Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2008
Issue No. 923
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Invisible casualties of war

Women may not be regularly fixtures of the front line but inevitably they form the bulk of the victims of any conflict, writes Ramzy Baroud*

Qurban-Bibi and Nahil Abu Rada are two women, one Afghan, the other Palestinian, whose tragic plight has made news. Their losses also help delineate the plight of millions of other women in war zones and poor countries.

The United Nations news service reported on the troubles of Qurban-Bibi, a pregnant woman who needed to reach a hospital. Doctors had instructed that she must deliver in an equipped medical facility. Her desperately poor family opted for a delivery at home, citing the unaffordable taxi ride. The woman almost bled to death. When the delivery went wrong the family rushed her to Faizabad hospital in a nearby province. Her life was saved but not that of her baby.

Abu Rada's story is also depressingly the norm. The pregnant Palestinian woman was joined by her family on their way to hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus. The hospital was close yet between the car and salvation lay an Israeli army checkpoint, Hawara. "Nothing helped. Not the pleas, not the cries of the woman in labour, not the father's explanations in excellent Hebrew, not the blood flowing in the car. The commander of the checkpoint, a fine Israeli who had completed an officers' course, heard the cries, saw the woman writhing in pain in the back seat of the car, listened to the father's heartrending pleas and was unmoved," reported Israeli journalist Gideon Levy in Haaretz. He added, "Nahil Abu Rada is not the first woman to lose her baby this way because of the occupation, and she won't be the last."

The painful losses of Qurban-Bibi and Abu Rada bring to mind two recently published reports pertaining to the rights of women and gender equality around the world: The State of the World Population 2008, produced by the United Nations Population Fund and The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum.

The first report seeks to promote development strategies that are sensitive to the specificity of particular cultures. The second, a largely statistical study co- authored by researchers from Harvard and Berkeley, examines factors such as jobs, education, politics, health, etc, to determine how improvements -- or their lack -- in these areas have affected equality between the sexes in 130 countries. The outcome was for the most part predicable, though there were notable deviations. "Out of 130 countries, Canada ranked 31 while the United States came in at 27. Canada also ranked behind Namibia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Lithuania and the Philippines, among other countries," reported Canada's Globe and Mail.

The reports raise questions and present many challenges but on their own fail to address the struggles and tragedies of women like Qurban-Bibi and Abu Rada.

The Global Gender Report ignited the kind of media frenzy more often associated with beauty contests and not with an issue that continues to victimise millions of women worldwide. This was hardly the intention of the report. Then, predictably, it was turned into an opportunity to settle political scores, stereotype religion and, at times, disparage entire cultures.

The State of the World Population was largely sensible in its view of culture: non-Western cultures were not simply chastised as the problem though cultural sensitivity was recommended as part of the solution. But addressing women's rights and cultural patterns without examining the underpinnings of inequality is a mistake.

Culture is hardly the summation of rational choices made by individuals in a specific time and easily demarcated space. It is an innate collective response to internal and external factors, changes and events, political, economic and social. Chances are Palestinian women in villages surrounded by Israeli checkpoints tend to deliver their babies at home or in often under- equipped local clinics, a natural response to risking losing one's baby altogether. Such a practice could eventually develop into a cultural pattern.

Many Afghan women are caught between the lethal occupation of foreigners and the extremism and vengeance of the Taliban. Early marriages are often the only available opportunity for women in some parts of the country once they reach a certain age, which is sometimes as young as nine years old.

The same can be said about Iraq where women, who achieved comparatively high status in pre-war years, have since endured untold humiliation. Thanks to the US "liberation" of their country many have been forced to turn to prostitution, a phenomenon once alien to Iraqi society.

This is not to say that the suffering of women is always the outcome of foreign military interventions, nor does it render blameless local cultures, outdated customs and interpretations of religion. But what is missing from the reports, and subsequent analyses, is how conflict, war and military intervention jeopardise the rights and welfare of women.

The issue of women's rights is a pressing one, not just because of the horrifying statistics. (Women and girls are the poorest, least educated and most victimised members of society). No real progress, development or sound governance can ever take place when half of society is marginalised and mistreated. Equality between the genders is not an act of virtue but a sound strategy for a brighter future for any nation, rich or poor. To address the issue studies and reports must delve into the roots of women's suffering and not be satisfied with numerical indicators that tell half of the story.

* The writer is editor of

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