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Women's health programs in Aceh

Jakarta Post - October 15, 2005

Sudirman Nasir, Melbourne – It is crucial that Acehnese, men and women, be directly involved in all stages of rehabilitation programs in the province. Women's participation is also critical since it has become apparent that the civil war and the tsunami disaster have affected women more severely than men.

The catastrophic consequences of war on women's health and wellbeing were obvious due to the fact that war is characterized by large scale violence, militarization and masculinization of society. Thus, it is not a surprise that women's vulnerability is a common phenomena during and after war. Non-combatant groups, women and children in particular, are those most vulnerable during and after wars.

The disastrous impact of war on humans has been well recorded. Death, disease, physical and psychological trauma, socio-economic and cultural calamities have been reported in many publications. War also causes many physical and psychosocial problems as a result of injuries, malnutrition, infectious diseases, reproductive problems, chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, disability or even premature death.

In addition, sexual violence against women such as rape, harassment, forced prostitution, forced abortion, sexual slavery, etc., that frequently occur during wars have traumatic impacts on women's health. Women also bear a heavy burden during war to feed and support their families while their men are at war, that exacerbates their health and wellbeing. Women's suffering is also evident when they are compelled to live in refugee camps. Many women even choose to be combatants and experience the traumatic effects of the battlefield.

The armed conflict in Aceh offers a good example of the dramatic consequences of war on women's health and wellbeing. Human suffering in general and women's agony in particular are evident in Aceh and have been aggravated by the recent earthquake and tsunami.

The tsunami disaster in Aceh has stimulated worldwide responses to help the victims and inevitably attracted international pressure for a resolution of the conflict between the Indonesian military and Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Nonetheless, peace negotiations between Indonesia and GAM tend to be exclusive and neglect the participation of Acehnese civil groups including women's organizations.

ELSAM (the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy) claims that during the DOM (military operations) era, at least 1,958 people disappeared, 1,321 died, 3,430 suffered various forms of torture, and 209 women were victims of sexual violence. It is also reported that there were 3,000 widows and 16,375 orphans.

The above should be considered as just the tip of the iceberg. There were many other violations in remote areas of Aceh that were never reported. Fear and stigma frequently prevents many Acehnese from talking about their traumatic experiences due to the brutal attitudes of the Indonesian Military and police. However, the data significantly indicated women's vulnerability, especially due to sexual violence and the large number of widows and orphans.

It is also clear that sexual violence towards women in conflict areas, including Aceh, often has symbolic and political meanings, attempting to emphasize the failure of men to protect their women, to infiltrate and destroy communities, and to alienate women from their community.

Acehnese women's suffering continues when they were forced to live in refugee camps with low availability of food, lack of clean water, electricity and sanitation that triggers many kinds of infectious diseases and premature deaths.

Women's vulnerability in Aceh due to the long armed conflict and natural disasters strongly indicates the urgency to prioritize women's health programs in the province. National, provincial and local government should conduct intensive public consultation to design, implement and monitor women's health programs as part of the process of rehabilitation.

[The writer is a postgraduate student at the Key Centre for Women's Health in Society, University of Melbourne.]