Tuesday, June 19, was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, proclaimed by the UN in order to raise awareness of various forms of sexual violence perpetrated against women, men, girls and boys, that is either directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.
The effects of conflict-related sexual violence, including poverty, poor health, unwanted pregnancy, and extreme trauma, can endure across generations. The alternative for women who have been impregnated in conflict is abortion – with unsafe abortion the leading cause of maternal mortality in settings affected by war conflict.
Children born as a result of sexual violence are often stigmatized as “children of the enemy”, are sometimes ostracized from their communities for their entire lives. The women who have been assaulted in armed conflict and children born to them are frequently considered as “partners” with extremist groups, rather than as victims. This stigma of association has severe consequences - children left stateless, in a legal limbo, and susceptible to human trafficking and exploitation. To draw attention to this issue, the UN’s 2018 theme for the day was ‘The Plight and Rights of Children Born of War’.
What steps can we take to end this situation, while still amplifying the voices of these oppressed women and children?
The answer lies in international law and policy. Sexual violence as a weapon of war during conflict and post-conflict is a direct violation of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL).
The thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Burma who experience these violations firsthand have revealed that the Myanmar military have sexually assaulted them during their systematic campaign of brutality. These mass rapes have resulted in large numbers of unwanted pregnancies and maternal deaths. Most of these women, living in refugee camps, will soon give birth in the coming weeks and months as a result of rape.
How can we save children born of war from their disturbing fate?
The rights of war victims under the IHL include comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care, legal support, and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence. In short, IHL requires the provision of abortion services for victims of war rape. The barrier stopping this is the United States’ Helms Amendment, which prevents any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services. By denying women abortions, the United States is violating the Geneva Conventions.
Despite these obstacles, we must ensure that humanitarian facilities comply with the medical care mandates of IHL while providing medical workers who treat war victims with immunity from prosecution if they violate local abortion restrictions. IHL is the superior legal regime which can supersede national laws with lower standards and protections, including national abortion laws. Victims of sexual violence in armed conflict are afforded international legal protections.