UN Says Women, Children Are Biggest Victims of War

The United Nations and International aid agencies say women are among the worst victims of war.  Tens of thousands suffer from sexual violence, rape, and lack of access to life-saving health care.  On the occasion of International Women's Day, the International Committee of the Red Cross is underlining the plight of women in war.  

Every year, more than half a million women die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications. This includes about 70,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reports the highest rates of maternal deaths occur in 10 countries that either are at war today or have recently emerged from war.  They include Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

The Red Cross Advisor on  Women and War, Nadine Puechguirbal, says this is not surprising.  She says pregnant women in war zones who face serious medical emergencies and need immediate care too often are unable to reach a health care facility.

"And again, remember that women's mobility can also be restricted during a conflict because of the threat of violence or the result of cultural restrictions," said Puechguirbal. "And, you heard, of course you know about the situations of armed conflict that increase a woman's risk of becoming a victim of sexual violence.  That is why we are very concerned about that access to health care in times of war."  

The Red Cross says the health needs of women often are neglected and ignored in areas ravaged by conflict.  While the war wounded are given priority, it says women's needs, and in particular the needs of pregnant mothers and their children, are often given little attention.

It says in some war-torn areas, women are at high risk of sexual violence, including rape.  Some of the worst examples of the horrors  women face in these settings are found in eastern Congo.

The United Nations reports between June 2007 and 2008, more than 6,700 cases of rape were reported in Ituri province alone.  And 43 percent of these cases involved children.  But the UN notes for every rape that is reported, 10 to 20 go unreported.

Puechguirbal says many women traumatized by rape also have to endure the suffering and shame of being cast out of their communities.  She says the Red Cross tries to help these women through, what she calls, an integrated approach.

"We are also in this integrated approach trying to work with the local community in mediation and reconciliation because those women, as you know, who have been victim of sexual violence, they are very much ostracized and marginalized and they feel guilty of what happened to them," she said. "So, we have to reconcile the entire community so that those women are able to come back and to be integrated within the community."  

As part of this integrated approach, Puechguirbal says the Red Cross is trying to train local nurses, doctors, and traditional birth attendants to treat victims of sexual violence with particular sensitivity.

She says they try to provide the appropriate medical services and offer them psychosocial counseling. 

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