In Country of Sustained Conflict, Two Women Work Toward Peace

Few countries in the world have suffered from such a sustained period of war and conflict as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This Central African nation, the second largest on the continent, has endured wars resulting in over five million deaths since 1998. The country remains in a state of near-constant conflict, despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping mission in the world, known as MONUSCO. Women have suffered disproportionately, particularly in regards to sexual violence, with the DRC being labeled the “rape capital of the world.”

Spearheading efforts to protect women and offer services to victims are two lifelong Congolese gender justice activists, Chantal Kakozi and Josephine Malimukono, whose successes are noteworthy in an environment rife with gender inequity and militarization. Kakozi is the co-founder of Solidarité des Femmes de Fizi pour le Bien-Etre Familial (SOFIBEF), which addresses sexual and gender-based violence by raising awareness through media, offering psychosocial support to survivors, and pushing for judicial reform to protect women’s rights. Malimukono focuses largely on women’s economic empowerment, working with Ligue pour la Solidarité Congolaise (the League for Congolese Solidarity) to promote civil and socioeconomic women’s rights.

“We have seen women taking the lead in the peace-building effort in the DRC, especially when it comes to sexual violence and gender-based violence, and also in promoting the respect for human rights. We’ve also seen the emergence of many women-led organizations at the community level,” says Kakozi. This is particularly important, she noted, because of the erosion of social cohesion that occurs in communities where violence against women is so prevalent.

Kakozi, who has done significant advocacy work around the U.N. Security Council’s Resolution 1325, says that in the DRC the implementation of particularly important since women and children are the ones paying the biggest price in the conflict. Legally, both women say, the government has said they are taking steps to ensure women are involves in decision-making. But practically speaking, that hasn’t happened, both also report.

“In the parliament, I know that some women are advocating for political parties to have a 50/50 percent representation, but that is not happening at all,” says Malimukono.

“It’s an ongoing struggle for us when it comes to the implementation of SC resolution 1325, and what is written in our Constitution about women [being represented in Parliament]. We are not seeing that happen at the practical level, and we’re still fighting for women to be able to access decision-making spaces and be able to add their voices in all forums of discussion on peace efforts and reconstruction,” adds Kakozi.

Congolese women are pushing for their voices to be heard, even when they are shut out.

“Women have used their own money – they have saved and used their own money to travel and attend negotiations for peace. I want to give you an example – in 2008, there were negotiations in Nairobi, and we women from North Kivu province, we mobilized, organized, we used our own money, and we took the bus, from Goma to Nairobi,” says Malimukono. Once there, the women were denied entry to the negotiations room.

In spite of these setbacks the women push forward, though security poses a constant threat to their success. In 2008, Malimukono’s group built alliances with several militia groups by engaging with spouses of military leaders to get their message to male militia leaders.. As recently as 2011, they were hopeful of the work they were doing. But the uprising of M23 last year [a rebel group that formed in April in 2012; one of M23’s leaders, Bosco Ntaganda, surrendered last Monday] undermined their work.

Given the increasing number of deaths in detention centers and the recently publicized rash of sexual assaults committed by Congolese army battalions – which, as Malimukono points out are often blended with former rebel group members – trustworthy partnerships in peace building seems more important than ever. Kakozi says of the more recent reports of sexual violence, “It looks like it’s happening much more in places where the Congolese army and other armed groups are fighting each other. The unfortunate thing also is that we all know perpetrators of sexual violence are coming from all layers of society.”

The widespread militarization makes it difficult to address the issue of impunity in these cases. They praise the efforts of some MONUSCO units, Kakozi in particular discussing how they intervened in 2011 to help securitize local tribunals that went after high-ranking military commanders who had committed rapes and sexual assaults throughout the Fizi territory. MONUSCO also covered the expenses incurred by Kakzoi’s organization, SOFIBEF, from hosting many of the rape survivors during the trials so they could testify.

That being said, both women stress the need for more help from the mission in curbing incessant uprisings, which prevent the government from doing work that benefits its population. Kakozi says, “We are wondering about the effectiveness of MONUSCO when there seem to be newer armed groups, that seem stronger and are still perpetrating crimes – so we wonder how MONUSCO is doing its work in terms of preventing and responding to violence.”

“Even if they don’t have a clause about militarization in their mandate, they still have to find a way to help our government to do that work,” adds Malimukono.

Despite these struggles with restricted access to the negotiations room and widespread militarization, the women remain dedicated. Last November, when Goma fell under M23, Malimukono says women from the North Kivu province came together and wrote a letter to Susan Rice, asking her to be the spokesperson on behalf on the women of North Kivu. While they have not received a response, the effort is part of their goal to engage the international community more fully in their struggle.

Malimukono and her team are also currently reviewing the most recent peace accord, signed in Addis Ababa in late February, for its incorporation of the role of women. The fact that it was signed by eleven African nations and guaranteed a special envoy – recently announced to be former Irish President Mary Robinson – is significant, both women said, despite that Kakozi noted it tackles issues that were promised to be resolved in a similar 2008 agreement. If it addresses the decentralization of power to the grassroots level, she also wonders how that might be accomplished without the explicit incorporation of women, whose leadership is most evident at the community level. Of significance, Malimukono says that on the same night the peace deal was signed, the there were killings in Rushuru and Kitshanga. Both women await the effectiveness of the accord, which they say will be evident soon enough on the ground.

When asked for her strongest statement to the global community as they ask for support, Malimukono said, “My message remains the same. The militarization – [ending it] is the only way out. We are not free.”

Originally published in MediaGlobal.

Uganda-Ireland Partner Against Domestic Violence

One of the recurring themes at the 57th CSW has been the success of integrating multiple sectors in fighting violence against women in developing countries, and Uganda is no exception.

The March 7 event at United Nations headquarters, “Mobilizing Communities to Prevent and Respond to Violence against Women – Lessons Learned from Uganda,” introduced attendees to two partnerships between the Republic of Ireland and Uganda. The Center for Domestic Violence Prevention and Irish Aid, and the Catholic Church in Uganda and Trócaire, respectively, work together to combat domestic violence in the east African nation.

During the talk, Tina Musuya, the director of CEDOVIP, outlined her organization’s phased-in community mobilization approach against domestic violence: CEDOVIP trains community activists speak with men in local gathering places, like bars, about the traditional roles of men and women and the implications of men’s use of power over women, slowly changing the social norms that have made violence against women acceptable. This is essential in settings that lack infrastructure and services, explained Musuya.

CEDOVIP benefits specifically from a partnership known as GoU-Irish Aid, the Government of Uganda ad the Irish government’s program for overseas development.

Coordinating the discussion was Ireland’s Minister of State for Disability, Equality and Mental Health, Kathleen Lynch.

Lynch told MediaGlobal, “The difficulties we have in terms of culture and tradition are the biggest difficulties.”

In Uganda, where 40 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, engaging the religious community is essential, said Lynch. “It is incredible that when you manage to convince the champions for all sorts of other things within communities, how quickly things then start to move. And how quickly people start to realize and recognize the benefits there are in a change in their attitudes.”

Tackling this is Trócaire, the Catholic Church in Ireland’s overseas development agency. Members of the organization work with high-level church leaders, including bishops, throughout Uganda, in advocating against domestic violence.

In a survey by the agency, 72 percent of Ugandans who responded had seen anti-domestic violence education materials in their church and 88 percent had heard their church leader speak out against it. Because of these efforts, 45 percent of Ugandans surveyed had spoken with their family about harmful effects of domestic violence, 53 percent decided to not engage in violence in their homes, and 37 asked a man they knew was engaging in domestic violence to stop.

Sean Farrell, Trócaire’s country representative in Uganda, told MediaGlobal about the work still to be done. “The biggest challenge we face in the program is, having raised the levels of awareness on the negative effects of domestic violence, we now need to respond to the increasing demands for response at the local level.”

“We have already started planning different interventions with partners looking at response and the testing of potential solutions are already underway, and will inform the program going forward,” he said.

Originally published at MediaGlobal.

Kiribati Tackles Domestic Violence Across More than Twenty Islands

For a country comprised of 33 islands in the central tropical Pacific – 21 of them inhabited – Kiribati’s population is one of the smallest at just over 100,000 people.

Yet this small developing nation has struggled as much as larger countries with the problem of violence against women.

At a UNFPA hosted side event at the 57th CSW, “The Role of Data in Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls,” Anne Kautu, Kiribati’s Women’s Officer in the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs, spoke of the challenges of data collection and utilization in her country when used to combat violence.

“The problems with the isolation of the islands, of getting to those islands to get the data and also getting the information back to disseminate it – because they need that, they require information [to come] back – that is the main problem at the moment that we are having,” Kautu told MediaGlobal.

Kautu explained that Kiribati was one of the first countries in the Pacific to look at violence against women in a coordinated fashion. Until a 2008 survey conducted with the help of UNFPA, and co-funded by Australian Agency for International Development and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, no data existed on the prevalence of domestic violence on the island. The study showed that 68 percent of girls and women aged 14-49 years experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner. The data allowed officials to tailor their responses against abuse.

The Kiribati Family Health and Support Study, a title given to protect the content of the questions, had trained individuals to privately interview the woman or girl randomly selected from the study’s 2,000 households – an essential element of collecting data about domestic violence. Results omitted names of islands or villages to protect the women who shared details about their communities.

As a result of the study, the Kiribati government is currently drafting anti-domestic violence legislation, Kautu said. Government task forces were set up to coordinate and monitor gender-based violence initiatives and police training incorporated curriculum about addressing domestic violence. Standard operating procedures, implemented on even the smaller islands, were established so all sectors – health, education, law enforcement – had increased awareness across the board, Kautu also explained.

Currently, the developing island nation is currently working on a United Nations coordinated initiative addressing capacity building and support for victims, Kautu told the event’s attendees.

“What we’ve done at the moment is tried to train – we have focal points in the outer islands, so we try to get them in and do training with them,” said Kautu to MediaGlobal. “Also, if we need an extra bit of data, we try to get them to be able to do that.”

Speaking to a particular development struggle, she added, “At the moment our country is trying to get Internet installed to all the outer islands, so slowly we have a few islands we can contact. But that’s always a problem, lack of communication and systems. The main way now is getting information through the radio, and using the focal points and existing structures rather than us going out there, because it is very costly.”

Originally published at MediaGlobal.

1980s Redux? The Troubling Criminalization of HIV

Nick Rhoades, an HIV-positive Iowa man, did exactly what anyone who was privy to a quality sex education program was told to do—he used a condom to protect himself and his partner during a sexual encounter. However, because Rhoades did not disclose his status to this partner, under his state’s law he was arrested, tried, branded a felon, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was also required to register as a sex offender, which will follow him for the rest of his life.

One crucial piece of information was buried throughout the process: Rhoades’ partner did not contract HIV through their protected, consensual encounter.

The United States has more criminal laws regarding exposure and transmission of HIV than any other country in the world. Over 125 cases were filed between 2008-2011 alone. By the year 2000, two-thirds of states had HIV-specific laws or had added provisions about HIV to existing laws.

As convictions under these laws mount, health professionals are raising concerns that they could have the perverse effect of setting back efforts to prevent HIV in a way that is reminiscent of the early 1980s.

HIV criminalization laws date back to 1990, when federal legislation aimed to fight the spread of HIV, such as the Ryan White Care Act, required states to punish those who infect others as a requirement for benefitting from government funds.

The laws differ greatly from state to state, so much so that someone committing the same act in two different states could face a felony charge in one, and no repercussions in the other.

For example, in California, to be charged with a felony, a person must know his or her HIV status but not disclosed it and expose someone to the virus via unprotected sex, with the specific intent of infecting the other person. (That last part is tricky, since California also explicitly states that knowing one’s status does not in itself mean one is intending to infect another.) [Note: since this article’s original publication, California lawmakers have voted to reduce the penalty for knowingly potentially exposing someone to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor.]

The law in Michigan is much harsher. There, failing to disclose HIV-status before having sex with a partner is a felony, regardless of whether or not a condom is used or exposure to the virus or transmission occurs.

Like Michigan, many states’ laws “don’t always account for consent, and very few talk about condom use,” says Professor Leslie Wolf of Georgia State University, who has done extensive research on various HIV laws and policy.

On appeal, Nick Rhoades was given a suspended sentence after serving a year in prison. His sex offender status remains, despite the absence of intent to transmit the virus, as Rhoades’ new representation, Lambda Legal, said was evident by his use of protection.

At least 25 percent of prosecutions in the U.S. even target behavior that has been proven not to lead to the transmission of the virus, actions like spitting and biting, according to the education and advocacy site AIDSMeds, now part of POZ.

For instance, Michigan pursued criminal charges, including terrorism charges, against an HIV-positive man who bit a neighbor during a fight. The state drew on precedent from an earlier Michigan lawsuit that deems HIV-infected blood a harmful biological substance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically notes that HIV cannot be transmitted via saliva, and in regards to biting, specifies, “each of the very small number of cases has included severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood.”

In 2009, a District Court judge in Maine extended the sentence of a woman who was arrested for faking immigration documents simply because she was HIV-positive and pregnant. The judge personally decided to double the federally recommended jail time for her offense because it would keep her in prison until she gave birth—despite before her arrest having arranged healthcare to ensure she would not transmit the virus to her baby.

“On a larger level, HIV criminalization reinforces this idea that someone who is HIV-positive, they’re dirty, they’re bad…all these stereotypes get reinforced,” said Dr. Marguerita Lightfoot, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and Director of the University’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, who has worked extensively on HIV-prevention programs, and directly with a diverse range of people infected with or affected by HIV.

Criminalization also revitalizes not just fear and discrimination, but misinformation, contributing to the thinking that HIV remains a death sentence.

Today, HIV is still a serious diagnosis, but antiretroviral drugs have added decades to the lives of HIV-positive individuals, turning it into a manageable, chronic disease.

Penalizing actions like biting and spitting is reminiscent of the 1980s, when little was known about HIV, and epidemiologic studies recommended no sexual contact at all with an infected individual.

What’s more, HIV is more difficult to contract than is often realized. Epidemiological and biological research has illuminated the disparate difficulty in transmitting HIV, which is highly dependent on the specific behavior and the viral load of the individuals.

For example, if one is on the receiving end of unprotected anal sex from an HIV-positive individual, the risk is significantly higher than if one is an HIV-negative male having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive female. Risk varies if other sexually transmitted infections are present, if the HIV-positive individual was recently infected, if the male partner is circumcised, and a multitude of other factors. These factors are not incorporated into the laws.

As Professor Wolf puts it, the laws “don’t reflect [what we know]. If we’re going to keep them, they have to keep up with what is true.”

The laws also undermine prevention education that emphasizes safe sex by criminalizing individuals after they’ve employed the exact strategies that educators and researchers recommend to prevent HIV transmission, according to Dr. Lightfoot.

Doubts about the efficacy of the laws are born out in numerous studies, one of which in the American Journal of Public Health, which finds that HIV exposure laws do not significantly influence peoples’ decision to disclose an HIV-positive status or change their behavior. The laws may actually deter people from ever even getting tested and knowing their status, contributing to HIV’s spread.

“What’s the benefit of knowing your status if you are going to be prosecuted for engaging in sexual behavior?” said Dr. Lightfoot. “Our current arguments around HIV-testing are that you can get treatment and live a long life. Criminalization overpowers these ideas,” she adds.

Of course, knowing one’s status can decrease the risk of HIV transmission. HIV-positive people can access treatment that lowers viral loads, decreasing the risk of passing the virus on, and they can also take precautions to protect their partners and stem the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, while most agree that someone intentionally transmitting HIV to another should be punished, situations in which someone intentionally exposes and infects another are very rare.

“There’s an assumption that any time a person who is HIV-positive has sex, it’s risky sex,” said Dr. Lightfoot. “When we demonize folks, we lose track that most HIV-positive folks are doing what they can to prevent transmission.”

There are ways the laws could be modified, says Professor Wolf. “What we could do is improve [the laws] so you account for public health messages and do not punish somebody for engaging in safer sex.”

But as they stand now, the laws serve to mainly add fuel to the firestorm of fear around HIV and the spread of the virus itself. “It’s amazing how much bias, misinformation and stigma is still out there,” says Professor Wolf. “It’s amazingly frightening.”

Originally posted at The 2×2 Project.

Making the Cut: Is It Time to Put the Circumcision Debate to Rest?

Circumcision is not a new practice – it is most notably well known as a religious practice in many communities. But its implementation for public health purposes has been controversial. Raising ethical concerns and questions of tractable population health impact, the procedure has gained increasing attention in the past couple of years as it treads on unprecedented ground—surgery for the prevention of infectious disease.

Research in support of circumcision as a protective measure against the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is mounting, countering concerns of its potential risks. [Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially articulated that the health benefits outweigh the risks – though the decision should be left to parents, as those benefits aren’t marked enough to warrant a blanket recommendation.]

The circumcision debate turns largely on biological, behavioral, and relational factors – and these are the elements to keep in mind when thinking of [voluntary male medical] circumcision in the context of HIV. Particularly in developing countries.

Biologically speaking, the foreskin is the ideal environment for bacterial and viral infections to flourish. Heat and lack of oxygen facilitate the growth of pathogens. When the inner foreskin is retracted during heterosexual intercourse, for example, it is exposed to the vaginal secretions of a female partner, which if carrying HIV and other sexually transmitted infections easily fosters transmission. A 2009 study indicated that the greater the size—and therefore surface of—the foreskin, the higher the incidence of HIV in an infected male, underscoring how it can be a breeding ground for the virus.

A recent study conducted by Dr. Ronald Gray of Johns Hopkins University, in which researchers followed Ugandan adult study participants after a circumcision intervention, showed that the subsequent risk of acquiring HIV was reduced for the 40-month follow-up period. In addition, circumcision decreased the viral load of high-risk human papillomavirus—the strains that can cause penile, cervical and anal cancers—in men.

Other studies have shown significant reductions in bacteria after circumcision, which also benefits the female partners of the men. Adverse events or complications appear to be rare in both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who undergo the procedure, with one study documenting moderate-to-severe complications occurring between 3-4 percent of men regardless of HIV-status.

Behavior change also features prominently in the circumcision debate. Opponents of circumcision express concerns that the procedure may contribute to a perception of immunity against HIV and result in the reduction of condom use. Additionally, there is a question of whether or not it may increase the number of sex partners one has, for the same reason of rationalizing post-surgery invincibility.

Many circumcision interventions studies are not so cut and dry, so to speak. A number contain significant education components, which makes the procedure’s contribution to HIV risk reduction less clear.

One study examined the length of time men who had undergone circumcision waited before engaging in sexual activity. If a man HIV-positive, the risk of infecting a partner is notably higher if he engages in sexual activity before the wound heals, highlighting the importance of the quality of the surgery to minimize healing complications and the importance of concurrent education to delay sexual activity. Since a 2008 study showed that after 30 days, 73% of HIV-positive men had healed wounds, compared to 83% of HIV-negative men (the discrepancy owing to greater time HIV-positive individuals may take for any kind of wound healing), this is of particular importance.

It seems that being married, not single, might diminish concerns about the length of time it takes wounds to heal. There was no statistically significant difference in time waited to engage in sex post-surgery between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who were married; nearly 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively, engaged before the wound healed, which is the single greatest cause of post-procedure complications. However, among single men, roughly 13 percent of HIV-positive men resumed sex before their wound was fully healed, compared to about 6 percent of HIV-negative men did.

The significant difference between the single HIV-positive men and the single HIV-negative men underscores the potential for altered beliefs about post-circumcision HIV transmission. However, HIV-positive men reported more sexual partners and less consistent condom use than the HIV-negative men throughout the study—itself underscoring the difficulty of risky behavior change. Encouragingly, condom use among HIV-positive men increased over the course of the study.

The relational impacts of circumcision have also been examined. Researchers have assessed the perceptions and opinions of the women in relationships with those who have undergone the surgery. A 2009 study indicated that women whose male partners were circumcised were either more sexually satisfied than they had been previously, or felt no difference. Thirty-nine percent of women indicated more satisfaction, 57 percent noted no change, and less than 3 percent said they were less satisfied than they had been when their partners were uncircumcised. The greater satisfaction, according to the women, was primarily attributed to better hygiene.

These results are important, as one of biggest issues around circumcision is “the sell.” The best way to make that sell, researchers argue, is to have the female partners articulate their preference for and encouragement of circumcision to their male partners. It appears that there may also be a generational difference in the acceptance and uptake of the procedure. Dr. Gray and his colleagues have found that adolescent males disproportionately access circumcision procedures. Even some fathers who encouraged circumcision in their sons refused the procedure themselves.

Precautions are of course essential. Research has shown that it takes practitioners approximately 100 circumcision procedures before they can be considered adept at performing the surgery.

And not all the research being done has produced promising results, specifically for women. While some studies suggest that HIV-discordant couples—HIV-negative woman and HIV-positive man—benefit from circumcision and the procedure prevents infection of the woman, other studies have produced conflicting results.

Biologically, the circumcision seems to benefit primarily men, in preventing the contraction of HIV from an HIV-positive female partner. The same is not necessarily true for HIV-negative women whose male partners are HIV-positive. This biologically higher risk of infection for women is well known among public health researchers. Of course, decreasing the prevalence of HIV-positive men will ultimately, in the long run, help to lower the HIV incidence in women.

Indeed, population health benefits are already emerging. Dr. Gray and colleagues showed earlier this year that in Uganda, 37 percent of the reduction in HIV incidence could be attributed to circumcision, since there was no change in risk behaviors. The impact was not observed in women.

Circumcision seems to make economic sense. The male circumcision procedure costs $30-$60 in adults, and $5-$10 in infants. For each HIV infection avoided due to five to 15 male circumcisions performed, the savings reach well into the billions of dollars with the assumptions of a $150-$900 cost per infection (depending on HIV incidence in a specific region) over the next ten years.

Critics of course remain, and most vocally claim that other strategies, like education and behavior change, are viable solutions that should be championed. Regarding the sustained HIV epidemic and the hopeful strategies of condom use, testing, and treatment, Dr. Gray himself remarked, “I don’t know how to change behavior, I wish I did.”

So while behavior change strategies are perhaps the most important intervention to counter the HIV epidemic, they are not the only effective HIV interventions. The evidence seems to indicate that voluntary circumcision also makes the cut as a contender in the global fight against HIV.

Originally published by The 2×2 Project.

The Health Implications of Sex-Selective Abortion

Anyone paying attention to the election this past year—or, frankly, even those who tried to avoid it—has at least a superficial understanding of what the abortion rights argument looks like in the United States.

But the long-term population health outcomes of abortion are generally not considered as part of the argument. That’s because when a woman terminates a pregnancy in America, the decision is rarely made based on the sex of the fetus. However, in many developing and growing countries, that is at the crux of a woman’s decision—and the significant shift in gender representation is changing their population health status, and perhaps even the picture of the burden of disease. One of the countries in which this is most evident is China.

Interestingly, and likely unsurprisingly for those invested in a woman’s right to choose, we see that sex selection is itself a manifestation of the gender inequities in economic and social standing in many of these countries—not so different than many of the reasons cited by women in the U.S. seeking abortions. So while the outcomes of sex-selective abortion abroad may pose different problems, it should be acknowledged that the need for abortion is rooted in similar circumstances around the globe.

This issue is addressed by one of the few research studies to explore the ramifications of China’s one-child policy, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). China is a prime example of the increase in the male population due to women terminating pregnancies that were discovered to be female, a practice deemed illegal but nonetheless carried out widely.

The ratio of male to female live births in industrialized countries generally ranges from 1.03 – 1.07 (103,000 – 107,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls born). In China, since the inception of the one-child policy, the ratio has risen from 1.06 in 1979, to 1.11 in 1988, to 1.17 in 2001 (117,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls). Some regions show even higher numbers, with the Anhui, Guangdong, and Qinghai provinces reaching ratios as high as 1.3 (meaning that for every 130,000 boys born there are 100,000 girls born).

There are distinctions between urban and rural areas as well, since couples in rural provinces are generally allowed to have more than one child. The sex ratio comes in high at 1.13 for the first birth in urban regions, since one child is usually all a couple will be allowed. It peaks at 1.30 for the second birth (130,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls), which if couples are allowed to have, the preference is clearly male. This contrasts markedly with rural areas, in which the ratio for the first child is normal at 1.05 (105,000 boys for ever 100,000 girls), indicating that sex-selection is not a huge issue since rural couples are allowed a second child. However, the ratio sharply increases at second births, reaching 1.23 (123,000 boys for every 100,000 girls).

(Recently, China has noted that their thinking may be changing in regards to the one-child policy, with the possibility of extending the two-child allowance to everyone.)

This has unsurprising impacts on the health of the population. Some of the more pressing concerns noted by researchers that they articulate as a result of there being fewer women to marry and partner with include mental illness and socially disruptive behavior issues in men. Recently, studies have begun to document these trends, underscoring the significant long-term consequences of this gender imbalance. One recent study showed that even after adjusting for age, education, and income level, unmarried men in China were more likely to have lower self-esteem, higher depression, higher aggression, and more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than married men—at statistically significant levels.

The findings of another study, comprised of interviews conducted with people in China born just before and just after the implementation of the one-child policy showed similar results. Researchers found that the policy itself had created a less trusting and less trustworthy population, who are more risk-averse and less competitive, more pessimistic, less conscientious and even more neurotic. The impact of anti-social behaviors in a predominantly male population seems to be shifting the mental health profile of the entire nation.

More concerning as a result of sex-selective abortion and a decrease in the number of women available for marriage is the increased in trafficked women, and the subsequent increase in the number of commercial sex workers. Researchers note that a broad range of high-risk sex behaviors are often demanded by the surplus male clients, increasing the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. This alone has been noted as having a likely significant affect on the spread of HIV throughout China, posing a major national public health threat for the country.

The health implications aren’t limited to reproductive health and mental illness. If it is in fact accurate that most of the children living in China’s orphanages are girls, it is unclear how the future healthcare needs of these girls as they age into women will be handled and by whom, with a rapidly growing aging population already relying heavily on the significantly less populous younger generation.

Critics of abortion—sex-selective or not—often cite mental health issues and resulting regret as major reasons why women should not get abortions. So what about the health status—physical and mental—of the women who have these procedures?

Recently, public health researchers have worked to create the first body of scientific literature answering these very concerns. A group of University of California, San Francisco researchers at the group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) recently presented some of the findings of their longitudinal research known as the Turnaway Study. They found that women who were seeking abortions and who were denied were more likely to have slipped into poverty a year later, more likely to be on public assistance, and less likely to have a job. There was no correlation between abortion and drug use, or abortion and depression.

Abroad, given that sex-selective abortion is usually a procedure performed by private providers due to legal restrictions, tracking this kind of information is extremely difficult. And while this research was limited to the experiences of American women, the results showing decreases in economic status and increases in reliance on some form of public assistance, if available, certainly seem like potential outcomes in countries with worse statistics in terms of gender equality and economic growth.

Is there a solution? The gender imbalance, and therefore the changing prevalence of certain diseases, will not balance out unless sex-selective abortion is essentially made impossible, but it is imperative that the issue of sex-selective abortion not become a rallying cry to end the right to the procedure overall for women. As seen by the work done by researchers in China and the findings by UCSF researchers, the issues surrounding the choice to have an abortion, whether in the United States or abroad, are complex and inextricably linked to the economic and social circumstances of the women.

To tackle the burgeoning disease differences emerging from the sex-selective abortions, the work must begin by tackling the fundamental issues regarding the reasons why women seek these abortions in the first place.

Originally published at The 2×2 Project.

Can the Pill Alleviate Depression?

The use of oral contraceptives for purposes other than birth control is by now a normal practice. The pill is frequently prescribed to those suffering from severe and persistent acne, for the alleviation of severe cramping and endometriosis, and for soothing the symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder and premenstrual syndrome.

In fact, when asking women for the reasons they began using the pill, 82 percent cited non-contraceptive reasons as a major factor, and one third of teens use the pill solely for reasons other than preventing pregnancy.

Of course, the use of the birth control pill at all—for the prevention of pregnancy or other reasons—has unnecessarily become the center of heated political and social debates, despite the fact that millions of American women rely on it. The ability for women to access oral contraception has become increasingly contentious in recent years, with legislators working to outlaw them entirely. So, the mention of another potentially promising side effect of the pill may be immediately—and unfortunately—rebuffed.

And yet, it seems there may be another non-contraceptive reason for using oral contraceptives—the prevention of incident depression and suicidal ideation in young women. While opponents of birth control may claim that there are existing medications for the treatment of depression, the findings of this new research detail even more compelling reasons why oral contraception may benefit the health of women.

According to a study published in this month’s American Journal of Epidemiology by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the steady hormone levels provided by the pill may reduce the risk of depression and suicide attempts in young women. Only a handful of studies have explored this relationship in the past. Two studies in the past decade and half showed no positive or negative effect of hormonal contraceptives on depressive symptoms, while another showed that those using oral contraceptives had reduced depressive symptoms.

“We have long believed that sex-linked hormones such as estrogen are important predictors of mood problems, but little research has addressed how [external] estrogen regulation through hormonal contraceptives may or may not be associated with mental health outcomes,” says Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia.

The study authors used a longitudinal—meaning the young women were followed over a period of time—nationally representative sample called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health). The Add Health study began in 1992, with a total of 90,000 girls being surveyed about health behaviors in school. Subsequently, 20,000 of these girls were randomly selected for in-depth home interviews, and were given follow-up interviews in 1996 (known as Wave 2), 2000-2001 (Wave 3), and 2007-2008 (Wave 4).

A total of 6,654 young women, now between the ages of 25-34, who completed these interviews and indicated using contraception were used in this study’s analysis. The interviews assessed depression symptoms and previous suicide attempts among the women. At each wave, women were asked about symptoms of depression in the previous week and the symptoms were given a score based on their severity. They were also asked how many times they had attempted suicide in the previous year.

The findings produced compelling results. First, women who used hormonal contraception (birth control pill, the ring, or the patch) were more likely to be younger and have a college degree, less likely to have children, and more likely to engage in other protective health behaviors—like exercising, visiting the dentist, not smoking, and maintaining a lower body mass index.

Second, the women using hormonal contraception had lower scores of past-week depression symptoms, lower odds of high depressive symptoms, and lower odds of having attempted suicide in the last year. This was true even after the authors accounted for previous depressive symptoms among the women. When exploring the data longitudinally—that is, examining the association between contraceptive use and depression over the course of two waves of data to see if there were differences depending on the age of the women—the findings held true. Users of the pill, patch, or ring had lower odds of having high depression scores between the ages of 18-28, with even lower odds of a high depression score between the ages of 25-34.

Interestingly, hormonal contraception was not protective against a suicide attempts between the ages of 18-28, but it was between the ages of 25-34.

Dr. Kim Yonkers, professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Public Health and an expert on women’s reproductive and psychiatric health, praised the study.

“It’s certainly in line with what data are out there with regard to oral contraceptives, and I think the researchers did a nice job using the information that’s available,” she says.

There are limitations to the study. The authors acknowledge that women who perceive there to be negative side effects in their mood due to hormonal contraception are less likely to maintain its use, and these women may be more prone to depressive symptoms, potentially accounting for some of the findings and partially explaining the link.

As Yonkers says, “it could be a healthy observer effect. They’re talking to a group of women [who were using oral contraceptives] who are more likely to be healthy, to be psychologically healthy, to attend medical appointments; so it’s impossible to assign causality,” which she notes the authors are accurately not doing.

There are also a range of personal factors—like relationship status and sexual comfort—that contribute to a woman’s decision to use the pill, patch or ring, as opposed to using a barrier method such as a condom on its own, or no protection at all.

Hormonal contraception, as noted by the authors, is most commonly used among educated, cohabitating and unmarried white women. This is likely due to a few factors. College educated individuals are more likely to be fully employed and therefore have better health insurance, making the pill more affordable. There are racial disparities due to insurance as well, as white women are more likely to have health coverage than women of color. Funding for public and non-profit organizations that offer oral contraceptives at affordable and sliding scale prices for women without insurance are constantly under threat of—and actually victim to—major cuts in funding. It is unlikely that evidence for protective effects on mental health will ameliorate these differences since they are rooted in access and economics, but the implications of the study are still wide.

For example, Yonkers also points out the influence this study could have on regulations for prescription drugs.

“I think this adds to the body of literature questioning why oral contraceptives have to have this labeling that their compound increases the risk of depression. I don’t think we see that at a population level very strongly. No [older, randomized control] trials have found that oral contraceptives, even at a much higher dose, increase the likelihood of depression, let alone suicidal ideation or suicide,” she says.

This labeling may deter some women from using the birth control pill if they are particularly wary of its influence over their mood stability, when in fact it seems it may benefit mood or at minimum have no effect. The Federal Drug Administration notes that they label drugs based on data derived from human experience wherever possible.

As Yonkers says, “the FDA keeps mandating that this labeling be included on oral contraceptive agents—as a class labeling—despite the fact that we don’t see it in clinical trials. So I think it’s something that has to be taken up more carefully with the FDA.”

Whether data or politics will determine FDA labeling remains to be seen, but this study adds to the mounting evidence that the former should be more greatly weighed.

Originally posted at The 2×2 Project.