• Tuesday, July 29, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    War Survivors: Body Politics and Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange

    Isis-WICCE activities in the community livelihood projects in Soroti and Pader.

    By Wendy Harcourt*

    It is hard to recall that just a couple of decades ago rape as a weapon of war was an unspeakable subject. The appalling violations of women and children during wartime were hidden from view. Millions of women bore the brutality, humiliation, pain debilitating physical and psychological scars with no support and too often complete rejection of their community.

    Unfortunately rape in war continues but it is no longer silenced. It is upfront as one of the gravest rights abuses now punishable by criminal courts. In 2008 the UN Resolution 1820 (2008), stated that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.  The resolution calls not only for monitoring and prosecution of warring factions but also for a crackdown on peacekeepers who exploit women and children during times of conflict.

    Resolution 1820 is the result of the hard work of women’s movements around the world there is a global justice system in place that recognizes rape in war as a crime, and puts women’s rights to bodily integrity and security during and after war upfront with tribunals and human rights mechanisms such as CEDAW.

    In post conflict situations from a gender perspective it is not the economy but the body where the first attempts at healing and building community has to start. The horrendous sexual and physical abuse of women and girls, even preadolescent girls, requires medical and psychological support as well as economic resources and most of all a change in social attitude towards women’s rights and rehabilitating the lives of sexual violence war survivors. The widespread level of violence  is hard to comprehend and it seems almost impossible to deal with the damage but there are, out of necessity, many local organisations on the ground that provide basic counselling and medical support to help women rebuild their bodily integrity and dignity.

    The MDG3 Fund recognizes this crucial work and is providing funds to a Ugandan based organisation Isis- Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) to support women war survivors. The project supports in particular the work to heal the women and girls of Liberia and Sudan many of whom experienced sexual violence in form of gang rape and insertion of objects in their vaginas. Isis-WICCE found that nearly 70% of the survivors had continuing gynaecological problems that required medical intervention.

    Isis-WICCE is a feminist action oriented organization which promotes women’s human rights  and self-determination through cross-cultural exchange of skills and information. Since 1984 Isis-WICCE has been on the vanguard of women’s rights work in armed and post-conflict settings building women’s capacity to participate in shaping policies that address women’s human rights, peace and human security.

    The unique quality of the work of Isis-WICCE is to bring war survivors from different areas together to learn from each others’ stories of survival of rape, gang rapes and other forms of sexual violations during war. Using face to face meetings, videos, documentary and in the last years Web and other ICT skills Isis-WICCE has been at the lead in dealing with the profoundly disturbing consequences of war on women’s bodies.

    Along with the healing these women find by sharing and narrating their experiences through the MDG3 Fund Isis-WICCE also provides access for the sexual violence survivors to receive specialized medical attention. Many women had had no access to any medical treatment even some of the women require surgery and for years suffer from complications that made their lives almost unbearable. Some suffered from such abuse that their internal organs were ruptured and displaced outside their body. Some women are rejected by the families and live with the disability not only in pain but deeply depressed.

    Isis-WICCE workshops and clinics provide not only immediate medical help but also counseling, and information about reproductive health. They also work with other grassroots women to encourage them to reach out to sexually violated women so that they can access help.

    As Isis-WICCE Program Manager Helen Kezie-Nwoha states
    ‘for women in post conflict areas reconstruction must begin with their bodies otherwise for them the war remains.’

    At the forefront of body politics Isis-WICCE works on several levels, with the war survivors at the grassroots, as well as at the national and international level. At the national level their work over the last decades in Eastern and Southern Africa has been to train medical personnel to analyze the various ailments and give direct treatment to the people in the camps, train health workers living in the camps to consider psychological implications as well as the physical problems when diagnosing patients and how to deal with war trauma through onsite counseling and documentation. Internationally Isis-WICCE joins other women’s organisations to lobby governments so that they understand that reconstruction cannot happen until you have reconstructed women’s broken bodies.

    Their message is loud and clear:  that women’s bodily integrity has to be a priority for any peacebuilding plan.

    *This story is part of the series “Women empowering women, Inside stories of empowerment from the MDG3 Fund” by price winning feminist researcher Wendy Harcourt.

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