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Advocates say Lack of Rights Makes Women More Vulnerable to Abuse

Everyday around the world, women are beaten, raped, and forced into prostitution. Human rights groups say these conditions are the results of a lack of human rights that have fueled a global health crisis.

For more than two years, the women of Darfur in western Sudan have been raped and murdered in attacks by government supported militias known as "janjaweed," despite international condemnation of what the United States calls genocide. The experience described by this woman refugee is typical.

"We are still having problems here in the camps. We go to the woods in search of fire wood to cook meals, or to sell them on the market. There are men there waiting to whip us," she said.

Frequently, the attacks are accompanied by rape by men who are infected with the AIDS virus. Human rights groups say many women are afraid to report their assaults to authorities for fear they will not be believed and then be subjected to beatings by husbands who may already be infected with HIV, the result of affairs with other women.

In Africa, it is also common for women to undergo genital mutilation which puts them at higher risk for contracting the AIDS virus, and for wives to be handed off to the brothers and uncles of men who have died of AIDS.

Worldwide, the growth of HIV / AIDS has alarmed international health officials, who say women make up almost half of all adults now infected with the disease. In sub-Saharan Africa, 57 percent of women are living with the AIDS virus.

And the problem is not just AIDS. Five years after the fighting officially stopped in Chechnya, human rights groups say Russians abuse women whose husbands died in the conflict because they think the widows pose a security risk. This woman, interviewed by Amnesty International, described what the Russians did to her sister.

"They abused her. They stubbed out their cigarettes on parts of her body, the areas of her body that aren't visible; her back, her breasts, her belly, those kinds of places. Burning her skin to make a mark," she said.

Human rights activists say there is a common thread that runs through female torture in Chechnya and sex trafficking in Asia and central Europe that contribute to the spread of HIV / AIDS.

Jennifer Kates is director of HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies public health issues. Ms. Kates says women in many cultures are abused because they lack power within their societies.

"Women face a range of challenges; discrimination, stigma, lack of access to information and education, lack of access to rights and property rights and ownership rights," explained Ms. Kates. "All of those things combine to make women more vulnerable and particularly young women."

Since it began operations in 1997, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, has doled out $8 million in grants to almost 100 countries for programs aimed at stopping violence against women and strengthening their roles at the state and local level.

UNIFEM program analyst S.K. Guha says the effect of work by non-governmental organizations supported by the United Nations agency has been positive.

"There are far many, many laws, policies in place that were not there 15 years ago," he said. "Secondly, there's much more advocacy on these issues now. I think the women's movements in the various countries are far more radical right now, and they are gaining strength. And the internationalization of the women's movement is a big strength."

Ultimately, poor countries may come around when they realize it's in their economic interest to make women equal partners.

"One clear example is just the development and poverty consequences of violence against women," said Janet Walsh of Human Rights Watch in New York. "In this country, it is about $6 billion a year spent on a health response to domestic violence, and it is shown that women who experience domestic violence make about 20 percent less than other women. And so clearly, you don't want that happening even economically. Even if you don't care so much about the dignity and human rights of women, at least you should care about the economic consequences."

Health experts and women's rights activists say governments must do more to empower women in order to curtail the spread of HIV. That means stopping the violence against them in many cultures and making more AIDS prevention and treatment programs available at the grassroots level. They are also encouraging women to become involved in the politics that can lead to change. Otherwise, they say, women's rights abuses and its health consequences will persist.