Respect Rape Victims’ Right to Abortions in Syria

by Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Since 2011, the Syrian civil war continues to inflict irreparable harm on its civilian population and has resulted in over one quarter million civilian deaths. A disturbing and specific factor of the Syrian conflict is the brutal and systematic use of rape and other forms of violence against women. Rape ­– whether perpetrated by ISIS militants, the Damascus regime, or other rebels, is a fate far worse than death for many Syrian women.

In Latakia, a woman reportedly committed suicide because was unable to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Another woman was thrown off a balcony by her own father after he found out she was pregnant as a result of gang rape. Countless other women provided testimony that speaks to the gravity of the violence inflicted on their bodies, be it as an act of genocide, seen with Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS, or as a weapon of war to destroy and divide rebel communities in opposition of the Assad regime.

To quote writer and Syrian refugee, Samar Yazbek, “[women’s] bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

The Syrian conflict is considered the “largest humanitarian crisis of our time,” according to USAID. A recent report from the Syrian Refugees Websitea project of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, indicates that there are about 11 million refugees and over 13.5 million civilians in need of humanitarian aid.Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), wants to direct more international aid towards assisting women and girls, who he describes as “the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer most.” Women and girls, he further notes, are facing a campaign of widespread rape combined with a woeful lack of reproductive health services.

An estimated 500,000 pregnant Syrian women remain in the war-torn country or are in nearby nations. More than ever, access to abortion services is a critical form of medical care for these wartime rape victims, as well as protected right under the Geneva Conventions. Yet safe abortion services remain woefully lacking. Post-abortion care (care that’s required when women have undergone unsafe abortion procedures), has been identified as one of the major challenges in refugee camps.

Misallocation of funds is partly to blame, which Osotimehin concedes is due to the prioritization of providing food, shelter, and water over “women’s issues.” The resulting gendered bias towards issue-areas renders the discussion of “the dignity, the welfare, and the security of women (…) something that doesn’t play out at all” in donor nations discussions according to Osotimehin. The resulting impact this bias has had on dictating how to address and allocate humanitarian aid is devastating.

Another reason that fewer rape victims are receiving the essential medical care they need is that nearly all the major humanitarian groups in Syria, including UNFPA, are subject to American anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. The United States, through USAID, continues to be the largest government donor to the Syria crisis, with contributions of nearly $5.6 billion, between 2011 and 2016, matching the next three largest donors’ funding combined. This US monopoly limits in large part the services humanitarian aid providers can make available and equipment they can buy with US funds,

This summer, the Democratic Party, in a historic first step, has included in its platform a vow to overturn all domestic laws that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including the Helms Amendment. The reversal of this ban would allow US foreign aid to be used for abortions and other reproductive medical care desperately needed by thousands of women in Syria and throughout the world.

This year is the 67th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. We must reflect as a nation on both the historical legacy, as well as the ongoing protections the treaties afford civilians in conflict. In its inception the Geneva Conventions sought to define the scope of international humanitarian law by regulating armed conflict in service of offering combatants and civilians unalienable protections.

Just as the Geneva Conventions, and their application, have expanded over time in recognition of the evolving nature of armed conflicts, so too must convention signatories commit to modifying domestic policies that obstruct adherence to the treaties’ binding obligations. Such obligations include providing the right to all necessary medical care, which includes access to abortion services for war rape victims.

It is President Obama’s last opportunity to seize this call to action and pass an Executive Order that lifts the Helms Amendment restrictions and recommits American policy to its humanitarian legal obligations. USAID has already recognized the gravity of the Syrian crisis, both in terms of policy commitment and total aid donations. Now, with the support of the new democratic platform, it must incorporate a gender-sensitive commitment to the women of the Syrian crisis in its aid packages, which must include abortion services as obligated by the Geneva Conventions.

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Global Justice Center and Gender Equality Network Call on the Government of Myanmar to Fulfill Its Obligations to End Discrimination against Women

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—July 1, 2016

[GENEVA] –  On July 7th, Myanmar’s implementation of its obligations to ensure gender equality will be reviewed by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee). Myanmar ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, but this will be the first international women’s rights review of the country since the elections that brought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.

GJC President Janet Benshoof Interviewed by Señal Colombia

GJC President Janet Benshoof was interviewed for Señal Colombia's episode about Monica Roa, a Colombian activist who is currently the Vice President for Strategy at Women's Link Worldwide, where Benshoof is featured as one of Roa's mentors. 

Click here to watch the full episode. 

Gender and Genocide in the ICRtoP Blog

Read Global Justice Center Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan’s explanation of the gender components of genocide in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect Blog.

“It’s not enough to just recognize that acts such as sexual violence, abductions, enslavement, forced abortion, and forced impregnation—acts which are disproportionately committed against women—of protected groups can constitute genocide. Rather, the commission of such acts needs to impel action for states and international actors to fulfill their obligations to prevent, suppress and punish genocide. "

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.

 

Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.

Myanmar's Long Road to Gender Equality: Issues for Myanmar's November 2015 UPR

Myanmar’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) provides an ideal venue to question the Government of Myanmar (“Government”) regarding its failure to ensure substantive equality for women as required by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and international treaties including CEDAW. Since 2011, Myanmar’s “democratization” has neither improved women’s status nor dismantled structural barriers preventing women’s equality.

Myanmar’s failure to ensure women’s rights arises from entrenched legacies of inequality that impede genuine reform in all aspects of law. Specifically, ongoing supremacy of the military, gender inequality embedded in the Constitution and other laws, and the lack of adequate justice mechanisms including an independent judiciary serve as structural barriers to equality. No Government reforms have addressed these issues. As a result, women in Myanmar face (1) gender discrimination embedded in law; (2) barriers to access to justice; and (3) exclusion from participation in public and political life.

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New Report Exposes Critical Gaps in Burma’s National Gender Equality Plan

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 15, 2015
 

[NEW YORK, NY] – Women will never enjoy equal rights in Burma without dismantling structural barriers to gender equality, such as limitations in the 2008 Constitution, an antiquated legal system, and the ongoing legacy of a male-dominated military leadership, according to a report released today by the Global Justice Center and the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School. The report, Promises Not Progress: Burma’s National Plan for Women Falls Short of Gender Equality and CEDAW, concludes that Burma’s national gender policy fails to acknowledge or address these structural barriers or to fulfill Burma’s international obligations to ensure substantive gender equality and faults the Government of Burma for failing to follow through on the promises it has made to advance women’s rights. The report is released in advance of Burma’s Universal Periodic Review in November, where the international community can support the fight for gender equality in Burma by exposing the lack of commitment and failures of the Government.

European Parliament’s Resolution Increases Pressure on U.S.

On June 9, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that would grant abortion access to women and girls who are victim of war rape. This resolution has come at a key time, as recently one-third of the 293 girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria were found to be pregnant.

However, due to the U.S.’s Helms Amendment, no U.S. aid can be given to organizations that provide abortion services. These girls are often forced to give birth in dangerous conditions and care for the child of their rapist. The European Parliament is the most recent body to come out against the U.S.’s brutal and outdated abortion ban.

This resolution, detailed in the equalities report “The EU Strategy for Equality between Women and Men Post 2015,” is the fifth resolution on abortion and war rape that has been adopted in the last three years. At the U.S.’s UPR in May, five countries challenged the U.S.’s abortion ban and demanded justification for its continued implementation.

This resolution shows mounting pressure on the U.S. and President Obama to overturn the Helms Amendment. As stated by GJC President Janet Benshoof, “Obama must choose now if his legacy will include turning a blind eye to the plight of women and girls raped in war.”

Read GJC’s Press Release here.

GJC Meets with European Women's Lobby in Brussels

EWL met with Global Justice Center in Brussels to discuss access to full medical care for female war rape victims.

The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) is the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in the European Union (EU), working to promote women’s rights and equality between women and men.

Click here to read their article about the meeting.