Women facing mental-health problems in Darfur

A significant number of displaced women in South Darfur, western Sudan, suffer from depression and experience suicidal thoughts because of largely unaddressed mental-health problems, according to a study by the International Medical Corps (IMC).

Solomon Kebede, IMC country director in Darfur, told IRIN on Friday the study was conducted in the field two years ago, but the situation had since deteriorated further. "We are looking for funds to update [the study] because the situation is now worse than it was at that time," he added.

The study of 1,283 women found that one-third met the criteria for major depressive disorder and double that number reported symptoms of depression. One in every 20 respondents reported suicidal thoughts and two percent said they had attempted suicide. Both statistics represent rates much higher than global norms, the study noted.

"Humanitarian aid has met some of their basic needs [but] women's health and mental health remain largely unaddressed," the IMC said. "While suicide-related figures were actually lower than in other conflict-affected populations, they are still alarmingly high compared to general rates globally, and indicate a serious shortage of access to mental-illness treatment in South Darfur."

According to the IMC, no mental-health services are available for displaced people in Darfur, apart from those offered by a few international NGOs. "The prevalence of depression and suicide is a considerable mental-health burden worldwide and a challenge for humanitarian agencies in Sudan," the study noted.

The IMC study also found that women's health issues had suffered from general neglect, with high pregnancy rates, minimal family planning and prenatal services and high rates of childbirth with no skilled attendants. Yet, women head between 65 and 84 percent of all households among those internally displaced by the conflict in Darfur.

According to the World Health Organization, women have considerable mental-health needs in many under-served populations. The multiple roles they play in society place them at greater risk of experiencing mental-health problems than others in the community.

Women more than men are likely to be adversely affected by specific mental disorders, such as anxiety-related disorders and depression, the effects of domestic and sexual violence, and escalating rates of substance abuse.

At least 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Darfur since the conflict began in 2003 between government forces, allied militias and rebels seeking greater autonomy, and more than two million others have been displaced within Sudan and into neighbouring Chad. Twelve humanitarian workers have been killed since May.

Currently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is completing investigations into those who bear the greatest responsibility for the worst crimes in Darfur.

On Thursday, the ICC Chief Prosecutor, Louis Moreno Ocampo, told the United Nations Security Council that the evidence collected so far provided "reasonable grounds to believe" that individuals had committed crimes against humanity, such as murder, wilful killings and rape; and war crimes, including torture and intentional attacks against civilians.

Incidents of rape and sexual assaults continued to be reported at very high levels in Darfur while attacks on humanitarian personnel and peacekeepers were a prominent feature of the current situation, he said. Attacks on humanitarian personnel are prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitute a war crime within the Court’s jurisdiction, Ocampo added.

The findings of the IMC study were published in the December online version of the American Journal of Public Health, and will also appear in the January 2007 print edition of the journal.