Wonder Women in Humanitarian Crises
Born in war-torn South Sudan, she has fled with her children hoping to find sanctuary. But now she is confronted with the threat of disease.
She has lost control over her own body. Living in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where family and sexual violence is prevalent, she is overshadowed by fear all her life.
In some 70 countries, MSF’s field workers have witnessed how women are the first to assume the humanitarian mantle, shouldering heavy responsibilities for their family’s survival. They are also vulnerable, falling victim to violence and abuse because of tradition and culture, their social status and lack of protection.
The women we have met may not be eloquent, or know how to fight for their rights. They are ordinary but resilient, braving disease and violence. They are true wonder women.
Number of malaria cases MSF treated in PoC camp in Unity State every week
Up to 4,000 cases
Disease strikes when the conflict has not subsided
It is high noon and the hot South Sudanese sun is blasting down. But Nyapar only feels the heat of her son, Mut, as she carries him on her shoulder. He’s running a fever of 40 degrees Celsius and Nyapar is terrified that he may not survive as she reaches MSF’s makeshift clinic. An MSF nurse confirms the diagnosis of malaria with a rapid test.
“All my children have had malaria recently,” says Nyapar. No wonder she is so anxious. She lost her husband in the war and three of her six children have died of disease. As a widow, Nyapar has to raise the remaining children alone.
A civil war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013 and violence swept across the country. Two years ago, Naypar left her village with her children, and arrived in the Protection of Civilian (PoC) camp in Unity State.
Since last spring, fighting has escalated throughout the state. With the population of the PoC doubled, camp conditions have deteriorated as the makeshift shelters fill with mud and stagnant water. Following an unprecedented malaria outbreak, MSF has treated up to 4,000 malaria patients weekly, and has seen three to four people dying from malaria every day. Most of them are children.
Nyapar took good care of her son Mut and wouldn’t let malaria take his life. © Jacob Kuehn
Thankfully for Nyapar, Mut quickly shows signs of improvement. Nonetheless, she has to think of making money to support her kids. She makes long treks to gather firewood for sale, a dangerous job that takes her away from the relative security of the camp.
Under the same sky, women in PNG have to face the violence perpetrated by family members or within their own community.
Number of sexual violence victims MSF treated in PNG in 2014-2015
Family and sexual violence is widespread
A 6-year old girl was brought to the MSF’s Family Support Centre, suffering from vaginal and rectal injuries. ‘Mum was away. She left me with a couple from my village. One day, the man told me to come into the house and take off my pants. He touched me down there. I started to cry and he covered my mouth. I tried to shout……My tummy was very painful and it was difficult to walk. I bled and fell down on the road. In the end, an auntie brought me here.’
This 6-year-old girl and her 2-year-old sister were raped by their neighbor. She was then brought to the safe house. © Jodi Bieber
PNG has disturbing levels of family and sexual violence directed towards women and children. MSF provides confidential and integrated care to victims of violence. Out of 1,046 sexual violence survivors MSF treated in 2014 and 2015, nine out of ten were female, and more than half were children younger than 18 years. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as sexual violence and rape stay largely unreported due to stigma and shame.
Even when girls grow up and get married, their nightmares continue. MSF’s clinics hear these stories all the time. “My husband held me down with his foot on my chest and I couldn’t move. I tried to hold onto the bush knife to stop him and the tip of the knife went into my eye…...I want the police to give me a family protection order. Then I can leave with my 5-year old daughter.”
An injured mother with her child at the MSF Family Support Centre in PNG. © Yann Libessart
Despite all odds, Aoife Ni Mhurchu, an MSF nurse highlights the resilient side of these traumatized women. “You can really see a sisterhood between the women in the ward, even if they don’t know each other, or they’re from different kin networks. They look after each other very well. They come in here having been beaten and raped. Still, you can see them grinning, chatting away after a while. They’re very resilient women.”
MSF’s medical and humanitarian action has focused on women and their children, helping them get the healthcare they need. Apart from assisting victims of family and sexual violence and treating sick women and children, MSF also provides maternal services in many places to help women deliver safely.