Violence against women and girls has become a worldwide institutionalised phenomenon and a major public health crisis, the World Medical Association has declared at its annual Assembly in Vancouver, Canada.
In its first public declaration on the issue, the WMA urges physicians and their national medical associations to pay far greater attention to the issues of female feticide, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honour killings and to condemn gang rape as a weapon of war and a crime against humanity.
The WMA statement raises serious concerns on infanticide, systematic and deliberate neglect of girls, including poor nutrition and denial of educational opportunities as well as direct physical, psychological and sexual violence.
Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai, from the Canadian Medical Association who headed the WMA’S workgroup on violence against women and girls said:
‘These forms of violence reflect the persistence of gender inequalities worldwide. Physicians can be the agents of change and promote a shift of mentality for the achievement of women’s human rights, their dignity and integrity.’
In many societies, attitudes towards rape, sexual abuse and harassment, intimidation at work or in education, modern slavery, trafficking and forced prostitution, are all forms of violence still condoned.
The WMA statement adds: ‘One extreme form of such violence is sexual violence used as a weapon of war. In several recent conflicts (e.g. the Balkans, Rwanda) rape was both associated with ethnic cleansing and specifically, in some cases, used to introduce widespread AIDS into a community.’
Dr. Collins-Nakai said:`Recent mass rapes by soldiers in Congo is only the most recent appalling example. It is finally time that perpetrators are prosecuted for their crimes. As physicians we call for absolute zero tolerance.’
In health terms, the denial of rights and the violence itself have consequences to girls and women. In addition to the specific and direct physical and health consequences, the general way in which girls and women are treated leads to an excess of mental health problems and to suicide, which is the second leading cause of premature death in women. It is also a high cost in decreasing productivity for society as a whole.
Dr. Collins-Nakai added : `The WMA will be stepping up its activities among national medical associations, physicians, the World Health Organisation and other United Nations agencies to end discrimination and violence against women.
‘We want to see physicians become much more aware of the violence being perpetrated against women and girls and acting as their advocates. They should press for legislation against specific harmful practices including female feticide, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and corporal punishment. And they should urge for the criminalisation of rape in all circumstances, including within marriage, and condemn the use of gang rape as a weapon of war and work with others to document and report it. We expect them as well to increase their documentation and reporting of cases of violence and their effects on health.
‘We must also seek to protect those who speak out against abuse, including physicians and other health professionals.’