BY MYRNA CUNNINGHAM
Today -- International Human Rights Day -- presents an opportunity to stand up for women's human rights. Just prior to the U.N. designation of this day in 1990, we Nicaraguans were engaged in a violent civil war in which rape was used as a weapon against women.
Despite the courage and determination of so many women, the use of rape as a weapon of war is escalating all over the world. A recent UNIFEM (the U.N. women's fund) report on the progress of the world's women says that ``violence against women during conflict has reached epidemic proportions, yet little is being done to prevent this violence or to support and protect women. Women's bodies have become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle.''
Today, 80 percent of the civilian casualties of war are women; 80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children. And while we may long for the luxury of believing that the systematic rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda were inhuman events, outside the range of everyday experience, such crimes growing in numbers in countries such as Cambodia, Uganda, the Congo, Colombia and Sudan.
The first step toward stopping violence against women is to know the truth about it. The abuses experienced by women in conflict zones are possible because women are still permissible targets of rape, assault and domestic violence at all times. Given the deadly threat to hundreds of thousands of women, how can we redress the violence that structures, and ends, the lives of so many women?
Many women's groups in Latin America and elsewhere are providing direct services to women in conflict zones. At the same time, they are working hard to make human-rights abuses against women visible to their governments and the world.
Colombia's civil war has claimed more than 40,000 lives in the past decade. Two million people have been forced from their homes, the majority of them women and children. La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas [the Network of Women Displaced] provides human-rights training and humanitarian assistance. With financial assistance from the Global Fund for Women in the United States, La Liga offers workshops about sexual and reproductive rights for girls who have been displaced by the war. Crucially, the organization is documenting human-rights violations, including rape, against women and girls.
Women feel the effects of war as profoundly as men do, or more. War destroys environments, rips apart families, spreads disease, and creates poverty and starvation. Women are left to fend for themselves and their children in extremely fragile situations. They are raped and forced into sexual slavery, and they contract HIV.
As an indigenous woman living in one of the poorest countries on the Americas, I have seen how devastating war has been on women in my communities. Indigenous women often lose everything: their land, families, communities and cultural base. Major media outlets ought to recognize the importance of the issue by renewing and strengthening their commitment to investigate and report on violence against women during wartime and in all its forms. Every war is a war on women. Women are on the frontlines, and we must be on the front pages.
Myrna Cunningham is president of Casa Museo, an educational center for indigenous and Afro-descent communities in Nicaragua.