Physical, psychological or sexual assault is a treacherous act, and yet it happens to women and girls all over the world on a daily basis. Just the thought of another person taking the most intimate part of my being makes my entire body shudder and simultaneously freeze. According to UNFPA one in every three women will experience physical or sexual abuse at some point during their life. Now imagine dealing with this type of horror and being separated from the comfort of your family, familiar surroundings and home.
I asked several individuals that have worked or lived in, or reported on, post conflict areas various questions about the psychological and long term impact of rape within refugee and IDP (internally displaced people) camps. The information varied in detail but the overall response was grim and sadly similar. People around the world are suffering from the generational effects of war, violence and despair.
I’m definitely not an expert on this topic, but I think that rape and GBV can leave a permanent mark on any woman who experiences it, regardless of their situation. However, I think that displaced women often are in incredible precarious situations anyway, and I can only imagine it makes what is already a very difficult situation much, much harder.
Helen Nianias Freelance Journalist
Helen recently completed a piece on Syrian child brides and the following remarks are referring to information she collected.
Refugee girls as young as 10 are much more likely to be married off as they’re seen as a burden on their families because they are living in such dire situations in refugee camps. The girls are often subjected to rape, violence, and can die in childbirth because their bodies are not ready for it. This happens to these girls as a direct result of being refugees. My experience of reporting on the challenges that refugee girls and women face is that they are manifold, often unpredictable, and that women are always, always, always the bottom of the pile.
Helen encouraged me to read a report developed by the International Medical Corps in order to have a detailed account of psychosocial workers and medical professionals working in these very volatile settings. It provides a window into the various challenges that psychosocial workers and organizations face while working with displaced populations in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. This report focuses on the countless individuals that have been displaced due to the conflict in Syria. It highlights the various factors which contribute to mental, neurological and substance disorders. These factors are placed in three categories:
- Security and protection
- Access and availability to basic services
- Family, community and sectarian tensions
It also provides empirical evidence about this growing and daunting dilemma. According to the article several severe emotional disorders are the most prevalent among all countries followed by high rates of epilepsy and psychotic disorders.
Miles away and separated by the Mediterranean Sea, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been referred to as the rape capital of the world. Women’s Media Center explains ten ways that Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is used as a weapon of war, in a piece entitled Women Under Siege- Conflict Profiles. This document mentions a wide range of reasons from inducing magical powers to terminating pregnancies. The aftermath of generations of armed conflict has not only resulted in economic and infrastructural destruction but has led to the normalization of rape within the DRC. I reached out to Annette Scarpitta, International Education Advocate, who is working with women and children in the DRC. Here is what she had to say about sexual violence:
An accepted culture of sexual violence prevents women survivors and their children from living up to their potential. It also robs them of their dignity and human rights. With rape prevalent in a culture, the second-class status of women and girls is cemented. Stigmatized by their status of GBV survivors and any resulting children, the way forward through education and sustainable income-generating skills is difficult or impossible to overcome without outside intervention. With so many voices silenced, true post-conflict recovery is hindered for their communities. Those who do speak out often endure additional violence, death threats, and even murder. Men rarely recognize the value that women can add to the post-conflict recovery of the overall economy.
Scarpitta also brought up the importance of promoting gender equality and fighting harmful norms and beliefs that place less value on girls compared to boys. This has been evident in her work with primary school children:
My experience with primary school children attests that gender disparity starts at a very young age, and my program is taking steps to rectify this culture. With little income for modest school fees, the norm for parents with any disposable income at all is to choose to educate sons rather than daughters. Girls are trained in household chores for eventual early marriage and expected childbearing, so their education is deemed unnecessary. Boys not attending school – perhaps because they were born of sexual violence or their caregivers could not afford school fees – are oftentimes forced to serve as child soldiers. They become indoctrinated to inherit a mindset of violence – sexual and otherwise – and the cycle continues to new generations.
And yet, despite all the challenges, obstacles and violence, women and girls prevail and overcome the most gruesome violations of their rights:
[But] survivors of GBV cling to their religious beliefs to provide a way forward and to sustain them. The spirits of Congolese women are strong and resilient!
Quotes from Annette Scarpitta, International Education Advocate
We know women and girls are strong – but no one should have to be strong enough to overcome experiences of gender-based or sexual violence. The only solution and goal we must strive towards is to eliminate these practices entirely. Remember: You don’t need an official title to stand against sexual and gender-based violence.
You just need to find your voice – and use it.