Two organizations have begun to quantify the number of rapes that occurred in the chaos that plagued New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in late August, National Public Radio reported Dec. 21. Although the official count of reported rapes remains at four cases, NPR quoted advocates who say a fuller picture is emerging of the level of violent crimes that actually occurred.
Judy Benitez of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, a coalition of rape crisis centers in Hammond, La., says her group joined forces with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Penn., six weeks ago by launching a Web site to collect rape reports. So far, they have received 42 accounts. The Frederick, Md.-based organization Witness Justice has collected 156 reports of violent crimes that occurred in the hurricane's aftermath and says about one-third of those were rapes.
In the initial period following the hurricane, reports of the level of crimes varied widely. "The fact that something wasn't reported to the police doesn't mean it didn't happen," Benitez told NPR. "We know about all the other things that happened, all the thefts, all the robberies. There was all kinds of crime taking place on a much higher level than usual. Why would we think there was less rape typical of any given week in the city? It doesn't make any sense."
Singer Charmaine Neville, who was one of the first women to publicly come forward, reported to a sheriff's office that she was raped on Aug. 31, two days after Katrina struck. Her case has not yet been forwarded to the New Orleans police department. She has since joined with Benitez's foundation to urge others to come forward and make their own reports.
Other News to Cheer This Week
Three Democratic congressional representatives from New York introduced legislation Dec. 7 to repeal the global gag rule that prevents foreign family planning agencies from receiving U.S. funding if they refer to abortion in any way, according to the Hudson Peconic office of Planned Parenthood.
The Global Democracy Promotion Act introduced by Reps. Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley would repeal the rule that President Bush reinstated on his first day in office. The order prohibits the agencies from providing, counseling, referring or lobbying for abortion services if they receive U.S. funding. The activities remain prohibited even if paid for by the agencies' own non-U.S. funds. While the bill has been approved by the U.S. Senate, it faces roadblocks in the U.S. House, according to a spokesperson from Rep. Lowey's office.
- A Brooklyn, N.Y., woman who has sued the Food and Drug Administration to force the agency to approve over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraception pill, Plan B, will see her day in court. A federal district judge in New York ruled against the FDA Dec. 21 rejecting the FDA's motion to dismiss the suit, reported the New York Metro. Annie Tummino became a lead plaintiff in the suit against the FDA after she had difficulties obtaining Plan B on short notice and decided that all women should have easier access to emergency contraception. Since then, Tummino has protested the prescription law by obtaining and distributing Plan B to other women.
- An Afghan editor of a women's rights magazine has formally apologized to an Afghan court in order to avoid a death sentence and will be released from jail later this week, the Washington Post reported. Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was arrested and charged with blasphemy in September. Observers have applauded the journalist's release but fear it sets a precedent for censorship of the Afghan press.
- In the meantime, the first Parliament elected in Afghanistan in more than three decades convened Dec. 19. The upper house has 249 members, the lower house 102. Women are about one-quarter of the total, according to the London Telegraph. These include Malalai Joya, who has vowed to fight for women's rights, and Howa Alam Nooristani, who was shot four times during the campaign but refused to withdraw from the race. "I just want to be moderate and progressive," Nooristani said, "and help my people."
For more information:
"More Stories Emerge of Rapes in Post-Katrina Chaos":
"Listening to New Orleans: Charmaine Neville":
Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote on a Senate budget bill that would cut $40 billion over five years in federal funds from Medicaid, child support enforcement, foster care, student loan and other entitlement programs aimed at helping the poor, according to the Washington Post. The House approved $50 billion in entitlement cuts last month, and House and Senate negotiators are expected to work out their differences when they return from their holiday recess next year.
In a separate budget bill, $1.4 billion in funding was cut from the Health and Human Services, Labor and Education departments, according to Reuters. Affected programs will include Head Start preschool programs for low-income children, job training, children's health, and President Bush's No Child Left Behind education mandate. The bill now goes to President Bush for a signature.
California Congresswoman Doris Matsui said she favored reducing the deficit while she opposed the cuts. "But Congress must reduce the deficit in a responsible manner that results in a shared sacrifice," Matsui said in a press statement. "It disproportionately places these cuts on a few."
Other News to Jeer This Week
- The number of births from unwanted pregnancies has increased 5 percent over the past decade, according to statistics released in December by the National Center for Health Statistics. The data was drawn from 2002 surveys in which 14 percent said their pregnancies were unwanted at the time of conception. The rate was 9 percent in a similar survey from 1995, the Associated Press reported. At the same time, abortion rates in the United States have declined, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute. In 1995, 26 of every 100 pregnancies ended in abortion; in 2002, the rate had declined slightly to 24 of every 100 pregnancies. Susan Wills of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the data "shows a real pro-life shift."
- The U.S. Agency for International Development has revoked federal funding from two organizations in Peru for violating the global gag rule, Human Events Online reported Dec. 19. The agency has informed the two groups, Defensoria del Pueblo and Manuela Ramos, that they will have to return an unspecified portion of their aid grants for promoting emergency contraception, which is outlawed in Peru.
Jennifer Thurston is associate editor, Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief and Karen James is an intern with Women's eNews.
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