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AJN, American Journal of Nursing:
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000352459.12683.0d
AJN Reports

Women: An Endangered Species?

Kennedy, Maureen Shawn MA, RN, editorial director; Roush, Karen MSN, RN, FNP-BC

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Abstract

Crimes and cultural practices harm women worldwide and action is needed now.

The initial report said a woman was stoned to death in Somalia. The "woman" was 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, who had been gang-raped on her way to visit her grandmother. When she reported it to the police, they didn't arrest the rapists. Instead, they accused Aisha of adultery, buried her up to her neck in a soccer field, and stoned her to death in front of about 1,000 spectators.

Figure. Rehana Begum...
Figure. Rehana Begum...
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This is only one of the seemingly countless stories of violence and human rights abuses perpetrated against women and girls that are appearing with alarming frequency in news reports from around the world. Underage girls have been found working for food in two brothels in Swaziland; desperately poor families in Niger are selling girls as young as 12 into marriage; the father of a Bangladeshi girl fed her acid when she was an infant because he wanted a son. It goes on and on.

Among the worst reports are those detailing the systematic sexual assault of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rape as a weapon of war is not new; it appears in the Bible and has been a feature of every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. But the viciousness of the assaults in these regions is without precedent, and their frequency and level of brutality continue to escalate. More than 5,000 rapes were reported in the first half of 2008 in the North Kivu province alone, with many more going unreported. Women and young girls are abducted and kept as sex slaves; they are raped with guns, sticks, and spears, causing severe internal damage. Men are forced at gunpoint to watch their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers sexually assaulted, and often they are forced to participate. After a fact-finding mission in the DRC in July 2007 for the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, Yakin Ertürk called the situation in the DRC "the worst crisis of violence against women that I have so far encountered." Yet two years later the attacks continue with impunity.

These acts of overt violence are just extreme examples of the intensifying oppression and discrimination directed at women around the globe. In many parts of the world women can't own property or choose whom they will marry. They can't go out in public without an escort and are forbidden to speak to non-family members. Women often have no voice in family financial decisions and no decision-making power; they can't access health care for themselves or their children. In Afghanistan a recent law stipulates that a woman cannot refuse sex with her husband and cannot leave her home without his permission.

Educational discrimination limits the options for women seeking employment, leaving them economically dependent on husbands or fathers. The worst discrimination now is in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban have bombed schools, kidnapped and killed teachers, and attacked female students or threatened them with death if they try to attend classes. In January the New York Times reported that a group of men believed to be part of the Taliban threw acid on 11 girls and four teachers from a girls' school in Afghanistan. The attack was meant to frighten the girls and their parents and teachers into shutting down the school, which, to date, has been unsuccessful.

And women in the United States are not immune to violence. Every year an estimated 1.5 million women in the United States suffer intimate partner violence, and it's getting worse; the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that its domestic violence centers saw a 37% increase in emergency housing demand in the last four months of 2008 and a steady increase in domestic violence-related murders in the last four years. The number of rapes in the United States is increasing as well: 25% more rapes were reported in 2007 than in 2005, a period of time when almost every other type of nonfatal crime decreased. And these numbers are probably much lower than the reality. U.S. Department of Justice researchers estimated that of the approximately 200,000 rapes that were committed in the year they studied, only 20% were reported to police.

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WOMEN SAY 'NO MORE'

Women are fighting back. Naripokkho, a Bangladeshi women's organization that promotes women's rights and development, supports victims of acid attacks and lobbies for women's issues. In response to the rising rate of murders of women in the Dominican Republic, hundreds of women in Santo Domingo marched with banners to the steps of the Supreme Court Building, chanting, "No to the violence" and "No to the silence." Similar marches have occurred in Chad and the DRC. Playwright Eve Ensler is showcasing stories of women from the DRC with a campaign called "Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource: Power to the Women and Girls of the DRC." But the price of protest can be high: women who speak up risk imprisonment, beatings, even death. Mao Hengfeng, a human rights activist in China, was arrested during a protest and was beaten and denied food while in prison. In Nepal, Uma Singh, a journalist and women's rights advocate, was hacked to death by a group of men. And in Athens, Decheva Elena Kuneva, a leader in organizing female laborers, was on her way home from her job as a city railway cleaner when two men threw sulphuric acid in her face, leaving her disfigured, blind in one eye, and with impaired vision in the other.

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THE UN'S FAILURE

Stephen Lewis, codirector of AIDS-Free World and former deputy executive director of the UN Children's Fund, charges the UN with "feckless negligence" and being all talk and no action on women's rights. In 2000 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which recognizes the special vulnerability of women in conflict; denounces gender-based violence; and calls for protecting women and children, prosecuting those who commit sexual violence, and giving women equal participation in peace talks. In June 2008 it passed Resolution 1820, which, according to Umpala Devi, technical advisor for gender-based violence for the UN Population Fund, "empowers the UN to hold countries accountable for sexual violence during conflict and postconflict periods," but even she admits that little can be done to force countries to comply.

A UN agency for women. Paula Donovan, Lewis's codirector at AIDS-Free World, says creating a dedicated women's agency at the UN is "the only hope for the UN to regain credibility in addressing women's issues." Donovan wrote a proposal for the agency. Key to its success, according to Julia Greenberg, associate director of AIDS-Free World, are that it be funded with $1 billion and that the agency director be at the under-secretary-general level. Greenberg is hopeful that the UN General Assembly will make the agency a reality by the end of the current session in September.

The nursing community. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) is mobilizing nurses worldwide to urge their nations' ambassadors to support a UN women's agency. The ICN has created its own initiatives to support and empower women, including the Girl Child Education Fund with the Florence Nightingale International Foundation (www.fnif.org/girlfund.htm).

For more facts and figures on the disturbing rise in violence against women, go to http://links.lww.com/A1320.

Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN

editorial director

Karen Roush, MSN, RN, FNP-BC

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© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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