While women face stigma returning home, they are threatened or discouraged from reporting the crimes and no one has been brought to justice in these conflicts for using rape as a weapon of war.

While the perpetrators roam free, or receive comprehensive medical treatment in prisons, their victims return to their lives, starkly changed. Usually with children from the rapes, they are shunned from their homes. They live in poverty, and many of them suffer serious injury or disablement from the crimes. Brutality and genital mutilation with objects such as sticks, bottles or guns, coupled with a lack of medical treatment leave many women seriously hurt.

Tens of thousands of women are infected with HIV and other STI's during wartime. Militias are thought to rape women with the intent of spreading HIV. In Rwanda, it is believed that the Hutu militia's widespread campaign of rape used HIV as another attempt to exterminate Tutsis. As a result of sexual violence, sixty percent of HIV cases in Sub-Saharan Africa are female. Further stigmatized for having HIV, and with no access to medical treatment, these women add to the huge number of HIV victims and AIDS deaths in Africa.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among other NGOs, work tirelessly to bring the plight of these women to the attention of the international community. Together, we need to put pressure on the United Nations and the governments of countries at war and recovering from war to protect women and not forget them in the peacemaking process. Sexual violence needs to be taken seriously by officials and become a punishable crime in practice instead of theory. Above all, women and citizens of the world need to speak out about this violence.

We must raise our voices and demand that a women's body does not become a battlefield in times of conflict or peace.

Please get involved today:

1. Donate to We-ACTx, an organization supporting Rwandan clinics treating women who contracted HIV during the 1994 genocide. Go to http://www.crossroadsfund.org/WE-ACTx-Rwanda.html for details.

2. Donate to stop the atrocities occurring today in Darfur, Sudan at www.savedarfur.org .

3. Write elected officials to demand continued support for African Union troops in Darfur, and for international pressure to allow UN troops into the country. Information at www.amnestyusa.org .

4. Encourage elected officials to ratify CEDAW, an international treaty for the rights of women ratified by 182 countries but not the United States.

5. Stay informed of the hidden side of violent conflict and speak out to protect women around the world.

Anne Marie is a high-school student and human rights activist living in Evanston, IL. She studied the effects of war on women as a part of an independent senior project. She will be attending Tufts University next year where she will continue her commitment to human rights activism.