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9-Year-Old Raped in “One of the Worst Places to be a Woman or Girl”

From CNN:

The young girl whispered in a hushed tone. She looked down as she spoke, only glancing up from her dark round eyes every now and then. She wanted to tell more, but she was too ashamed. She was just 9 years old when, she says, Congolese soldiers gang-raped her on her way to school. ...

The United Nations estimates 200,000 women and girls have been raped in Congo over the last 12 years, when war broke out with Rwanda and Uganda backing Congolese rebels seeking to oust then-Congo President Laurent Kabila. Rape became a weapon of war, aid groups say.

"It is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman or girl," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who has spent the last 10 years focusing on Congo. "These are often soldiers and combatants deliberately targeting women and raping them as a strategy of war, either to punish a community, to terrorize a community or to humiliate them."

Most times, the women are raped by at least two perpetrators. "Sometimes, that is done in front of the family, in front of the children," Van Woudenberg says. She sighs, "What causes men to rape -- I wish I had an answer to that."

I'm glad that my former boss, Hillary Clinton, is there speaking out forcefully about this issue. We need to draw more attention to it.

More from my Dispatch co-blogger, Alanna.

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They may not be Nobel Prizes…

...but the UNESCO Literacy Prizes have certainly gone to deserving winners, which were this year awarded on the theme of "Literacy and Empowerment."  To wit:

The second award of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize goes to the NGO Nirantar’s project "Khabar Lahariya" - "news waves" - in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. It has created a rural fortnightly newspaper entirely produced and marketed by “low caste” women, distributed to more than 20,000 newly literate readers. Its well-structured method of training newly literate women as journalists and democratizing information production provides an easily replicated model of transformative education.

Without making a vulgar comparison, this kind of effort reminds me of Washington, D.C.'s own Street Sense, which has always struck me as an innovative and productive way to take on poverty and homelessness.  That such an initiative is thriving with "low caste" women in India is incredibly heartening.

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Happy World Breastfeeding Week

From UNICEF:  "Globally, only 38 percent of infants under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed, though research shows that optimal breastfeeding is the single most effective preventive intervention for reducing infant mortality."

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The most neglected Millennium Development Goal…

...is #5, the agreement to reduce global maternal mortality levels by 75%, according to a moving appeal in The Huffington Post by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede.  She sounds a welcome call for a "Global Fund for Moms," whom she rightly calls "our best stimulus package":

In times of economic crisis, it is tempting to turn inward, to ignore or postpone the problems of the outside world and focus on ourselves. But, if we hope to thrive once again, we must realize that there are no outside problems in today's interwoven, globalized world. Each mother who dies leaves behind a devastated family and weakened community that will eventually, somehow, affect each of us. Each mother who dies deepens the financial and social strain on our world and puts economic recovery further away. Mothers are our best stimulus package because they invest in their families and in our collective future.

Half a million women and girl, disproportionately in the developing world, die in childbirth every year, yet funding for maternal health programs from wealthy nations has actually decreased.  While this sad statistic may not be surprising, given the desperate humanitarian funding shortage that has accompanied the slumping economy, it is nonetheless counterproductive.  Helping mothers around the world ensures a better future for all, in this generation and the next.

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U.S. Still in Denial on Gender Violence

This is welcome news:

The Obama administration has opened the way for foreign women who are victims of severe domestic beatings and sexual abuse to receive asylum in the United States. The action reverses a Bush administration stance in a protracted and passionate legal battle over the possibilities for battered women to become refugees.

But one sentence caught my eye:

In addition to meeting other strict conditions for asylum, abused women will need to show that they are treated by their abuser as subordinates and little better than property, according to an immigration court filing by the administration, and that domestic abuse is widely tolerated in their country.

Are we kidding ourselves? Name a country, including the U.S., where domestic abuse isn't widely tolerated.

In the words of the WHO, "Gender-based violence, or violence against women (VAW), is a major public health and human rights problem throughout the world."

Here's a chilling video in which Keira Knightley reenacts the vicious and cowardly abuse women are subjected to on a daily basis:

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Unicef, the Killers, MTV and USAID team up

From UNICEF:

Starting today, MTV audiences around the world will see a new music video that aims to raise awareness about sex trafficking. Featuring the rock band The Killers, the video is an exclusive collaboration between UNICEF, MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) and the US Agency for International Development.

The track, Goodnight, Travel Well, is from the album Day & Age. The video is the second in a series of music video collaborations that highlight the danger and impact of human trafficking.

The series launched last year with an award-winning film - produced by MTV EXIT that featured the Radiohead single All I Need.

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BBC: Sudan women ‘lashed for trousers’

Primitive and deplorable:

"I was wearing trousers and a blouse and the 10 girls who were lashed were wearing like me, there was no difference," [Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein] told the BBC's Arabic service.

Ms Hussein said some women pleaded guilty to "get it over with" but others, including herself, chose to speak to their lawyers and are awaiting their fates.

Under Sharia law in Khartoum, the normal punishment for "indecent" dressing is 40 lashes.

Ms Hussein is a well-known reporter who writes a weekly column called Men Talk for Sudanese papers. She also works for the United Nations Mission in Sudan.

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UN enlisting religious support to promote women’s health in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman--literally. The country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.  As this video from UN TV explains, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan is trying to enlist Afghanistan's religious leaders to advance womens' health and improve women's access to healthcare.   

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Rape has not yet ended in DR Congo

The estimable Eve Ensler has been doing yeo(wo)man's work in calling attention to the horrific use of rape as a weapon of war in eastern DR Congo. Yesterday she wrote a forceful op-ed in The Washington Post on the subject, criticizing the UN for not doing more to implement a historic resolution passed by the Security Council last year that officially designates rape a war crime.

A few points: first, the passing of Resolution 1820 last year was itself an impressive accomplishment. That said, it was also embarrassingly belated. Rape has been a favored tactic of war criminals throughout history, and, morally at least, it has stood as a crime throughout.

Ensler is also right to bemoan the extent to which the promise of the resolution -- an end to impunity for rapists, the widespread stigmatization of rape as a crime of the highest order, an eventual eradication of the practice -- has been achieved in reality over the past year, particularly in Congo. Here, too, though, some perspective is in order. If it took the Security Council 60 years to classify rape as a war crime, it will prove even more difficult to enshrine this conclusion as a norm on the ground. This is not to excuse any delay in eliminating the climate of rampant rape that exists in places like Congo; but the reality is, in a world in which slavery, impressment of child soldiers, and genocide are still sadly prevalent, human rights norms can take a while to be realized on the ground. This is only more so the case in eastern Congo, where the world's most appalling levels of rape make it arguably the most difficult test case imaginable for such an ambitious resolution.

Ensler is rightly incensed that a firm system of accountability is not in place to punish perpetrators of rape:

Rapes continue to be committed with near complete impunity. While the number of criminal prosecutions has risen marginally, only low-ranking soldiers are being prosecuted. Not a single commander or officer above the rank of major has been held responsible in all of Congo. Rapes by the national army are increasing, too.

I couldn't agree more that more perpetrators, especially those in the higher ranks, need to be prosecuted. But to suggest, as Ensler does, that the UN should be doing the prosecuting misunderstands the confines within which the organization works. It is not mandated to conduct trials of Congolese citizens. That is the responsibility of a Congolese government that has, unfortunately, far too often turned a blind eye to rape conducted by its own soldiers and by the rebels it is combating.

Both the UN and other countries' governments should be doing more to press the Congolese state to treat the crime of rape more severely. Resolution 1820 was a milestone. More important, as Ensler so passionately argues, is making sure that its potential is realized on the ground, in some of the worst places in the world to be a woman or girl.

(image from flickr user Julien Harneis under a Creative Commons license)