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mental health » Women's Courage

Posts Tagged ‘mental health’

Sex Deprived? So, Rape Thy Comrad.

February 17th, 2011

“‘Battle buddy bullshit’ said García from the Military Police. ‘I didn’t trust anybody in my company after a few months. I saw so many girls get screwed over, the sexual harassment. I didn’t trust anybody and I still don’t.’” [1]

In my introductory post I promised to look at the many ways war affects women’s physical and mental health and the role the media plays in spreading awareness and empowering women in difficult situations—so far we’ve examined rape as a tool in war, the hidden gender-war on the Mexican border, and the sweeping effects of social and mainstream media—now it’s time to turn to a new lens: women in modern warfare. In the midst if all the ROTC talk on campus, I figured, this would be an interesting exploratory piece for the week. It may appear strides have been made, as women increasingly choose to join military ranks along side men, but the story is much more complex. An excellent piece, written in the midst of Bush’s troop surges in 2007, titled “The Private War of Woman Soldiers” by Helen Benedict explores this exact theme with a unique twist: rape in the military.

After having interviewed over 20 female soldiers in Iraq, Benedict notes, “I can’t help wondering what the women [in the troops] will have to face. And I don’t mean only the hardships of war, the killing of civilians, the bombs and mortars, the heat and sleeplessness and fear. I mean from their own comrades — the men.” [1]
The threat of rape was so bad, women were warned by their officers not to go outside at night nor to enter shower facilities alone without other female companions for security. [1] This suggests several things: first, that the trend of sexual violence is all too real in the US military; second, that the authorities are aware of the regularity of these violations and unwilling to respond; and third, that this sets a dangerous precedent for women entering military service and for the nature of relationships amongst the genders within combat troops. Danger in war should not come from the home base—the last fear that a US soldier should deal with is the threat of his or her own side. Yet, as Spc. Mickiela Montoya, age 21, member of the National Guard in 2005, explains, she took to carrying a knife with her at all times. “The knife wasn’t for the Iraqis,” she told me. “It was for the guys on my own side.” [1]

In a time when going to war is low on the list of priorities for young American generations, there has been a trend to waive violent ad criminal records of enlisted army members—it seems the government is side-stepping laws meant to protect soldiers in an attempt to increase military participation and fight off soldier burnout rates. Consequently, these delinquent soldiers pose an increasing threat to the safety of other army members, particularly women.

Sex and war are a very tricky equation. Soldiers have been known to abuse and misuse foreign females for their own pleasure and carnal desire and (as discussed by several blogs from this course) have fueled the growing sex trades in the countries where they are stationed. As more women than ever before enter the US military service, our nation has to think about how we protect these brave individuals from falling victim to sexual violence in the midst of war.

The rape situation in Iraq became so bad that in 2004 former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a task force to investigate. The statistics remain largely unavailable, but women’s stories are becoming more accessible. Col. Janis Karpinski publicly released that one of the reason several women soldiers died of dehydration was because of fear of traveling to watering centers due to the ever-present threat of rape from their male troop members. [1] In effect, she risked losing her high profile military position because she dared speak out against these offenses. Her superiors threatened her on the charge that she was “bringing attention to the problem” [1]

What astonishes me is that these stories never struck big in the media—it is as if little action was taken to curtail these incidents in order to protect US army’s reputation and to avoid discouraging enlistment. When NPR ran a story on wounded soldiers focusing on women in the Iraq war, they did indeed explore the effects of changing warfare on a growing female military front. It was noted that women fighting in the Middle East make up approximately 15% of troops. [2] While this is still a minority group, it is a larger fraction than has ever before been observed. The article also looked at growing casualties, 1500 US personnel dead by 2005 [2] –and as we all know that number steadily grew.

The NPR piece notes that the nature of modern war is such that all soldiers are always on the front lines, because there are no clear distinctions. Women are in the combat units, despite formal restrictions. As a result women are facing the same wounds and traumas as their male counterparts. [2] There is no gender distinction when it comes to battle.

What this detailed history of women in combat failed to examine, however, is how the changing demographics of the military play out internally. In fact, few pieces covering the war did this. If they had, they would discover a story of perpetual abuse.

Why does the media not care to inquire about these abuses and the stories behind them, so that we can safeguard the lives of women risking themselves for our nation. Even Rumsfeld had taken note of the rising trend, as he ordered the elusive investigation– so how did this slip from the media’s eye?

I was shocked to read Benedict’s piece, and to hear that American soldiers live in fear within their own side’s safe zones as victims of more than just the external enemy, but also the internal “domestic” enemy.

Benedict’s investigation ends on a very somber tone, she concludes, “If this is a result of the way women are treated in the military, where does it leave them when it comes to battle camaraderie? I asked soldier after soldier this, and they all gave me the same answer: Alone.”

We need to start nurturing the physical and mental well being of our soldiers and ensuring that women are provided the necessary protections to serve their nation, not alone, but as part of the US team.


[1] Benedict, Helen. “The Private War of Women Soldiers.” Salon. 7 Mar. 2007. Web. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/03/07/women_in_military.
[2] “Wounded in War: The Women Serving in Iraq : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4534450.

You Drive Me Crazy

January 20th, 2011

In an effort to give my blog entries a narrower focus and provide you with an in-depth analysis women’s mental health, I decided to modify my topic to specifically explore depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Depression will be emphasized as it is predicted to be the second leading cause of the global disease burden by 2020, with women being twice as likely to suffer from it at some time in their lives. (1)

This week I will be discussing the topic of postpartum depression. It is reported that 13% of women experience a major depressive episode within four weeks of delivery (2). While causes for this PPD vary by region, unemployment, low education, age, and history of depression are the most common risk factors. PPD can be described as prolonged sadness, fatigue, anxiety, and irritability following childbirth. Significant changes in a woman’s hormone levels during pregnancy are usually attributed to the onset of PPD, yet this is disputed since hormonal treatments do not actually help PPD.

In rural communities, low education, unplanned pregnancy, and undesired gender of the child are distinguishing risk factors (3).  One of the interesting case studies I found takes place in a rural village of Nepal (4). Women in this village deal with immense societal pressure everyday and when confronted by pregnancy another one arises- the pressure to bare a son. This can cause significant stress during pregnancy and the disappointment of having a daughter is a critical risk factor for many of these women.

Postpartum depression can have more than just second-hand effects on the child as many of these women struggle to adjust to their new role as a mother. The distress and anxiety experienced can impact their ability to nurture their children or develop maternal-infant attachment.

“If women suffer from post-partum depression they fail to breastfeed and take care of their children and prefer to live an isolated life.” says Dr. Babu Marasini, Administrator of Ministry of Health and Population.

We have seen many examples of how societal pressure and culture can negatively impact women’s health and consequently children’s health in the form of sex-selective abortion and gender bias. It unsettles me how a community can inflict such harm onto women when so much depends on them; from raising healthy families, teaching values, and supporting. In these situations, perhaps providing a mentor that has previously dealt with postpartum depression (as well as ongoing education) can help reduce the woman’s distress caused by the delay in adapting to being a mother. Support groups and counseling are also great ways to help women cope, although in places where gender bias plays a critical risk factor for PPD, other methods must be developed in order to shift social preference and reduce the pressure to bare a son.


(1) WHO: Gender and Women’s Mental Health http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/

(2) Depression During and After Pregnancy http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/depression-pregnancy.cfm

(3) Risk factors of Postpartum Depression in Rural Areas: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19722767

(4) PostPartum Depression Common Among Rural Women http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=27308

Women as a Tool: Sexual Violence in War & its Consequences

January 20th, 2011

With increased media attention being drawn to human rights abuses, the world has become increasingly aware of the ancient practice of rape as a tactic in war. While some suggest that the seeming increases in incidents have to do with an increase in awareness, studies show that the actual data suggests that systematic rape is becoming more common as the nature of warfare has changed. [1] There has been a spike in civil wars, along ethnic and religious lines, in which civilians (and not states) are the primary targets. Furthermore, according to the UN, women and children are disproportionately the key victims. By attacking these populations, the enemy penetrates the basic building blocks of society: family and community. [1]

A few notable statistics from the past decade:

• By 1993, the Zenica Centre for the Registration of War and Genocide Crime in Bosnia- Herzegovina had documented 40,000 cases of war-related rape. [2]

• Of a sample of Rwandan women surveyed in 1999, 39 percent reported being raped during the 1994 genocide, and 72 percent said they knew someone who had been raped. [2]

• Based on the outcomes of a study undertaken in 2000, researchers concluded that approximately 50,000 to 64,000 internally displaced women may have been sexually victimized during Sierra Leoneís protracted armed conflict. [2]

The statistics are frightening, and the tales dreary. In upcoming blog posts I will delve into personal stories and analysis of these particular cases, but what I would like to turn our attention to is the aftermath of this systematic torture on the individual’s health and psyche.

In Bosnia, for example, women who were impregnated by Serbs were said to be held captive to preclude them from seeking abortions. In one city alone, somewhere around 100 babies were born in January, all conceived from systematic rape — the International Red Cross estimates actual numbers of babies born to rape each month, not reported, to be much higher. [1] These births were the result of systematic rampage rapes, women and children held in captivity as sex slaves, and rapes in war camps. While the physical experience of rape is debilitating enough, the long-term consequences, on the women, the babies, and the communities are devastating. For this reason, rape is a powerful tool in war that penetrates deep into the social core of a nation and into the livelihood of its people.

Some of the consequences of rape include: physical harm to the victim (i.e.: lacerations, tears, broken bones), the spread of diseases (such as HIV), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), long-term depression and anxiety, mental symptoms (fear, suppression, insomnia and lack of appetite, difficulty concentrating, apathy, impotence, low feeling of self-worth), increased psychological arousal/inability to control feeling and bodily functions, sexual difficulties, and changed social capability (i.e. isolation or inability to communicate). [3] & [5]

With regards to PTSD and depression, The National Women’s Study found that over 30% of national rape victims suffer from PTSD—given that rates of PTSD for victims of war and witness to violence are significantly higher, the statistic is considerably increased. Within the US, 33% of rape victims report having serious thoughts of suicide; they are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. [4] Again, one can only imagine the consequences of war rape to have more extreme effects.

Further, there is a grave cultural stigma associated with rape in many cultures, so much, in fact, that it leads women to flee, be abandoned by their families and/or communities, commit suicide, or to be killed by their family members in disgrace. [5]

When rape is associated with war, the social effects are even worse because the woman is seen as penetrated by the enemy. The child (if there is one) is thus a byproduct of the enemy’s domination; this is especially heinous in wars of ethnic or religious nature.

Rape as a tool of war is sadly becoming more commonplace. While there has been more media attention, documentation, and human-rights abuse follow-up, the powerful impact of this dangerous long-term tool remains an unparalleled strategy. Sadly, in far too many cases, there either is no documentation, or no justice. The medical follow-up for rape victims remains very low, and again, social conditions preclude women from seeking any sort of medical attention, especially when it comes to mental heath problems. The question of how to prevent and treat victims of rape remains an important and difficult one.


[1] Brussels, Belgium. UNFPA. Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in War and Its Aftermath: Realities, Responses, and Required Resources. By Jeane Ward and Wendy Marsh. 2006. Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond.

[2] Broken bodies, broken dreams: violence against women exposed. Jeanne Ward – Zana Briski – Lisa Ernst – UN. Office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA). Integrated regional information networks (IRIN) – 2005.

[3] “Consequences of Rape.” Marraiage and Family Encyclopedia. 2011. Web. http://family.jrank.org/pages/1351/Rape-Consequences-Rape.html.

[4] “Mental Health Impact of Rape.” Welcome to the Medical University of South Carolina. Web. 20 Jan. 2011. http://www.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/mentalimpact.shtml.

[5] “Rape.” Civic, Peace and Democracy Education (A Project by Pharos E.V.). Web. http://www.dadalos.org/int/menschenrechte/Grundkurs_MR3/frauenrechte/warum/verge.waltigung.htm.

Image Source: http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=503.

Shaping Women's Lives: War, Mental Health, and the Power of the Media

January 13th, 2011

The role of women in war is closely tied to cultural context of their society, thus examining women in specific wartime situations reveals a lot about gender relations and human rights. More importantly women’s perspectives in war shed light on the human aspect of conflict. Investigating women’s stories can be extremely illuminating and instructive (Hunt) —yet, it is rarely the focal point in media coverage, and even more rarely the topic of academic research in conflict studies. The effects of war are not only short-term, but also long-term. War changes social constructs, allowing for social renaissance, but also leaving deep scars on its victims.

As author and journalist Ammu Joseph argued in her lecture and essay on Women, War, and the Media, “the gender angle to war coverage cannot be seen exclusively in terms of reports on violations of women’s right to physical security, including rape, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation—widespread and serious as these tend to be.” (Neiman Reports). While theses offenses are decisive considerations that deserve in-depth study, they do not tell the complete story. Merely “reporting” on these violations misses instrumental nuances in the war-time experience for women, and hence lacks a deeper dimension. Joseph goes on to argue that the “gender angle” must take into account “women’s heightened experience of violence and trauma during periods of conflict—both physical and psychological, both within the home and outside it.” (Neiman Reports). She points out the need for coverage of several burdens (economic, social, and political) placed on women during times of political tension.

This blog seeks to do a holistic investigation of the issues facing women in war-time situations, and women dealing with the consequences of war. There will be specific emphasis on the role of the media in disseminating information on women’s conditions in war and the rhetoric media sources use to shed light on the critical consequences of war. I have a particular interest in the emerging power of social media as a tool to empower women faced with atrocities and burdened by gender norms and social rules. I would also like to emphasize the connections between women’s involvement in war, media coverage, and international policy. Lastly, I aspire to follow up on Dawnee Hunt’s call to “listen to women’s stories” as an educational tool for policy makers. My hope is that this blog will highlight unique perspectives and sources and will explore the issues associated with gender issues, war, mental health, media, and modern policy from multiple lenses.


Hunt, Swanee. This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

“Nieman Reports | Women, War and the Media.” Nieman Foundation. Web. 13 Jan. 2011. .