Global Justice Center Blog

Children of War

The conversation about the importance of providing abortion services to victims of rape in armed conflicts would be incomplete without looking at the impact on children born to rape victims. The international community has already recognized forced pregnancy as a crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) but it has a limited application since it requires all three elements of the crime to be satisfied. Article 7, paragraph 2 (f) requires–(1) unlawful confinement of a woman (2) forcibly made pregnant (3) with the intent of carrying out other grave violations of the international law. It is unclear what exactly falls under other grave violations of international law and means that women who were forcibly made pregnant but escaped or forcibly made pregnant without the requisite intent are not protected under the Statute.

As a result of rape or forced impregnation, these unwanted children whose mothers were forced to carry them to term due to lack of abortion services are often subject to stigma, discrimination, abandonment, abuse, neglect, and even infanticide, especially in cases of boys who are seen as potential enemy combatants. These children are commonly rejected not only by their mothers who seek to avoid shame but also by the entire community- they are seen as illegitimate, “enemy” children and may be denied citizenship rights, effectively rendering them stateless. In Rwanda, children born out of rape are often referred to as “children of hate” or “children of bad memories.”Lacking necessary support from their mothers and communities, rape children are caught up in a vicious cycle and end up getting exploited, becoming child soldiers or turning to prostitution and crime. They are more likely to suffer psychological and physical trauma as a result of unsuccessful abortion attempts by their mothers or nonexistent neonatal care, and are at a higher risk to contract HIV. They also often have attachment and trust issues even later in life and are unable to maintain familial relationships. Even children who are kept by their mothers are often raised in extreme poverty resulting from societal stigma that prevents rape victims from finding a job given lack family support or alternative childcare options.

Currently there are no specific initiatives by the international community that would protect and provide assistance to rape babies. The ICRC, WHO, and UNFPA merely issued recommendations recognizing the need to combat stigma associated with rape children. Readily available access to safe abortion services could provide an immediate solution for rape victims who are now forced to carry to term an unwanted pregnancy and later abandon or even murder their unwanted children.

How Women in Power Can Help Change Society

“Sisters in Law”, a documentary following State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba in the small Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, is a wonderful example of how women in government can help transform the lives of women.  These women used their positions to help eliminate injustice towards women and to fight against Cameroon’s patriarchal society, where traditional attitudes ignored violence against women and even silenced them.  The documentary follows Ngassa and Ntuba as they prosecute a man for beating his wife and successfully convict him (the first time a man has been successfully convicted for spousal abuse in Kumba in over 17 years), in addition to helping a young girl get justice after being raped by an adult neighbor.

This documentary is a shining example of how women in positions of power can truly help achieve social change and improve situations for women.  Women in the small village of Kumba began to feel more confident and secure under Ngassa and Ntuba’s lead, and began to stand up against their abusers and against the male-dominated structure of their society to enforce their rights.  Women are severely underrepresented in the political world, despite making up about half of the population in any given country.  Currently, women only make up 19.6 percent of the membership of parliaments around the world.  In the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 23, it is suggested that countries implement gender neutral quotas requiring that neither sex constitute less than 40% of a public body, quotas for women in public office, and rules giving preference to women nominees.  The Committee also noted that “research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized.”  Gender quotas do not have to apply only to the public sphere, as shown by Norway’s gender quota for “market-listed companies to fill 40 percent of the seats on their corporate supervisory boards with women.”

In order to boost political participation, and improve basic human rights and women’s rights, countries should consider implementing gender quotas for both legislative and judicial bodies.  If more women like Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba were put into positions of power, whether by being elected or being placed through a quota, it is almost certain that the situation for women around the world would improve greatly.

Syria to reconsider its abortion law

Recently a Saudi cleric Sheikh Ali al-Maliki expressed an opinion that Syrian women raped by gang-like militia or forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to undergo abortion.  He described rape as one of the most heinous crimes against women that is worse than murder.

Current Syrian law only allows abortion to save woman’s life making abortion in all other circumstances including illegal.  Penalty for performing an abortion with woman’s consent is one to three years imprisonment, and penalty for a woman who consented to abortion is six months to three years imprisonment but can be reduced if abortion is done to save woman’s honor. Syria is officially a secular state with the vast majority of its population practicing Islam but its abortion restrictions are harsh even for the Islamic world.  Schools of Muslim law universally accept that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy would put the mother’s life in danger even if the pregnancy is over 120 days old but variation of thought exists when it comes to other exceptions to the abortion ban. Tunisia and Turkey have significantly liberalized their abortion law and allow it under virtually all circumstances within the first trimester, although a recent bill pending in Turkey could effectively outlaw abortion. Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia allow abortion in cases of serious health risk. Iran, Kuwait, and Qatar created an exception in cases of fetal defects assuming the pregnancy is less than 120 days old. Sudan, Egypt, Bosnia, Algeria, and Bangladesh make abortion permissible in circumstances of rape or incest. Examples of the above mentioned interpretations show that Islamic law can be flexible when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Pending decision of the Council of Senior Muslim Scholars, Syrian women might soon also be able to legally abort fetuses conceived as a result of war rape.

Observing World Refugee Day and the Plight of Displaced Girls

If you happened to be in New York City last night and were wondering why the Empire State Building was blue, here is your answer: the Empire State Building, along with major landmarks around the globe, was lit up in blue yesterday to commemorate World Refugee Day. The UNHCR honored the day in New York by opening a new exhibit dedicated to the world’s refugees entitled In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees.

Joan Timoney, the Director of Advocacy and External Relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission, spoke at the opening of the exhibit, and we were struck by her description of the “lost potential” of displaced girls. While life is difficult for all displaced persons, displaced girls tend to be exposed to even greater risks because of their gender. For instance, displaced girls are susceptible to exploitation and abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancy, forced marriage, and forced labor. Displaced girls also have less access to education and resources than their male counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that women and girls have a lower status than men and boys in most societies. This unequal status is exacerbated in times of conflict and civil strife, continuing even after displaced girls are able to leave refugee camps.

To avoid losing their potential, these girls need access to security, education, and resources. Fortunately, the Women’s Refugee Commission is working to do just that with its Protecting and Empowering Displaced Girls project. The goals of the project are to ensure that displaced girls are safe and have the opportunity to finish school, develop a sense of confidence, and learn their rights and important skills so they can go on to lead fulfilling lives without abuse. This is incredibly important work and we would like to applaud the Women’s Refugee Commission for its efforts.

To learn more about the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work, visit their website.

The exhibit, In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees, is free and will be on view at the United Nations Visitors Centre until Aug. 7, 2012. For more information, visit their website.

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.