Monday, May 23, 2011

Global campaign underway to stop rape as a weapon of war

Where armed conflict is rife, sexual violence is rarely far behind. Many of the conflicts of the past few decades, especially in Africa, have been accompanied by excruciating levels of rape and brutality against women.

These women's stories are not for the faint-hearted. Some in the Democratic Republic of Congo were gang-raped, and left so physically battered that their bodies never recover. Others, in Uganda, are turned into "bush wives", who are abducted by soldiers and forced them to live with them in the jungle.

For years, African governments have been shockingly apathetic to such violence. Now, heightened levels of awareness and pressure from NGOs and other governments seem to be changing that attitude. Kenya, for instance, has launched a serious inquiry into post-election sexual violence in 2007, and last week Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said he would investigate allegations of mass rape in Libya.

Women advocates have often been key drivers of this change. This week sees 100 women from around the world – activists, academics, security experts, corporate leaders, and Nobel Peace Laureates - gather at the Nobel Women's Initiative's conference in Quebec to discuss how to end sexual violence in conflict. Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights outlined this week ways of keeping the pressure on governments:

"We can campaign for protection measures to be more robust. We can press for peacekeepers to have clearer, stronger mandates to protect women. We can make sure more women are trained and deployed in protection forces. We can campaign for legal reforms and blacklist countries where rape is inadequately defined and covered in criminal codes. We can speak out when witnesses are intimidated or police fail to make arrests. We can support proper standards for evidence and investment in justice systems and training for prosecutors, police, judges and health professionals."

Women's health now has a higher profile than it has ever had. The World Health Organization has developed a new
accountability framework for measuring progress in improving women's health, and this year also saw the launch of UN Women, intended to champion the rights of women and girls around the world.

Now is clearly the time for advocates to capitalise on this awareness, and lobby governments for action. But while governments can implement legislation and policies to crack down on sexual violence, we also need a shift in attitudes and prejudices towards sexual violence more generally.

For the most part, rape and other sexual crimes still leave a damning legacy of stigma that means that women rarely speak out. Most rapes go unreported even in developed countries, where women have the opportunity to seek justice.

The rape allegations surrounding former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn are a case in point. Last week, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy launched an vociferous of his long-time friend, mocking the claims of Tristane Banon, the French writer who said she had also been previously assaulted by Strauss-Kahn:

"Sensing the golden opportunity, [Banon] whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television".

The allegations have yet to be proven of course, but when privileged women in developing nations face a barrage of abuse for speaking out (it's seriously hard to see what "golden opportunity" Lévy thinks is forthcoming), it is unsurprising that more vulnerable women in poorer parts of the world, with corrupt judicial systems, can see no way of seeking justice. At the very least, we owe it to women to allow them to try and tell their side of the story.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chronic diseases to become India's top killers

India still largely tends to be associated with infectious diseases that plague the tropics - malaria, cholera or dysentery. Yet according to a report that the WHO launched last week in Moscow, more people in India die of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes than of anything else.

The numbers are striking: while deaths from maternal illness and infectious diseases are set to fall by 15%, deaths from chronic diseases (especially diabetes) will rise by 18%.

India and other developing nations have known for some time about the silent killers lurking in their populations' changing lifestyle. In Indian cities especially, the metamorphosis is staggering. Young women are just as likely to drink and smoke as heavily as young men, and fast food has changed from relatively low-fat street food to burgers and pizzas. Preaching against smoking and unhealthy eating from a Western country that has already overindulged itself is tricky. But when more than 60 million are set to die in India over the next decade, not taking any action is not an option.

Earlier this year, a
special series on Indian health by The Lancet called for India to boost its spending on health from 1% of its GDP to 6%. In the crowded press room in New Delhi, journalists and scientists seemed equally sceptical that India had the financial clout, or willingness, to do so, but the rallying call might have had some effect. Now, the Indian government is finally agreeing to step up the amount of money it spends on health to 2 or 3%. This is long overdue, as out-of-pocket spending on health in the private sector is skyrocketing, threatening the financial stability of many families.

Driving down chronic diseases will also have a major effect on the country's economy, because fewer people will need to take time off work or lose their jobs entirely. As the Indian government's one key imperative seems to be to grow its economy whatever the financial climate, this may be the one incentive that pushes it to fix the health of its people. The WHO says that even a 2% reduction in chronic disease deaths would mean an economic gain of US$15 billion. Can India afford not to act?

Photo credit: Selmer van Alten/flickr