Delegates from more than 30 countries at a United Nations-backed conference on sexual violence in conflict today endorsed a programme for action, ranging from ending impunity to developing national preventive plans, after hearing harrowing accounts of the scourge, including the rape of girls as young as one year old.
“There must be zero tolerance for acts of gender-based violence and zero tolerance for complacency by governments and other institutions responsible for the safety and well-being of women, men and children affected by conflict,” says the agreement, adopted at the end of the three-day International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in Brussels, Belgium.
The meeting, attended by doctors and social service providers from countries affected by conflict, was sponsored by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Belgian Government and the European Commission.
“We must address this issue with hope, passion and compassion,” UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said. “We can talk about this issue until we’re blue in the face, but if the leadership of governments doesn’t insist that this issue is on the table, we won’t make progress. Governments must live up to their promises to make ending sexual violence a priority.”
Among the most heart-wrenching testimonies presented was that of doctor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Jean Pascal Manga, who told his horrified audience of girls as young as one year-old being raped by foreign objects such as metal bars, nails and sticks.
“Green wood from the manioc plant had caused a great many problems creating fistulas especially in very young girls,” he said. Traumatic fistulas occur when tissues are ruptured during violent rape, leaving passages that constantly leak urine or faeces or both.
“No one knew that you would find a fistula in a small girl under five years old, even as young as one year old,” he added. “We face new conditions, and we need exchanges with our western colleagues to treat these problems.”
He said there were about 25,000 women and girls who were raped and needed continuing support. “In Africa, once a woman has been raped, she may be abandoned by her entire family, and when she has a fistula and smells of urine, no one wants to be around her,” he noted. Among the 226 cases of fistula from rape, about 20 per cent of surgeries were a failure.
Some 90 per cent of women and girls who were raped had some kind of sexually transmitted infection and nearly 10 per cent were HIV positive, he said.
In another presentation, Feryal Thabet, of the Bureij Women’s Health Centre in Gaza, said the border closure with Israel and escalating conflict were causing a deterioration of women’s health and an increase in violence against women. “More than one third of Palestinian pregnant women are anaemic,” she said. “Early marriage is on the rise and so is high-risk pregnancy.”
She noted that antenatal visits to the centre were decreasing and 80 per cent of women did not receive any post-natal care in 2005. “There were 61 births at checkpoints with no medical assistance,” she said. Citing rising unemployment and poverty, she stressed that the increased vulnerability of women and unsafe sex were coupled with a lack of access to appropriate care and shortages of supplies, including contraceptives.
Representatives from 14 conflict-affected countries presented their national action plans to address sexual and gender-based violence. Participants called for a longer-term, holistic approach to meet the health, education, legal, psychosocial and security concerns of affected populations.