Last week, when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for yet another commission to look into the use of rape as a strategy of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad, and Sudan, I almost laughed. Just what these women need, I thought—more words, platitudes, and denouncements by politicians. Ban’s statement calling for UN members to “come together and act” was made around the same time U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was embarking on an official visit to the area. She visited a refugee camp in Goma and promised $17 million to support programs for victims of sexual violence. Perhaps the UN felt it was being upstaged and so needed to do some posturing.
In the June issue of AJN, I coauthored a report on the increasing violence against women worldwide. In researching the article, I was shocked to learn how many reports and commissions and “special rapporteurs” have documented the violence, and for how long:
• The Guardian UK notes that “the UN has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the region since the conflict began in 1996.”
• A 2000 report by the Organization of African Unity on the 1994 Rwandan genocide noted that “practically every female over the age of 12 who survived the genocide was raped.”
• In 2005, WHO reported that there were 40,000 survivors of sexual violence in the DRC—and that was four years ago.
• In February 2008, the UN commissioned an investigative report of violence against women in the DRC. It confirmed the large numbers of mass rapes and also that many of the perpetrators were members of the army, the police, and even the UN peacekeeping force.
The details of the reports are graphic and difficult to read. As a nurse in a New York City ER, I saw victims of rape and gang violence, but the level of brutality and violence occurring unabated over such a long period was incredible to me. And it continues as you read this.
The UN has studied and documented and decried violence against African women and girls for far too long. Ban’s call for another report can be added to the stack of preceding reports that do nothing to end the violence and ease the suffering of the women and girls who have been victimized and the families that have been destroyed.
As a nurse in the US, whether you know it or not, you have seen these victims of violence. They are appearing in ERs, schools, and in communities as survivors who have emigrated to safe countries. In the U.S., refugees and asylum seekers relocate to many cities—like Denver, which has over 15,000 Ethiopean refugees.
Rebecca Singer, RN, ND, who works at the Rocky Mountain Survivor Center in Denver, has seen up close the situation that many of her current patients fled. As a sexual violence technical advisor for Medicin Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Singer worked in Uganda, Chad, the DRC, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Liberia. The patients she sees today, she says, suffer from PTSD and various physical complaints related to their torture. “Pretty much all women who were tortured have suffered sexual violence.”
Nurses—and people everywhere—should pressure their representatives to speak out and push the UN to take action. Nurses can support the work of the International Council of Nurses supporting the establishment of a UN Agency for Women, an entity dedicated to addressing issues related to women and protecting women and children during conflict. It’s time to stop talking about the problem and actually do something about it.