After the Conflict: International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women's Day, I hosted a large group of visitors to EU Parliament. I hosted two events; the first of which focused on initiatives to support sufferers of PTSD in the wake of violent conflicts.

This is an issue for all those affected by violent conflicts, but women often face a unique set of challenges which need to be addressed more thoroughly. 

After war is over, people just want to go on with their lives, rebuild their houses and their country.

But simply enjoying peace is often impossible: soldiers as well as civilians are traumatised by war.

In many crises, local people as well as international helpers focus on basic needs such as food and shelter. While these vital issues need to be fulfilled first, trauma should be addressed at the same time. When we bring food, we should also start talking.

Without treating trauma, the violence continues, making peacebuilding and reconstruction difficult. Unfortunately, the relevance of trauma is underestimated and neglected greatly. Focusing on the wounds on bodies, we don’t notice the invisible, psychological scars.

But internal turmoil can keep survivors from functioning, and can lead to more violence.

It is very difficult to heal if you are still in an unsafe and volatile situation, such as we see in Iraq and Kashmir. After all: if it continues to rain, you cannot dry.

It affects your psychology and mental health. All the violence, restrictions, strikes and curfews do have an impact on destabilising mental health.

Ending atrocities would be an obvious urgent first step to preventing additional mental health consequences, but action also must be taken to heal the damage already done, by providing victims with treatment and other appropriate reparations.

A Doctors Without Borders’ report published in 2015 reveals that 1 in every 5 adults in Kashmir is living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Depression is the most prevalent disorder, with a shocking 41% adults showing its symptoms.

In the case of Kashmir, generation after generation has been living under this constant threat: anybody can get killed or injured for life on a daily basis.

This causes a condition of helplessness and a trans-generational transmission of trauma.

Women living under these circumstances need particular attention. In many conflicts, women are raped. And in many cultures, this means they suffer twice over: they have suffered the rape itself, and on top of that, they are stigmatised as a victim of sexual violence.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, many women cannot go back to their own villages precisely because they have been raped in violent conflict.

In Bosnia, horrifically, tens of thousands of survivors live next to their rapists: they have seen them daily for the last 25 years.

Conflict survivors speak of serious physical and psychological problems they continue to suffer, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes, hypertension and insomnia. 

Very few have health insurance adequate to address their specific medical conditions, and most are unable to pay for the medication they require.

Women victims of sexual violence tend to experience high rates of unemployment and poverty; they are among the most vulnerable economic groups. They must face everything alone – unwanted pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

They need support, and they need a platform and a safe environment in which to talk about their experience.

Doing more to address mental health needs is not only essential for individuals’ wellbeing, it is also critical for communities to effectively rebuild their communities and country.

In any country battered by strife and civil war, like South Sudan at present, it is very important that the local people see that others from outside are coming to help: to see that international organisations are on the ground, offering assistance, gives them the feeling of not having been forgotten. Psychologically it matters a lot not to feel alone.

Often survivors have to rely on psycho-social and medical assistance from NGOs, whose commitment to delivering excellent and highly specialised care to these women in the face of great challenges is remarkable.

Governments, supported by the international community, must honour their international legal commitments to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health, including mental health.

Also, crucially, governments must provide victims with meaningful justice and reparation for the crimes they suffered. More must be done to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.

In Bosnia, according to Amnesty, a quarter of a century after the start of the conflict more than 20,000 survivors of wartime sexual violence are still being denied justice. Less than 1% of the total estimated number of victims of war crimes of sexual violence have come to court.

While the trauma of the past can never be ‘unlived', it is not too late to ensure that the future of these women is one in which their rights and their dignity can finally be reclaimed.

The EU has been providing assistance to people affected by conflict through numerous projects such as:

    • The European Network for Traumatic Stress-Training & Practices - a project supported by the EU Commission and delivered through the EU Health Programme. Its aim was to disseminate and implement evidence-based practice for those affected.
    • In Kashmir, the EU provides financing for humanitarian projects in Jammu and Kashmir for psycho-social, medical and livelihood support.
    • In Iraq, the EU has been at the forefront of the emergency humanitarian response, helping families and victims of physical and sexual violence through psycho-social support projects to deal with severe trauma through mental health services, and to develop psychological and health services skills.
    • In Bangladesh, the project 'Protection, essential services and durable solutions for refugees in Bangladesh: Phase IV', co-financed by the EU with EUR 9 million and implemented by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has an objective to reduce the risk of sexual and gender based violence towards the Rohingya.
    • In 2018, the EU is leading the global Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies to help transform the way it is addressed within humanitarian action.
    • The EU/UN Spotlight Initiative on ending violence against women and girls will include specific measures and actions for the elimination of sexual and gender based violence in fragile contexts, including in South East Asia .