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.

For Rescued Girls in Nigeria, it is More Urgent Than Ever for Obama to Overturn the Helms Amendment

The Nigerian military has continued to advance, recovering many of the women and girls captured by Boko Haram. It is thought that Boko Haram originally kidnapped over 2,000 women and girls. This week, the military is said to have rescued several hundred, most recently 234 from the Sambisa forest. There are reports that the military has secured all of the Boko Haram strongholds, though it must be noted that the media has often exaggerated their successes. It is unclear whether the Chibok girls are among the rescued women. Grievously, it is thought that the school girls may have already been killed.

Hundreds of women and girls have been forcibly impregnated by Boko Haram. Unofficially, 214 of the recently rescued girls have been reported pregnant after facing horrific circumstances of sexual slavery and violence. Organizations like the UNFPA are working as best they can to provide for the women, with a spokesperson saying, “We look after them and ensure they get antenatal care and that they deliver properly and that they even get cesarean section when necessary.”  While UNFPA are doing good work helping these pregnant women and girls, they are hamstrung, by a decades old US policy, from providing the full range of medical services these women and girls require.

Women and girls who are raped in areas of conflict suffer from extensive physical and psychological injuries, making pregnancy and delivery dangerous. Several studies have found that pregnancy from rape in wartime compounds the physical, psychological and socials consequences of the survivors. While experts have acknowledged that pregnancy from rape can exacerbate the consequences of the rape, little has been done to actually address and resolve this problem. The vast majority of women who become pregnant from rape in conflict lack access to safe abortion services. These women could resort to non-sterile or non-medical methods, which can lead to scarring, infection, sterilization, or death.

The Geneva Conventions guarantees that war victims receive all the medical care required by their condition, for women and girls raped in armed conflict, that medical care includes the option of abortion.  In 1973, Senator Jesse Helms passed the Helms Amendment, which bans the sending of any US foreign aid money to any organization that performs or even discusses abortion services.  Four decades later, this misguided amendment is still in place and having very real consequences for the aid organizations providing services to the brave women and girls rescued in Nigeria.

GJC president Janet Benshoof says, “war rape victims are honorable heroines and victims of war crimes and they should be protected, honored, and respected.” For women and girls kidnapped and forcibly impregnated by terrorist groups, it is now more urgent than ever for President Obama to overturn the Helms Amendment, so that these survivors can have access to the full medical care they desperately need.

The Cruelest Weapon

Akila Radhakrishnan and Kristina Kallas publish an article in Ms. Magazine, titled "The Cruelest Weapon" on how the US denies abortions to women raped in war.

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Global Policy, "The Other Red Line: The Use of Rape as an Unlawful Tactic of Warfare"

The Security Council has found that the endemic use of rape in war for military advantage – which is primarily targeted against women and girls – is a military tactic that presents a threat to global peace and security. Despite concerted global efforts over the last two decades to end its use, rape as a tool of war continues undeterred. This article links the intransigent use of strategic rape with states’ failure to treat it as an unlawful tactic of war under the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) that regulate the 'means and methods of war’. Embedding strategic rape under IHL’s weapons framework will increase its stigmatization, a critical factor in stopping the use of abhorrent weapons or tactics in war. Other potential benefits include the opening up of civil and criminal accountability frameworks and others which provide restitution and reparations for war rape victims. This article focuses on the role of all states in enforcing the weapons framework and it calls for states to undertake an impact and injuries assessment of strategic rape under the Article 36 weapons review process.

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Violence in Africa: Sexual Assault and Legal Reparations

In 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that 29 countries used rape as a weapon of war. The states accused of using rape must be held responsible for employing intentional and systematic sexual assault to further a military objective, whether it be genocide, demoralization, impregnation, or HIV infection. A recent article, Africa: Sexual Violence in Conflict – What Use Is the Law?, distributed by allAfrica Global Media, illustrates the legal tools available to the survivors of the rape crimes and discusses the difficulties that have been encountered so far in attempts to prosecute rape as a war crime—difficulties such as the complex nature of the resources at the victims’ disposal. To access the available resources, survivors must possess a basic understanding of applicable laws—laws which are convoluted at best and unrecognized or invalid at worst.

For example, rape as a tactic of war is outlawed by the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. However, sexual violence is not specifically designated a ‘grave breach’ of convention, a distinction which, “obliges states to seek out and prosecute, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, anyone suspected of committing such acts, regardless of their nationality or of the country where the crime was committed.”

While rape is not explicitly delineated within the Geneva Conventions as a ‘grave breach’ in and of itself, it is easily definable as a violation of the law prohibiting “torture or inhumane treatment.” The case grows more complicated as the Geneva Conventions pertain to international disputes, rather than civil wars, where most of the crimes are taking place. Further, most ‘non-state actors’ do not act in accordance with the legal bindings applicable to the state and rebel groups are responsible for a large percentage of sexual violence during war.

However, prosecutors might look beyond humanitarian law and employ the definitions of the Rome Statute advocated by the International Criminal Court, which labels rape as a war crime. Further, there are proponents of “soft law” which is not legally binding but nonetheless a useful persuasive device in the courtroom. Margaret Purdasy, legal counselor at the UK Mission in Geneva, offers some hope to the prosecution, saying, “All the strands of law have their limitations and their setbacks, but they are not the same limitations; one helps to plug the gaps in the other.”

The Global Justice Center is at the forefront of this movement, demanding the recognition of rape as an unlawful crime. GJC states, “Rape is the most terrorizing and life-destroying unlawful weapon being used in armed conflict – yet not one rape-using state has ever been held accountable for the use of an unlawful weapon under the laws of war.”

The Global Justice Center espouses that rape be addressed as an unlawful weapon of war and offers a sampling of important results. Should the correct measures be taken, rape states will be held accountable for their action, accurate statistics of women raped in conflict will be created and made available, restitution will be gained by victims seeking legal retribution, and redress will be established for rape survivors who contracted HIV. Also, as stated in Africa: Sexual Violence in Conflict, the international community must also reach beyond legal services when providing aid and work to combat integral social attitudes, such as victim blaming. Further, survivors require emotional and medical resources, such as access to safe abortions, another issue championed by the GJC.

One Billion Rising Twitter Chat

Denying access to abortion for women and girls raped in war denies them their rights under the Geneva Conventions. Tell President Obama to Overturn Helms.

Join the Global Justice Center One Billion Rising Twitter Chat, February 13, 12pm-1pm. #LiftTheBan #OneBillionRising

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“A Devastating Year for Children”

This year has been one of the worst years for children, according to the United Nations. “As many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine,” said the Unicef’s report. “Globally, an estimated 230 million children currently live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

“This has been a devastating year for millions of children,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves. Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”

© UNICEF

In the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, South Sudan, Nigeria millions of children are affected by ongoing conflicts. Young girls are being kidnapped, tortured, forcibly impregnated, forced marriages, withheld from education, raped and turned into sex slaves. Half the victims of rape in conflict zones are children.

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that took place in London this June recognized that rape and sexual violence in conflict often has a much bigger impact than the fighting itself, and that one should not underestimate the depth of damage done to individual rape victims. “Sexual violence in conflict zones includes extreme physical violence, the use of sticks, bats, bottles, the cutting of genitals, and the sexual torture of victims who are left with horrific injuries. Many die as a result of these attacks. But survivors can also face a catastrophic rejection by their families and may be cast out from their communities”.

Compounding the suffering is a US foreign policy that denies safe abortion services to girls raped in armed conflict. GJC’s August 12th Campaign challenges this routine denial of full medical rights to war rape victims as a violation of the right to non- discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols.

Young girls who become victims of rape used as weapon of war are forced to bear the child of their rapist. This also is an “unspeakable brutality”.