Silence is the enemy

“I always think someone is following me and wants to rape me. It is better to die.” –Darfuri refugee

Sometimes there comes a public health issue that’s so big, so overwhelming, so heinous, that you just don’t know where to begin discussing it. Nevertheless, the conversation should, and must, happen just the same. Silence may be easier, but speaking out is the only way to demystify the taboos and bring attention to what’s going on for those who can’t bring attention to it themselves. And maybe, just maybe, bring about some change.

It’s no secret that rape happens during wartime. Certainly documents being discussed regarding our own soldiers’ treatment of prisoners show that wartime rape–of either “the enemy” or even female colleagues–is not limited to rogue armies in far-off countries some Americans probably couldn’t even find on a map. That doesn’t make it any less inexcusable, or the crimes any less horrendous, just because we’ve done it, too.

A recent piece in the New York Times by Nick Kristof highlighted the extent of these rapes even after the war has stopped, discussing rape in Liberia. As Kristof notes, the war in Liberia ended officially in 2003 after 14 years. However, even today–6 years into peacetime–a high percentage of the female population reports a history of rape, including girls as young as 3 years old. Of 275 sexual violence cases treated in just four months’ time in Liberia by Doctors without Borders, 28% involved children age 4 or younger, and a third involved children ages 5-12. Children are easy targets, and the most powerless of all possible victims.

Of course, rape is older than civilization itself, just like the view that women are second-class citizens (if we count as citizens at all). You may have heard about these types of rapes–of women, of children, by solo men or gangs; using only their bodies or using whatever object is handy, including guns or knives, to rape their victims–being carried out in Darfur, in the Congo, or elsewhere. Celebrities have written about it in excruciating detail, documenting some of the horrors: a child held and raped for 2 weeks, left alive but incontinent, humiliated, and shamed. 6-month-old infants raped. 80-year-old women raped and brutalized. 1,100 women raped every month in Eastern Congo according to United Nation estimates.

The situation in Darfur probably has received more international attention than other countries, yet still, little has been done–and the future of what *can* be done is uncertain, as many foreign aid groups were kicked out in March.

For those who have fled the brutality in Darfur, the situation remains bleak. A new report was just released documenting the issues Darfuri women face in refugee camps, including repeated rapes and a lack of any legal recourse either in their home country or in the camps. They are imprisoned–unable to help themselves by even getting firewood or tending to animals because of the potential for rape at the periphery of the camps–and have no one to turn to. Indeed, in many areas, the perpetrators carrying out these crimes are the very ones who are supposed to be protecting women–police, military and government officials, even teachers. In Liberia, despite having the first female president of an African country, little progress has been made in changing laws or attitudes about rape, and the country still lacks an adequate legal system able to adequately prosecute the small percentage of rapes that are reported.

What to do about this? That’s what’s kept me from writing more about this, I suppose–the sheer magnitude of what is happening, and the helplessness one feels when reading about it. With infectious diseases, though some of them are equally overwhelming, at least there is the hope of prevention via relatively simple devices (bed nets for malaria; condoms for HIV; isolation and medical treatment of TB, and of course the hope for vaccines, etc.) With systematic rape, there is no drug or vaccination to look for in the future. What is needed instead are shifts in attitude: more respect toward women; societal intolerance of such crimes by men; empowerment of women and girls; an understanding by family members of those who were raped; cessation of femicide. These are overwhelmingly difficult things to ask for, especially in countries fragmented by years of war and violence. How does one help to accomplish these things in far-off countries, when it’s hard enough to be respected as a woman right here in the U.S.?

A recent editorial by the editors of PLoS Medicine provides some places to start:

Medical professionals are powerful lobbyists whose recognition of the devastation could galvanize support for the work of humanitarian organizations and advocacy groups in documenting sexual atrocities and holding states accountable when human rights and international law are violated. Together with medical journalists and editors they have done much to try to expose the devastation of sexual violence during conflict, but we can all do more to document and disseminate the research and accounts of health workers, nongovernmental organizations, and survivors.

And they’re right. No, gang rape isn’t exactly great fodder for cocktail parties. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and depressing to speak about–and that’s probably one reason it’s gone on as long as it has, with relatively little attention. It’s taboo to discuss–not only in countries like Liberia or Sudan, but here in the US as well. It needs to stop, and we can help make that happen. Talk to someone about this. If you can’t do it in person, write a letter. Write your congressperson. Hell, write your mayor. Highlight it on your own blog. See if a local women’s group–or any other group interested in global health or women’s rights–has covered the issue recently, and if not, offer them any of the linked articles to spark the conversation. Email your local newspapers or TV stations. Send a mass email to your friends–this is certainly more important and worthy of their attention than the latest viral YouTube video, right?

Finally, keep checking back. This month frees up a bit of time for me, so I’ll highlight some of the other posts on this topic around the blogosphere as I see them crop up, in order to keep the discussion going and look for other ways to help and other perspectives on the issues. I’ll also write on some related topics. Additionally, keep an eye on Sheril and Isis’s blogs for more posts and updates. Along with them (and potentially others, which I’ll mention as I see them), I’ll be donating any wages from the blog this month to Doctors Without Borders as a token of appreciation for the work they’ve done for the victims of these brutal crimes. I’ll have a list of other charities you may want to consider in a future post.

Silence is the enemy. Speak out. Pass it on.

[Edited to add: Sheril has a list of participating blogs here, including NY Times author Nick Kristof with his post highlighting the movement. We now have a Facebook page for “Silence is the Enemy” here; and you can search Twitter using #silencehurts.]

Help save the Tasmanian devil

Last month, I wrote an update on the strange cancer affecting Tasmanian devils–a tumor cell that’s taken on a life of its own, and is spreading through the population as the animals fight. Now, via PZ comes something you can do to help–donate and help to save this species:

Help the Tasmanian devil with 6 top funding priorities:

1. Investigating the tumour and its chromosomes, looking for clues to resistance
2.Keeping some area or areas of Tasmania free from the disease i.e. wild management
3.Maintaining backup captive populations of devils in Tasmania as ‘insurance’
4.Developing a diagnostic test for the disease
5.Developing a vaccine against the disease
6.Monitoring changes in populations affected by the disease

Bone marrow for Vinay

Over the summer, I wrote about Vinay Chakravarthy, a doctor of South Asian descent who had been recently diagnosed (at the age of 28 and fresh out of medical school) with leukemia and was in need of a bone marrow transplant. However, as Razib and others noted, the odds of him finding a match were quite slim (~1 in 20,000), given the small donor pool that was most genetically similar. Vinay’s friends and families took his misfortune and turned it into something positive, organizing bone marrow drives in several states, and concentrating on getting additional minority donors to join the bone marrow registry.

The campaign has been wildly successful. Targeting “youth-oriented” sites such as Facebook and YouTube for recruitment, Team Vinay has managed to add 24,000 South Asians as new bone marrow donors–increasing the pool of potential matches by 20% in just a few short months. And what of Vinay himself? More after the jump…
Continue reading “Bone marrow for Vinay”

DonorsChoose–2007 Scienceblogging challenge kicks off!

Last year, a number of us here at Scienceblogs participated in a fundraising challenge to help an organization called DonorsChoose. This is a charity that brings together proposals submitted by teachers out there in the community, and individuals who are looking for a way to help out our schools and students. As the name suggests, donors can peruse the many proposals on the site, and donate to ones they find interesting.

19 of us participated in 2006, and our readers (together with a generous donation from Seed magazine, and bonuses from itself) collectively raised over $34,000 for teachers and students around the country. This year we’re doing it again, and aiming higher. Janet has a list of participants for this year’s challenge; I’m on board, of course, and the direct link to my challenge is here. Last year Aetiology readers generously donated over $1300, so this year I’m aiming a bit higher and shooting for an even $2000. Progress will be noted in the little thermometer you may notice has popped up along the sidebar to the left, and the challenge will run through the end of the month.

I’ll post reminders throughout the month, but if you have a few minutes and a few extra dollars, take a peek at my challenge and throw a couple bucks toward it if you’re able–and if you can do more than that, check out other Scienceblogs challenges as well. Sure, it’s a bit of a competition, but in the end it’s the kids and teachers that win, so spread the wealth.

(Again, my challenge, this link. Did I mention to check it out?)

EDITED TO ADD: One thing I forgot to mention is that there will be drawings for prizes for those of you who contribute. Janet notes:

DonorsChoose will send you a confirmation email. Hold onto it; our benevolent overlords at Seed will be randomly selecting some donors to receive nifty prizes. Details about the prizes and how to get entered will be posted here soon!

In addition to the Seed prizes, “Vaccine” author Arthur Allen has generously agreed to donate a few copies of his book for donors to my challenge–so send along a copy of your email confirmation to me and winners will be randomly selected from the batch of emails.

HIV denial: international flavor

Just a quick post to note that fellow ScienceBlogger Nick Anthis has up a post on HIV denial in South Africa. Though this is a topic I’ve touched on, he goes into a deeper history of it, including more about the cultural reasons for denial (whereas I typically focus more on the science).

In other news, I have an editorial today in the The Times Higher Education Supplement in London. You can find it here (registration required).

World Rabies Day

September 8th was world rabies day. In the United States, this was celebrated with the news that the canine rabies strain appears to be eliminated from this country. In the U.S., rabies in both humans and domestic animals remains rare, though the virus remains endemic in several species of wildlife (especially raccoons, skunks, and bats). However, worldwide, rabies remains a significant public health problem, causing an estimated 50-60,000 deaths per year worldwide–one death every ten minutes. More after the jump…
Continue reading “World Rabies Day”

YearlyKos videos are up!

I’ve not mentioned this yet because I hadn’t had a chance to see it myself, but C-SPAN did broadcast this year’s YearlyKos Science Panel. You can see Chris’s talk on hurricanes and global warming here; Ed’s talk on fighting creationism by running for school board here, and Sean’s talk on dark energy and dark matter over yonder. I have the videos of the final parts–the Q&A session–after the jump.
Continue reading “YearlyKos videos are up!”

Tripoli Six–home and free

After 8 1/2 years of imprisonment, torture in jail, and a death sentence hanging over their heads, the Tripoli Six (collected links) are back home, and have been granted pardons from the Bulgarian president.

Revere, again, has the details; more at the BBC and New York Times. Many kudos go out to both Revere and Nature reporter Declan Butler for spreading this story out through the blogosphere, and sighs of relief out to the workers themselves and their families and loved ones.

Image from