Countdown to August 12th: Will the U.S. Step Up to the Plate at This Year’s Universal Periodic Review?

At the 2nd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, five countries- Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom- urged the U.S. to reconsider its stance on the Helms Amendment. This amendment makes it illegal for any U.S. foreign aid to be directed to abortion services. This leaves many women and girls who are victims of war rape no choice but to carry the child of their rapist or unsafely try to abort it themselves. The Helms Amendment impinges upon the rights of women and girls in conflict, and is in violation of the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Geneva Conventions.

The UN Security Council, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, countries and organizations around the world have recognized the gravity of the Helms Amendment and the necessity for clarification so that women and girls in conflict can have access to the medical care that they need.

Out of the 293 women and girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria, one-third of them are pregnant. 214 of these women and girls are being denied proper care, and this is the fate of many others around the world.

The Obama administration has 3 months to respond to these charges and overturn the Helms Amendment and its abortion ban. GJC encourages President Obama to respond to these suggestions as soon as possible, as the end of the 3-month time frame for U.S. response to UPR recommendations, falls on August 12th, 2015. August 12th is the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, and is also the inspiration for GJC’s August 12th Campaign to “Ensure the Right to Safe Abortion for Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict.”

Pressure is mounting and the clock is ticking. Will the U.S. overturn the Helms Amendment by the deadline, and show the world that it is upholding its obligations under the Geneva Conventions?

Click here to read more. 

Lift the Ban: The Impact of US Abortion Restrictions on Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

When almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were recently kidnapped by local terrorist organization Boko Haram, the United States sent military and foreign aid to help rescue the victims and combat the threat posed by the militants. However, while the US support includes provisions for the victims’ protection and care, the abortion ban attached to US foreign aid bars the option of safe termination of pregnancies resulting from rape – in spite of the armed group’s announced intent to marry some of the schoolgirls and sell others into sex slavery.

In Nigeria, a major state-recipient of US foreign aid, girls and women are routinely raped as a tactic of war. This phenomenon is not unique to domestic terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, but is also practiced by the country’s military and police forces. When these rape victims, many of whom are young girls, become pregnant, the US abortion ban limits the services available to them and forces them to bear the children of their rapists. US policy thus increases the morbidity and mortality of girls and women who are impregnated by war rape.

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See Jen Sorensen’s Great Political Cartoon: “Thanks to This US Law, Boko Haram Rape Victims Can’t Get Abortions”

On May 26, 2015 political cartoonist Jen Sorensen posted a caricature of the United States’ abortion policy in relation to the 600 Nigerian girls who were rescued from Boko Haram, an estimated 214 of whom had been raped and impregnated by the militants.  Sorensen calls the United States’ abortion policy “utterly retrograde” and cites GJC’s work of urging President Obama to end the abortion ban, as it is imperative that “the UN Population Fund can do its job.”

Read the full post here.

Five Countries Directly Challenge US Abortion Restrictions at Universal Periodic Review

Today, during the Universal Periodic Review of United States, several member states of the UN Human Rights Council made statements condemning the anti-abortion restrictions that the US places on foreign aid, such as the Helms Amendment.

The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for monitoring the human rights records of the member states; every four years each country is reviewed and presented with recommendations on how to comply with their human rights duties.

The effects of Helms are can be seen in conflict zones around the world, most recently with the rescue of 214 pregnant Nigerian women from Boko Haram. The issue of comprehensive medical care has gained traction in recent months. As a result, today the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Norway, Belgium and France orally recommended that the United States work to ensure access to safe abortions around the world and limit the negative impact of the Helms Amendment.

War rape is an illegal tactic of war, constituting torture or genocide, and denial of medical care allows the perpetuation of those crimes. The constraints of the Helms Amendment deny women and children access to safe abortions, and restrict aid agencies from even providing information about abortion services.

In September 2014, the Global Justice Center submitted a report to the UPR, highlighting the ways in which constraints against women’s reproductive rights are incompatible with the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In April 2015, GJC traveled throughout Europe advocating for countries to use the UPR process to question the current anti-abortion restrictions the US imposes.

In addition to the five oral questions, written recommendations were also submitted, requiring a response and justification, should the United States continue to uphold the Helms Amendment. The US government has three months to formulate a response. It is clear that the Obama Administration has a responsibility and urgent duty to remedy these violations.

Click here to read more. 

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.

Boko Haram Update

The Nigerian military has made further strides in recovering the women and girls who were abducted and held captive by terrorist group Boko Haram. In total, the military has rescued nearly 700 victims of Boko Haram, many of whom have suffered inconceivable abuses at the hands of their captors. It has not been confirmed whether the famous Chibok school girls are among those rescued. In the most recent mission, the military successfully rescued 234 women. Tragically, many were killed in the rescue attempt, as Boko Haram attacked the women when it became apparent that they would be overwhelmed.

Of those rescued in this most recent advance, it is estimated that 214 girls have been impregnated by their captors, confirming the reports of forced pregnancy and marriage. On a more positive note, it appears that the survivors are reintegrating into their societies and villages. The highly unfair stigma of being a rape victim is lessening somewhat, hopefully allowing the women the psychological support they need to heal.

The survivors are receiving physical care—many have suffered injuries or are malnourished after a diet of corn meal, once a day—but the UNFPA is unable to provide complete and necessary medical services, as they are restricted from offering abortions, or even in fact providing any information on the subject. This restriction is due to the US abortion ban, the Helms Amendment, which is placed on all US foreign aid. Abortions are often lifesaving, as many of the rape victims are too young or malnourished to bare children. With the rescue of the Nigerian schoolgirls, the time is more urgent than ever for President Obama to issue an Executive Order overturning the Helms Amendment and the abortion restrictions placed upon organizations like the UNFPA.

Pursuing Sexual Violence: UN Condemns Acts of Boko Haram

During activities for International Women’s Day of 2015 issues of escalating sexual violence were highlighted on a global scale and UN Secretary General explicitly called for action against groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS, who employ rape as a weapon of war. A report was released Monday in which the UN reiterated concern about the pervasive sexual violence in areas such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Yemen.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence, such as forced pregnancy and marriage, are being condemned as a method of terrorism, employed by extremist groups in 19 different countries. The UN report criticizes 45 different groups for their use of sexual violence and particularly decries Boko Haram for their continued abuses.

The New York Times says, “In Sudan’s western Darfur region, it said the number of displaced civilians has increased over the past year and so have reports of sexual violence. And in South Sudan, it said sexual violence remains prevalent — including gang rape, castration, forced nudity and forced abortion — which is ‘exacerbated by impunity and a militarized society in which gender inequality is pronounced.’” However, Congo has made some encouraging progress, prosecuting officials for sexual violence and offering reparations to survivors.

In terms of Boko Haram’s violence, the report states, “Forced marriage, enslavement and the ‘sale’ of kidnapped women and girls are central to Boko Haram’s modus operandi and ideology. Abducted girls who refuse marriage or sexual contact within marriage have faced violence and death threats.”

The Global Justice Center has made recent efforts on behalf of the Chibok school girls, on the anniversary of their kidnapping,  GJC posted a letter to the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, urging action be taken against Boko Haram. GJC asked that the Chief Prosecutor investigate the kidnappings as an act of genocide, so as to spur immediate action and forestall the inevitably increase in similar attacks. Speaking about Boko Haram, General Ban Ki-moon said that actions such as these were, “an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.”

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. 

Sexual Violence, Focal Point of Beijing20

Countries around the world have been coming under scrutiny, as it becomes apparent that even with some improvements in women’s rights, violence against women remains alarmingly prevalent. News stories have been inundated with multiple incidents of sexual violence in India, Iraq, Sudan, and the United States. While each country has its own unique narrative in terms of violence towards women; globally, more than one in three women will suffer physical violence and one in ten girls under 18 will be raped. Regardless of individual political or cultural circumstances, the protection and empowerment of women is a global issue.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark conference on women in Beijing, and the UN is set to review the successes and failures of women’s rights in the past 20 years. In terms of successes; pre-school age children are now composed of equal numbers of boys and girls, twice as many women operate in legislative bodies than did 20 years ago, and maternal mortality has been halved, (though it must be noted that number would be significantly improved if abortions were provided to women in armed conflict.)

Despite these successes, sexual violence remains an unchanging and constant threat to women and girls. Some countries have yet to outlaw marital rape, and even countries with explicit, binding laws against sexual violence usually outright fail to implement them. If moral incentives are not enough, violence against women and children costs 4 trillion dollars yearly on a global scale. Sexual violence remains largely unpunished and is regularly used as an effective military tool in armed conflicts. It is the responsibility of international bodies such as the UN to change such realities. Furthermore, as it has been noted, it is important the people and media continue to speak about these issues and spread awareness, so that the next 20 years we can look back and see a marked improvement on the lives of women and girls.

Involvement of Adolescent Girls in Overturning the Effects of Conflict

Melanne Verveer and Sarah Degnan Kambou, Executive Director of Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and President of the International Center for Research on Women, respectively, recently collaborated to write an article for the Huffington Post. The article details the ways in which adolescent girls are abused within conflict. The piece was unique in that it also offered a rather optimistic view of solutions to the numerous issues facing young women in conflict.

In a world where families, homes, and entire cities are destroyed, young women are often regarded as victims rather than instruments of change. The Global Justice Center promotes the message of Power not Pity and Verveer and Kambou champion a similar goal for girls in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Jordan who survive despite suffering violence and sexual abuse. They also explicitly call upon the international community to assist in making services such as medical treatment and education widely available, saying, “Above all, the global community must help societies marred by conflict and crisis to build up the community’s resilience to resist the further spread or a resurgence of a conflict.”

Verveer and Kambou outline several concepts that would lead to the improvement of the situation for girls in conflict. First, more information must be made available, and furthermore, than information must be accurate and unbiased. Secondly, with that information, the media must present a thorough and responsible view of the situation surrounding the conflict, rather than providing a brief, sensationalist narrative such as the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.  Third, civil society groups, often heavily involved in the aftermath of a conflict, can provide critical evidence and an unparalleled understanding of the situation. Fourth, the international community must work to end impunity for those who perpetrate war crimes like mass rape and forced pregnancy, finally, the girls themselves must be allowed to direct their own lives. As said by Verveer and Kambou, “Let’s not move forward without the active involvement of girls themselves, who, through lived experience, are deeply familiar with difficult and dangerous times, and are knowledgeable about practical solutions that will meet immediate needs and prepare girls for the day when crisis abates and communities rebuild.”

George Clooney Condemns Rape of Darfur

On February 25th, 2015, George Clooney co-authored a New York Times Oped on the rape of women in Darfur. Internationally, the violence in Sudan, including mass rape, has been recognized as genocide since 2004, yet the attention to the area has died down since then, allowing the government to continue its abuses. The media is heavily restricted, humanitarian aid workers equally so and very little is known about the quality of life in Darfur. The peacekeeping mission to Darfur, a joint venture of the African Union and the United Nations, has been severely undermined by the government’s efforts, as the United Nations office has been shut down and investigations stymied. Since evidence cannot be gathered, the peacekeeping forces are required to rely on information provided by the government and have been encouraged to withdraw from areas that remain in need of assistance.

However, the facade can be undermined. Recent efforts have revealed the travesties that are the government’s attempts at peace and security. After documenting over 100 witness testimonies, it can be concluded that last October, the Sudanese Army raped hundreds of women and that investigations of those rapes were subsequently obstructed. The military had full control of Tabit when the mass rape took place, so the attack was not ultimately used as a weapon of conflict, but rather an atrocious and despicable intimidation tactic. It is stated in Clooney’s article, “The sexual violence has no military objective; rather, it is a tactic of social control, ethnic domination and demographic change. Acting with impunity, government forces victimize the entire community. Racial subordination is also an underlying message, as non-­Arab groups are singled out for abuse.”

Clooney calls for renewed global attention to the crisis in Darfur as well as effective sanctions. This renewed attention on these women and children who were raped should also focus on a piece of U.S. legislation that will harmfully impact their lives. The Helms Amendment is a forty two year old piece of legislation that bans all U.S. foreign aid from going to organizations that perform abortions. This includes for women and children who are raped in times of crisis. Women who have been raped are much more likely to die in childbirth, and further, a large portion of the survivors are children, who are still more likely to die from pregnancy The United States restriction on foreign aid for abortion services, curtails the effectiveness of the Red Cross and other such organizations that rely US funding. GJC’s August 12th Campaign calls upon Obama to sign an executive order lifting the abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid and as we can see in Darfur, it is more urgent than ever that this outdated legislation is removed and that these women and children receive the medical care they need.