Human Rights Policy and Nonprofit Organizational Development

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

Article published

In Policy Blog on August 21, 2009 at 12:36 pm

An article I wrote on the human rights legal framework and abortion, using Mexico City as a case study, has just been published.  Available online here.  The abstract is available on my Publications page.


Another one bites the dust: Yucatan state in Mexico restricts abortion

In Policy Blog on August 15, 2009 at 9:09 am

Since the passage of the law decriminalizing abortion in Mexico City was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court, there have been a number of backlash bills in state congresses. More than a dozen states have already seen constitutional amendments to protect life “from the moment of conception.”  Last week, Yucatan joined their repressive ranks.  The official law, passed July 15, was published on August 7th and it severely restricts reproductive rights and health.  The constitutional and penal code changes:

  • Criminalize use of IUD
  • Criminalize assisted reproduction
  • No medical services for women with ectopic pregnancy
  • No legal abortion for pregnancies that put women at risk or the result of rape

Mexican citizens can take action here by sending an email to the state’s governor and congress-persons.  I think US citizens could probably erase the text of the email and write something in English about how people all over the world care about the lives and health of women in Yucatan.

As I reported earlier, some Mexican NGOs are calling the rash of such ammendments a pact by the Catholic heirarchy.

An epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In Uncategorized on August 3, 2009 at 12:37 pm
Cross-posted from Gender Across Borders, where I write a monthly column called the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report.  This month’s SRHR Sit Report focuses on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape and sexual assault have become the tactic of choice for terrorizing and intimidating women and communities, and the conditions of the conflict have further degraded the status of sexual and reproductive health services.
A 12 year old girl, displaced by conflict, holds her baby sister. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly A 12 year old girl, displaced by conflict, holds her baby sister. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly

The war that has raged in eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo since the late nineties has a devastating effect for women– the use of rape and sexual assault as a weapon of war by troops on all sides– and no one is talking about it.  In the decade-long conflict, more than 5 million people have been killed in a country with a population of about 66 million, and tens of thousands of women have been victims of brutal sexual assault and then of stigmatization by their communities.  This Guardian report details the complex roots of the conflict, and its relationship with the Rwandan genocide.

An Epidemic of Sexual violence

The sexual violence and use of rape in Eastern DR Congo is being called the worst in the world, and the brutal attacks on women have become so commmon that they have become normalized in the mind of many Congolese.  Soldiers from militias as well as government troops are guilty, and even government funcitonaries and community figures have been reportely using sexual violence as a means of intimidation.

A woman undergoing surgery for fistula A woman undergoing surgery for fistula. Image care of endrevestvik’s flickr stream

The violence is often extremely vicious.  It is common for women to be raped with rifles, sticks and shards of broken glass.  Families are forced to watch mothers and daughters violated and men have been forced to rape their female family members.  Many women have developed tears in the lining of their vaginas, called fistula, which cause incontinence of urine or feces.  Women suffering from fistula are often ostracized from their communities or hidden away alone because of the stench.  Doctors have begun classifying the vaginal destruction caused by “exceptionally violent gang rape” as a crime of war.

In addition, the war has created a huge wave of internally displaced persons running from conflict areas or living in refugee camps (56,000 in the last two weeks alone).  Women who have fled conflict and now living in UN camps with poor conditions for sexual and reproductive health.   The UNFPA has been providing some women with sanitary napkins and clean birth kits, but overall the situation is not good.

Many women have become pregnant as a result of rape and none of the options are particularly good.  Unsafe abortion leads to maternal mortality, pregnancy and birth services are unavailable or clinics lack clean supplies.

A makeshift refugee camp in eastern Congo.  Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly A makeshift refugee camp in eastern Congo. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly

There are a number of great independent sources of information and groups working to raise awareness.  A new documentary called The Greatest Silence chronicles the effects of the rape and mutilation of Congolese women. South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM) has raised awareness within communities in Eastern DR Congo and around the world.  By letting women tell their stories on the air, they have broken the silence and begun the healing process for many women.  In fact, it was a Women’s eNews panel featuring AFEM founder Chouchou Namegabe that brought the conflict to my attention.  The Boston Globe had a gorgeous photo essay on the DR Congo.

Conflict minerals

Much like the conflict in Sierra Leone was fueled by so-called “blood diamonds,” the war in the DR Congo is largely driven by conflicts over resources.  Charcoal, gold and minerals like Coltan, which is necessary for the manufacture of cell phones, have all been the root of militia actions.  Large international corporations (like the UK’s Amalgamated Metal Corporation) quietly draw out the resources and deal with militias while murky supply chains protect them from scrutiny.  Global Witness just released a much-heralded report on the “militarisation of mining” called Faced with a Gun, What Can you Do? which is available for download here.  It traces the various militias involved in the conflict, and the breakdown of the rule of law in Eastern Congo.  According to the BBC, “regional analysts say the international demand for coltan is one of the driving forces behind the war in the DRC, and the presence of rival militias in the country.”

Media Response

With one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent history unfolding in the DR Congo, why don’t we hear about this more often?  Why aren’t we decrying the rampant use of sexual violence as a weapon of war?  This blog focuses on reporting of the war in DR Congo and investigates why it has received so little play in international media.  Recently, international attention turned more toward the DR Congo.  Ban Ki Moon has focused on the crisis recently and after a visit with survivors said that he was “humbled, saddened and shocked” by the level of violence.  The World Council of Churches has released a position calling on the church to become the conscience of the world in speaking up for Congo’s women.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is planning a trip to the DRC in the coming weeks, and she is expected to condemn the sexual violence, and Ben Afleck and Mick Jagger have created a short film to raise awareness and funds for the UNHCR’s work in DRC.

What can we do?

We don’t want our cell phones to fuel a war that destroys the lives of so many women, but lack of information about the supply chain of minerals coming out of the DR Congo makes it dificult to stop it.  As The Enough Project has pointed out, this is a tremendous opportunity for activism.  By making people aware of the the violence against women and the ongoing conflict in the DR Congo, and our part in it, we can start to build the international necessary to force mineral companies to stop fueling this war.

Learn more about the humanitarian aspects of the conflict from the International Rescue Committee.  Join the Raise Hope for Congo project as it builds a movement against conflict minerals.  Email president Obama and ask him to appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes Region.  Donate to the Fistula Foundation which directly assists in restoring health and dignity to women suffering from fistulas, including supporting the pioneering Panzi Clinic for traumatic fistula in the DR Congo.