The late August four-day onslaught of mass sexual violence in Walikale, in Eastern Congo, is just the most recent example of a societal epidemic that has come to define the region with devastating consequences. Although early figures suggested that approximately 150 women were raped during this outbreak (most of whom were gang raped by between two to six people), these numbers have continued to escalate. As of now, a staggering 303 cases of women, children, and men have been reported; it is likely that many more victims have remained silent. Further, in recent testimony to the Security Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to the DRC, Robert Meece, said that “[t]he best data available, for example, suggests that over 15,000 rapes were committed last year in eastern DRC.”
These events continue to illustrate the severity of the conflict, as well as the urgency with which we need to address the US restrictions that impede complete humanitarian assistance for female victims in conflict. Rather than doing everything in its power to help these victims, US anti-abortion conditions on foreign aid deny access to abortion services to women and girls raped in conflict. Many human rights reports have found that pregnancy exacerbates the consequences of rape in conflict settings for the victims.
The only medical response in the situation in Walikale was provided by the International Medical Corps (IMC), whose work in eastern DRC is funded by USAID. Because of the aid restrictions outlined in the Helms Amendment, IMC cannot provide abortion services to any women who present at their treatment center. This is particularly disturbing in light of information from IMC stating that only two of the victims from Walikale received treatment within 72 hours, the timeframe during which emergency contraception is effective. The MONUSCO report documenting the incident further states that only 100 of these victims received treatment within 3 weeks. It is clear that while IMC occupies the medical assistance field there, any woman impregnated as a result of these rapes will not have access to abortion – a violation of international humanitarian law guarantees of non-discriminatory medical care and prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.