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International Medical Charity Calls Rape 'Silent Epidemic'

The international medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, says victims of rape should receive treatment and counseling within three days of their attack and efforts are needed to counter social taboos that discourage this. The findings are in a report on sexual violence issued to coincide with International Women's Day.

A director of Doctors Without Borders, Meini Nicolai, says sexual violence is a silent epidemic that has been going on for decades.

"We feel that we need to speak out because our numbers are not going down," she said. "And we want the rest of the world to know what is happening and [know] all the medical, psychological and social after-effects of sexual violence on the victim, or survivor, and the context in which they actually live."

Doctors Without Borders, which often provides emergency medical care in zones of conflict, says its staff treated more than 12,000 cases of rape worldwide in 2007, or about 35 cases per day.

The report is based primarily on the charity's work in five countries: Burundi, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and South Africa.

Nicolai notes that the charity's treatment center near Cape Town, South Africa, has been in operation for 15 years. In this situation, normally the incidence of reported rapes should decline, but she says but this has not happened.

She adds that the group's experience has shown that it is important for victims of sexual violence to begin receiving help within three days of their attack. This is especially important if the victim has been exposed to the HIV/AIDS virus or other infectious diseases.

"The 72-hour period is mostly focused on HIV. But at the same time before people even get tested for HIV or get medication for that, we first do counseling," she said. "And that is as important, and sometimes more important, than the medical aspect. Because people live with long-term psychological after-effects after a rape."

She says Doctors Without Borders has mounted large education campaigns in schools, churches and social spots around its centers so that people know to seek help quickly.

If the victims want to report the attack to the police, which is not always the case, the organization helps them deal with the legal system.

Nicolai says that some 6 percent of their victims are male, mostly boys. But she adds that they know there are many adult males who are raped but do not seek their services because of the social stigma associated with such incidents.

As a result, she says Doctors Without Borders believes this area needs more attention, especially in rape awareness campaigns.