Collateral damage. Two words that turn a woman who has been raped into a statistic. Two words that excuse sexual violence as an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of war.
This week the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, will lead a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict.
Marie Stopes International works in precarious places all over the world and sees far too many people get away with using rape as a weapon of war. It’s just ‘collateral damage’.
But criminalisation, even prevention of sexual violence in conflict, cannot be the only focus.
Why? Because even as we assemble to take action against it, rape as a weapon of war will continue and those affected need our help.
Women like Selena*, who was raped and came to us for help in Mali. She fled the conflict in the north and survived to tell the tale. But she – like so many others - bears the consequences of being reduced to a statistic. Homeless and ostracised by her community, Selena was left at risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV, and facing the stark realisation that she may be pregnant with her attacker’s child.
This week is a vital step forward, but we have a duty to today’s and tomorrow’s survivors to help them now. For the women caught up in conflict, sexual and reproductive healthcare is as important as food to eat, a place to sleep, and clean drinking water.
So what does support look like?
When a woman has been raped she needs immediate protection and treatment. She needs healthcare to prevent a pregnancy, prevent HIV and treat STIs.
Untreated STIs and HIV can be devastating, and the consequences of a woman resorting to an unsafe abortion are heart breaking. Safe abortion services must be open to the unlucky women who don’t find help in time.
Providing safe abortion is fraught with controversy. The Geneva Convention allows for women raped in conflict to receive this support, but medical teams are often uncertain when international laws prevail, and even too scared to provide one.
Every day, in the countries we work, we see the consequences of unsafe abortion. Whether a doctor will help or not, women will literally risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy. Trying to put this into context, one study of refugees in 10 countries found that up to 78 percent of the maternal deaths were a result of childbirth or unsafe abortion.
So as we take action this week to end the scourge of sexual violence in conflict, we ask too that we prepare for the reality. Women will continue to be raped in war. As a global community, we will continue to offer humanitarian aid. Let us consider then all the ways we can help those caught up in conflict.
Let us be there for them, even after the worst has happened.
*name changed to maintain her confidentiality.
John Lotspeich, Marie Stopes International Global Director of Communications, has 20 years’ global health and policy communications experience.
John has worked on assignment in London, Paris, Delhi, Nairobi, Chicago and New York, and has project experience in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. He has also worked with the WHO and other multilateral NGOs.
He also spent nearly two years in Brussels working on health system and development projects with European institutions, particularly the Commission and the European Parliament.