Archive for March 22nd, 2008

Two weeks after President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga signed the power-sharing deal to end the post-election violence, displaced people at the camps are yet to know peace. The women and girls, most of whom suffered sexual or gender-based attacks even before arriving at the camps, are still at great risk.

The fact that Parliament is in session and that PNU and ODM seem to be fine-tuning the deal does not mean that all is well for the displaced.

Incidents of rape and sexual exploitation abound as desperation sets in at the camps, note local and internal NGOs in a report.

The rapid assessment response report released during a workshop in Nairobi this week, says that not only are the victims attacked by men from rival communities, but there are claims that security personnel and humanitarian workers are also involved.

Threats such as “If you do not move out, we shall rape the women” by attackers at Timboroa, as revealed by a rape victim at the local camp, become real as some women are sexually attacked, while others scamper to safer areas.

Ironically, the camps are increasingly becoming dangerous to women. As at the end of last month, Red Cross statistics show that a number camps are still fully operational, but with many in need of security and medical attention, besides food and shelter.

Some 292 camps are still intact, with 145 in the South Rift and 62 in the North, 57 in Nyanza and Western provinces, 19 in Central and nine in Nairobi. However, as many are said to be wrapping up operations on a daily basis so are the figures changing.

For women and girls in need of safety at the settlements, the risk of sexual violence is such that humanitarian organisations are worried. “There are many women and children who have been molested and raped,” Ms June Koinange, the coordinator of psychosocial support of the Kenya Red Cross, and a member of the GBV, a rapid assessment cluster team, said at the workshop. “Many are yet to even speak out about their experiences as they struggle to survive.

“The attacks have been coming from everywhere, including the camps themselves, where security is lacking and the residents are desperate for basic needs like food and shelter,” she noted. “There is urgent need to protect the people in the camps or we shall be facing an even worse crisis because matters of safety in sexual crimes do not apply here.”

In Nairobi, most adolescent girls in focus groups in slums such as Kibera and Kawangware say they know someone who has been raped.

The report notes that sexual violence is also on the rise among women seeking sanctuary in places like Tigoni, more than 25km outside Nairobi.

Some of the attacks are carried out by gangs of men who commit other atrocities.

Similar attacks are also said to be happening in areas like Burnt Forest. Women express fears of sexual violence because of makeshift sleeping arrangements at the sites, where males and females (not of the same family) are forced to share tents at night.

According to the report, they also voice concern over what they call lack of regulation, making it easy for men from the outside the camps to enter unchecked by the officials.

And since rape and sexual exploitation are never a priority in the conflict management, many victims remain silent.

At Burnt Forest, for instance, the women have suggested to the rapid assessment team that it is highly unlikely for a victim to report an incident, arguing that this is not viewed as a priority. “In a crisis like this, your first thought is to care for your children and settle down; you don’t even think of reporting… you are trying to figure out how to live,” says the report.

In Eldoret, a female camp management representative tells of significant numbers of attacks on women from Kapsabet and Eldoret. But when they reported the raids, they were told by the Kapsabet police: “This is an emergency situation, and this is not the time to think about these issues.”

Sexual exploitation is also a major concern at the camps, with humanitarian workers reporting cases in which women and girls exchange sex for basic resources such as food, sanitary towels and transport.

As the healing begins these concerns have hardly been dealt with effectively enough, the study found out. This implies that a large number of the displaced and those affected directly by the violence suffer immeasurable trauma and mental disturbance.

The crisis poses a challenge to even the security personnel who man the camps, with claims of sexual abuse by some humanitarian personnel — and even some of them. Ms Mendy Marsh, a coordinator with the Christian Children’s Fund and international GBV consultant, confirmed incidents of sexual assault by security personnel.

“We have encountered several cases, especially at various camps in Nairobi and its environs, where some security personnel and humanitarian staff are said to have solicited sex in exchange for food and shelter,” she said.

Lack of crucial medical emergency interventions in cases of sexual assault, such as the accessibility of the post-exposure prophylaxis, or emergency treatment given to rape victims as a preventive measure against HIV and Aids, is another major challenge.

The report says that the lives of many women and girls at the risk of contracting HIV and Aids can be saved with the provision of this treatment within 72 hours of attack.

Another challenge is lack of training for the humanitarian staff to enable them to effectively handle victims. “It has been difficult collecting statistics as sexual violence is so sensitive and stigmatised. Many are the victims who suffer in silence,” said Ms Jeane Ward, a GBV consultant.

“The criminal justice system has also let the girls and women down because they are yet to take these matters seriously,” adds Ms Koinange.

She continued: “Thus, the Government and humanitarian organisations need to move with speed to address this added menace to Kenyans already in distress. It is true that sexual violence existed long before the post-election violence erupted. However, the situation is more magnified now as all the support systems to prevent the violence collapsed especially in the rural areas, medical services have been strained, psycho-social care, legal support and police protection are a major challenge. This crisis is therefore an opportunity to recognise the many gaps that have dogged women and girls and seeks to initiate lasting solutions. We need to involve the whole community. We need to change a people’s attitude so as to be able to change the whole community. We need the Government to think beyond the resettlements and focus on how the aggrieved IDPs who have probably lost everything are able to go back to the very same places, very same areas where they were attacked. We need to lobby for the concerted efforts of all stakeholders to take this matter seriously.”

The seminar on the role of police in preventing domestic violence has brought forth the harsh truth that such violence accounts for a huge number of deaths of women — far greater than what is generally believed. Equally mind-boggling is the fact that 60 percent of our women are tortured in some way or the other, which indeed presents a grim picture of domestic violence.

Yet, the victims seldom seek help from the police. This is obviously a reflection, in part, on the law enforcers’ negative image and in part, on the tortured womens’ diffidence in lodging complaints with the police.

Women-bashing in different forms has become a problem of great magnitude. Reports of dowry-related deaths are being published regularly in the newspapers, acid attacks are on the rise, and gang-raping of women no longer evokes the kind of social revulsion that it ought to have. Various women rights groups and NGOs are working for rehabilitating the victims. But that cannot alter the shameful truth that we as a nation have failed miserably to protect the rights of women, which include their physical safety. While the decision makers vow to establish the rights of vulnerable women, incidents in which the latter fall victim to beastly crimes take place on a regular basis.

The predicament of women and girls exacerbates once they step out of their homes. There are the eve teasers harassing girls, with the law enforcers appearing to be quite reluctant to do anything about it. It is difficult to believe that they cannot rein in the unruly teenagers whose activities have led to quite a few girls’ committing suicide!

So, the law enforcers have to play an assertive role in curbing domestic or any type of violence against women. The community should also play its part it dissuading thugs from harassing girls while the latter report their plight to receptive ears in good time for preventive action. The police should receive the complaints with seriousness. The police have to prove that they are here to punish the culprits, and not to harass the innocent victims. This has to be ensured to protect all vulnerable people in society, including the women in distress.

HIV/AIDS: The Tale and the Fight of Two Women in Public Health
March 10, 2008 was National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in USA

HIV/AIDS is taking an increasing toll on women. In 2005, women represented 27 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in the United States, up from 11 percent in 1990. Most women who have HIV became infected through high-risk sex with men; the second most common risk factor among women is injection drug use. Many women with an AIDS diagnosis were probably infected at a relatively young age.

In the United States, AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34. And short of death, girls accounted for half of the HIV cases reported among teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 in 2005.

For two women in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls has a special significance. National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, March 10, is designed to foster awareness and knowledge about HIV/AIDS and prevention.

“HIV/AIDS has been the theme of my public health career, and for me it’s very personal,” says Hazel Dean, ScD, M.P.H., acting deputy director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I have seen family members and very close friends die of AIDS, and I knew it was preventable.”

Dean worked at the Louisiana state Health Department in 1986 to 1992 as an epidemiologist, biostatistician, and statistical coordinator with the HIV/AIDS Program. She started to notice how HIV/AIDS was devastating African-Americans and minority communities in general.

As she readied herself to take on the issue, the numbers she compiled were telling her minority women and girls were disproportionately falling prey to this disease and the numbers were on the rise.

“It dawned on me that this has to be a women’s fight, and empowerment was the commanding word,” Dean says. “Women need to be informed, because information is power. We need to be tested, so that we can take the next step to protect ourselves from contracting the disease, or seek treatment and care as soon as possible.”

But to tackle the lack of information – and the many other aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – a systemic approach is needed, according to Mirtha Beadle, deputy director of the HHS Office of Minority Health.

“There is still a need to educate minority communities about what HIV is, and what it is not, because there is a level of fear and stigma yet to overcome,” Beadle explains. “But the most difficult work is to connect people with the different types of care and support they need.”

Some years ago, Beadle visited a program for women and children in California that addressed HIV/AIDS in a comprehensive way.

“It was a residential setting; women could live there with their children if needed,” Beadle says. “It’s the concept of the one-stop shop. You get tested, learn how to protect yourself, and receive the treatment and support you need. It addressed you in a holistic manner.”

Beadle does not believe in models that can be applied everywhere and insists that the only model that works is the one a community is willing to buy into.

“We find that only comprehensive, systemic approaches work,” she says. “People at the state and local levels consider HIV a serious issue and a priority, but what is often missing is functional, workable and deep rooted partnerships that allow a holistic approach.”

Looking ahead, Beadle and Dean agree that women and girls need to receive more pertinent and timely information so that they can make responsible decisions.

“Many women don’t believe that they are ever at risk and still engage in very risky behaviors.” Dean says. “We can’t talk about this enough.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kingston Rev Lawrence Burke has said while it is agreed that safe sex messages should target women and girls, they should also target “dirty old men”, hopefully getting some “values in their heads and their pants as well”.

The archbishop, who was speaking at yesterday’s official opening of Martha’s House – an Apostolate of the Mustard Seed Communities in Kingston – was responding to earlier suggestions by Mayor of Kingston Senator Desmond McKenzie that efforts be doubled to reach teenaged girls and women engaged in risky sexual behaviour.

“Mr Mayor you suggested targeting women and young girls but I would like to suggest that we target our men, especially our dirty old men.

“So many of our young girls are being abused by men and whereas it takes two to tango, I really think we ought to target our men; we’ve gotta get some values in their heads and in their pants as well,” the Archbishop said.

In the meantime, the archbishop said while he concurred with the government’s thrust to encourage sexually active persons to get tested, the approach of the church to dealing with prevention still differed from the ministry’s approach.

“We have to really urge our people to look at some values and some attitudes and to really have certain ideals in life; but if we tell them from the beginning that look we know you are going to be sexually active and so we are giving you these condoms, I think we have to tell our young people that we believe in their capacity to live the gospel imperative,” Archbishop Burke said.

He also had a word for persons who think his idea is idealistic.

“People say of course that I am unrealistic and I am a dreamer but we have to set these kinds of ideals for our young people as adults because in every area we let our people down because of the way we live.

“We as older people need to mirror these values so we can let people know that faithfulness is possible and here I would like to suggest that the self-esteem and self respect we need to inculcate in our children, we need to get everybody on board,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop said, too, that the proliferation of sexual messages in the media was not helping.

“We have to decide what we want…we have to realise that if we are going to turn our country around we have to be on the same page,” he said.

In the meantime, Archbishop Burke said he shared the emphasis of the health ministry in insisting that sexually active persons should get tested.

“So many people in our country are walking time bombs because they have AIDS and don’t even know it,” he said.

Meantime, Chief of Epidemiology and AIDS in the Health Ministry, Dr Peter Figueroa, who also spoke during the opening, said some of the critical policies which were needed by persons who were working on the ground with HIV/AIDS were not in place.

“We do not have in place some of the critical policies we need to turn the epidemic around,” he said, adding that he was “begging policymakers for an audience” so the concerns could be conveyed in detail.

Dr Figueroa said while there was a National HIV/AIDS policy in place, which provided an excellent framework for the Ministry’s activities, some more specific policies were needed and urged legislative support for policies, especially in respect of stigma, discrimination and workplace issues.
In the meantime, speaking with the Observer afterward, the epidemiology chief begged to differ with the archbishop on the mode of prevention.

“The archbishop spoke about the promotion of values and I think all or most of us believe that we must promote values and respect for individuals regardless, and help to safeguard their health and well-being and I am definitely in support of promoting family values and the correct attitudes,” he said.

But According to Figueroa, “while abstinence must be established as a norm it is to be recognised that some young people who are sexually active will continue to be so despite counselling”.

In that event, he said contraception must be encouraged.

Comment made by the chairman of the National Aids Coordinating Committee (NACC), Angela Lee-Loy during a Ministry of Social Development symposium, titled “An Agenda for Action on Women and HIV”, at City Hall, Port of Spain, yesterday.

“A fear of violence or abandonment often prevents women from discussing fidelity or negotiating condemn use with their partner,” Lee-Loy said.

The constant threat of violence, she added, makes women feel vulnerable and allows men to maintain control of both decisions of when and how they have sex.

“Many women in Trinidad and Tobago have very little say over when they have sex and with whom. Violence against women and girls is relatively wide spread in Trinidad and Tobago.”

She explained that this was often the case because men are usually the ones with financial power, physical strength and the ability to demand sexual relations with women.

“Children and adolescents, particularly girls, are frequently abused by their step-fathers, mothers…and grown men in their environment.

She said a 2006-2007 survey conducted by the UWI Faculty of Medical Science, on the attitudes, practices and behaviour among 16-49 year old females in Trinidad and Tobago, showed that 11 per cent of those surveyed reported having their first sexual encounter even though they did not want to.

Another 87 per cent of women meanwhile said their first sexual encounter was with a partner older than themselves.

In T&T in 2006, 60 per cent of the new HIV reported cases in the 15-34 age group occurred in women, she added.

“Research has found that violence contributes both directly and indirectly to the vulnerability of women to HIV, because violent sexual acts can cause vaginal lacerations, increasing the risk of transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s) including HIV.”

Lee-Loy said there was also sexual double standard that prevails in Trinbagonian society, where men are expected to have multiple sexual partners while women are expected to be faithful to their partners and family.

“Marriage does not guarantee women protection against exposure to HIV, their risk of infection is determined by the sexual behaviour of their partner…”

HIV positive women are often subjected to discrimination, she added, as Aids is often viewed as a punishment for immorality.

She said these women also suffer violations of their human rights through loss of employment.

Women who have survived sexual violence endure a “triple tragedy” – physical, psychological and social – in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South African singer and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Goodwill Ambassador Miriam Makeba has said.

Ms. Makeba, on a four-day visit to the capital Kinshasa, is touring small farming projects which seek to help rape survivors feed their families and boost their self-reliance. The women taking part in the scheme have received seeds, tools and agricultural training from FAO.

“Women guarantee the survival of 80 per cent of the households in DRC. Yet despite their crucial role for the well-being of the family, they are frequently victims to rape and sexual violence,” she said, adding that the systematic rape of women in recent years is the “most horrifying feature of the complex emergency” in the vast Central African nation.

In the volatile North Kivu province alone, 27,000 cases of sexual violence were recorded in 2006, the singer, who was appointed FAO Goodwill Ambassador in 1999, noted.

She also pointed out that despite the DRC’s “vast potential for economic growth,” 70 per cent of the population faces food insecurity, malnutrition rates are rising and approximately 3.5 million people have lost their lives in the past two decades to violence, famine and disease.

In concert with other UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local authorities, FAO’s Emergency Coordination and Rehabilitation Unit has helped 500,000 households, or over two million people, and intends to increase their assistance to aid some 800,000 households this year.

The agency’s projects, prioritizing vulnerable groups such as internally displaced persons (IDPs), malnourished children and ex-combatants, have provided farming and fishing equipment, seeds and disease-free plants and road repairs to bolster market access.

“I would like my visit to this country to be an opportunity to renew and strengthen our commitment and ensure that innocent victims suffering from hunger have access to the necessary resources to cultivate their hope for a better life,” said Ms. Makeba, recipient of the 1986 Dag HammarskjÃld Prize for Peace.

While in the DRC, she also plans to visit a project for families impacted by HIV/AIDS, as well as meet with high-ranking Government officials and representative of UN agencies and NGOs.

Japanese police have reported that the number of domestic violence cases jumped 15 percent last year to 21,000 cases as more women broke their silence about assaults in the home.

“An increasing number of cases concern women who had previously suffered in silence but have decided to come out to seek advice or support from police,” Kyodo news agency quoted an agency official as saying.

A growing public outcry about violence behind closed doors prompted Japan to enact its first law on domestic violence in 2001. This was expanded in 2004 to cover former spouses and children.

Courts can order perpetrators to leave their homes for two months and force them to stay away from their children, spouse or former spouse.