How the US is Blocking Access to Safe Abortion Services for Women and Girls Impregnated by Rape in Syria

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Syrian government forces and government-controlled militia (Shabiha) have reigned terror over the civilian population. Alma, a victim of this violence, describes being held in a cell where she would kick and scream alongside 20 other women while they were drugged, blindfolded, and gang-raped.

In the worst embodiment of this campaign, rape is used as a weapon of war against Syrian women and girls. Alma continues, “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarettes in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity to my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded everyday by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: ‘You wanted freedom? Well here it is!’” A different victim illustrates the scene at a Syrian detention center in which a doctor visited each woman’s cell to note the dates of her period and to hand out birth control pills: “[w]e lived in filth, in blood, in [feces], with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously.” Still other victims of these crimes against humanity described situations in which their “bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

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Justice for Girls in Nigeria

Every day, girls in Nigeria are at risk of being abducted solely because they dared to go to school. Boko Haram, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda, has been terrorizing the Nigerian population for over a year and, as part of this assault on the population, has been abducting young schoolgirls at random. In a disturbing video released this week, the purported leader of Boko Haram detailed his plan to continue to kidnap these girls and then sell them in the markets. The kidnapped girls some as young as 12 years old, will be sold into sex slavery or as slave laborers. The sale of these girls will serve to finance the organization. These acts of kidnapping are an expression of the group’s opposition to the education of women and girls which they claim is based on a particular interpretation of Sharia law. These crimes also are a way to weaken and intimidate communities and maintain control over the Nigerian people through intimidation. As of now, over 270 girls have been abducted by the group, their whereabouts unknown, their families left with questions and fear.

Girls are an especially high-risk group when it comes to regions in conflict. Not only are they female, but they are children; in terms of vulnerability- the deck is stacked against them. The systematic targeting of women and girls in times of war is a common practice as, in many societies, the honor and purity of women and girls is inherently linked to the masculinity of their respective menfolk. To marginalize, attack, and exploit women is to dishonor and humiliate an entire community. Therefore, the injustices perpetrated against women are often overlooked and instead attributed as crimes against society as a whole. Therefore, when these war criminals are finally brought to justice, the crimes against women and girls are frequently overlooked. Quoted on this issue in Foreign Policy, our legal director Akila Radhakrishnan states that ”[the] failure to comprehend the specific experiences of girls impedes accountability, reparations, and rehabilitation efforts” and if sexualized violence is not addressed in war crime tribunals, it "renders justice meaningless for these survivors.”

In a press release issued on May 6th after the report of eight more abductions, “UNICEF calls on the abductors to immediately return these girls unharmed to their communities, and we implore all those with influence on the perpetrators to do everything they can to secure the safe return of the girls – and to bring their abductors to justice.” Not only is the international community demanding the safe return of these girls,  but for those responsible to be brought to justice. As long ago as last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) reported that “there [was] reason to believe that Boko Haram had committed crimes against humanity, referring to reports of murder and persecution.” Now, a year later, these crimes have only increased with the addition of slavery and sexual slavery. It is absolutely necessary that these perpetrators are brought to justice as violators of international law and held accountable for their war crimes, including the sexualized violence and forced enslavement of these hundreds of girls. Every victim of deserves justice.

GJC Hosts High-Level Panel on Sexual Violence in Burma at the United Nations

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 30, 2014

[NEW YORK, NY] –  On Thursday, April 24 2014, the Global Justice Center, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security hosted a side event to the Security Council Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. The interactive panel included distinguished guests such as Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International.

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The Spotlight on Burma: Calling for the Elimination Sexual Violence and Inclusion of Women in Peace Talks

On Thursday, April 24th, the Global Justice Center, along with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International, and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, hosted a side event to the Security Council’s Open Debate on Conflict Related Sexual Violence at the United Nations with the intention of shedding light onto the continued plague of sexualized violence in Burma. The panel consisted of special guest speaker, Naw K’nyaw Paw who is the Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and a grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. This standing room only event highlighted the ongoing dangers and abuses that the women and girls of Burma face at the hands of the Burmese military and strengthened the call for international action as well as the inclusion of women in the peace process.

Naw K’nyaw Paw poignantly voiced the concerns of an entire nation of women and girls who face the threat of sexual violence on a daily basis, with girls as young as eight years old suffering these heinous attacks. She called out the Burmese government for its ingrained culture of impunity for these crimes, stating that there is no accountability for the perpetrators, most of whom are members of the Burmese military forces. SRSG Bangura went on to assert that sexual violence should not be attributed as an inevitable element of conflict; to do this only marginalizes the plight of those victimized. The stigma attached to sexual assault, as well as fear of retribution, often prevents women and girls from reporting their attacks or seeking aid and, because of this, there is no way to know the true range and scope of these crimes.

The conversation turned toward the absolute necessity of the inclusion of women in peace processes. Ambassador Donoghue reaffirmed Ireland’s full support of Security Council Resolution 1325, which stresses the importance of gender parity in all areas of governance and peace-building. Naw K’nyaw Paw voiced her concerns over the exclusion of women in the Burmese peace processes, stating that women from all ethnic groups must be present at the negotiation tables. When faced with an argument posed by a representative of the Burma Mission that the Burmese government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), she swiftly countered that to sign was not enough, the practices must be adopted into law; the realities of CEDAW must be visible on the ground, not merely on paper. With regard to planning talks, Naw K’nyaw Paw emphasized the need to strengthen the existing community structures, as opposed to approaching the situation as one in need of complete rebuilding. This, she said, was necessary for sustainable peace in Burma.

In closing, it was reiterated that women’s involvement in Burmese peace talks is of the utmost importance as is the transition to a civilian government. Both of these factors, as well as the elimination of sexual violence which rages on unhindered, devastating the lives of thousands of women and girls, must be realized in order for there to ever be true peace in Burma.

GJC Hosts High-Level Panel on Sexual Violence in Burma at the United Nations

Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 3:00pm-4:30pm

At UN Secretariat, Room 9

On Thursday, April 24, 2014 the Global Justice Center, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security hosted a side event to the Security Council Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. The interactive panel included distinguished guests such as Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International.

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What Success Looks Like for Women on the Ground

Yesterday in the inspiring and informative event, “What Success Looks Like on the Ground,” women leaders from Burma, Haiti, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo gathered to discuss their personal experiences in combating sexual violence in conflict. The panel was a side event to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

It was moving to hear directly from local women leaders who battle everyday with their governments, militaries, other institutions, and social mores. Together they painted a stark picture of the very real difficulties women face in armed conflict zones around the world, as well as lessons they have learned in working against sexual violence and in supporting survivors.

Panel speaker Julia Marip, from the Women’s League of Burma, noted that “when women have been raped, they suffer twice: once at the rape and again when they become pregnant.” Ms. Marip then pointed out that not only is abortion illegal in Burma, but also that reforming laws – including those criminalizing abortion – is overly difficult due to the constitution’s discrimination against women and the military’s embedded position within the government. She also emphasized the importance of having women at the political table in order to improve the lives of women, including by ending rape and increasing accountability. Ms. Marip and her organization, the Women’s League of Burma, recently launched a report on sexual violence in their country,Same Impunity, Same Pattern: Report of Systematic Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Areas, about which the Global Justice Center hosted an event and wrote an article.

Similarly, Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa, an activist working with women survivors of sexual violence in Congo, spoke of the power of women to end sexual violence in conflict. She called for solidarity, saying that women around the world “must band together as survivors if we want to fix this on a global level rather than go case by case.” She further urged the world to end the crisis in Congo – one of the world’s longest running conflicts – saying that the Congolese “are begging the people who are bringing war to us to take it away.” Without this step, she explained, sexual violence would continue.

Leonie then described the consequences of the ongoing sexual violence in her country, including the suffering of women with unwanted pregnancies from rape, who are often shunned by their families, and the dangers and difficulties that face children born of rape. An audience member from the Congo, Justine Masika Bihamba, of Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence, echoed Leonie’s point, reporting that “every day we are losing women to suicide who have become pregnant from rape.”

Zeinab Blandia, of the Vision Association in Sudan, shared her experiences advocating against sexual violence in her country, and explained that where peace has been established in areas of Sudan, the situation for women has improved. Like her fellow panelists, Zeinab called on the international community to help bring the conflict in her country to an end. She said that if the war and its associated violence against women were to continue, it would be a “shame on the international community and on CSW.”

The panel also touched upon successes combating sexual violence in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake left women and girls increasingly vulnerable to sexual attacks. The event highlighted the work of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a grassroots organization run by women survivors of sexual violence that supports other women survivors in Haiti. Marie Eramithe Delva, executive secretary of KOFAVIV, recounted the success of their campaign distributing whistles to women and girls in the displaced person camps of Port-au-Prince, noting that in at least one camp it had led to a drastic reduction in the number of reported rapes.

The Global Justice Center (GJC) is grateful to have heard these women leaders speak of their experiences and advice for combating sexual violence and supporting survivors. We believe our vision of success on the ground mirrors their calls for justice and accountability for rape in armed conflict, for increased participation of women in government and peace negotiations, and for expanded and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health services. GJC is eager to partner with women leaders such as these, as it has done with Ms. Bihamba, whose organization sent a letter to President Obama as part of GJC’s August 12th Campaign, urging him to lift the ban on abortions attached to U.S. humanitarian aid. For further information on GJC and its projects, please visit:http://www.globaljusticecenter.net.

Chilean Health Minister Reply

JULY, 2013: Chilean Health Minister Dr. Jaime Menalich Muxi responds to a letter from the GJC requesting that he allow an 11-year-old rape victim to have a life-saving abortion.

This letter states that though the pregnancy is risky, he cannot grant her an abortion because it is against the law.

This is a translated version of the letter.

Read GJC's original letter here.

Read the original version of the Chilean Health Minister's response letter (in Spanish) here.

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UN Security Council Takes a Historic Stand Supporting Abortion Access for Women Raped in War

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 18, 2013

[NEW YORK, NY] – In an historic first, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a groundbreaking resolution supporting abortion services for girls and women raped in armed conflict. Although the Security Council did not use the term “abortion” in Resolution 2122, its language makes clear that Member States and the UN must ensure that all options are given women impregnated by war rape: “noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination.”

Letter to Jaime Mañalich Muxi, Re: Denial of Life-Saving Abortion to Pregnant Chilean Girl Violates International Human Rights Law

GJC writes a letter to Chilean Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich Muxi, asking him to allow doctors to perform a life saving abortion on an 11-year old girl who was impregnated after being raped repeatedly by her mother's boyfriend.

Excerpt:

On behalf of the Global Justice Center, I am writing to urge you to immediately permit doctors to perform a therapeutic abortion to save the life and prevent further cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of a young Chilean girl, “Belén,” who faces a life-threatening pregnancy resulting from rape.

Belén, an 11-year old girl, was impregnated after being raped repeatedly for more than two weeks by her mother’s boyfriend. According to Belén’s doctors, the pregnancy has placed her life at risk. If, however, her doctors were to provide her a life-saving abortion, they and Belén would both be found in criminal violation of Chile’s absolute ban on abortion, which allows no exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother. As Chilean law now stands, an 11-year old girl will be forced to endure a life-threatening pregnancy that will either kill her or compel her, a child herself, to give birth to and raise the child of her rapist. This forced pregnancy will continue the violation of her bodily integrity and sovereignty, extending the pain and abuse she has already experienced.

We call on your government to permit a therapeutic abortion as the only humane response to Belén’s predicament, and to reform your restrictive ban on abortion so that future girls and women are not subjected to the physical and psychological dangers of unwanted and life-threatening pregnancies.

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UN Security Council Addresses Sexual and Reproductive Rights for Girls and Women Raped in War

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - June 24, 2013

[NEW YORK, NY] - Today, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2106 addressing sexual violence in armed conflict during a debate led by the United Kingdom. Significantly, for the first time, a Security Council Resolution explicitly calls for UN entities and donor countries to provide “non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health.” The Global Justice Center applauds the inclusion of this language, which represents a milestone for girls and women impregnated through war rape.

Why is a War Criminal Getting a Peace Prize?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 17:00-18:00

At New York, New York

On Tuesday April 23, Burmese President Thein Sein was awarded a peace prize from the International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to resolving deadly conflict. Oddly, presenting Thein Sein with this award is a step away from the ICG’s goal, seeing as their main focus involves conflict resolution, something the Burmese president has evaded. In ICG’s recognition of Thein Sein, they highlight that he has transformed Myanmar by “liberalizing past repressive laws” and “making significant strides in ending internal conflicts, securing ceasefires with all but one of the ethnic armed groups”. However, they gloss over the fact that despite the changes that he’s made, ethnic groups are still being oppressed by the military. There have been ongoing reports against the Myanmar Army from a multitude of sources, including the UN, with claims accusing them of systemic use of rape against Ethnic women. These allegations clearly indicate that rape is being used as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities, while the government turns a blind eye to these atrocities. Instead of acknowledging these methodical violations of human rights or making some sort of effort to alleviate the situation, President Thein Sein has merely denied the allegations. Reports have made it clear that the Myanmar army uses rape to terrorize and intimidate Ethnic people. As a signatory of the Geneva Convention, the nation of Myanmar is obligated to take initiatives to enforce humanitarian law against its army, but has failed to do so. As an advocate of human rights, GJC does not support a leader who oppresses its citizens and violates principles of humanity, especially against women. Our Rape as a Weapon of War Campaign demands justice for women raped in conflict in order to shatter this culture of impunity. Raping women for military objections is a complete violation of the Geneva Conventions, and states must face repercussions for these actions. Thein Sein should not be awarded a peace prize when he is not recognizing the abuses that his own citizens are facing under his rule as he allows this to continue, and by awarding him, the ICG is only approving of the suffering of innocent civilians. It is time to punish states that use rape as an unlawful weapon in armed conflict, not reward them.

Health Promotion Tips for Women

March 6, 2013, 15:30-17:30

At United Nations Church Center, 2nd Floor

Hope Medical Enterprises is a not for profit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) based in the United Kingdom, with a focus on helping Iraqi women and children in Iraq and in Europe in all aspects of their daily lives. The discussion will focus on HIV in Iraq and possibilities to support women and children affected. Among the speakers will be Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati, UN Ambassador of Iraq and Janet Benshoof, President of the Global Justice Center. 

CSW 57: Commission on the Status of Women

This month is International Women’s Month! We are joining several groups tomorrow, March 7, at 12pmET to discuss abortion coverage restrictions and the consequences that it has on women. Follow #hydehurts and #helmshurts on twitter and join us in being a voice for many women around the world who are unable to speak out!

The Commission on the Status of Women is being held at the UN during these next two weeks, and GJC will be in attendance as a consultative member of the NGO working group on women, peace, and security. Janet Benshoof, GJC president, will be speaking on two panels to highlight the importance of ending violence against women in conflict.

The Global Justice Center is working diligently to advocate for gender inequality in conflict and post conflict situations. Our August 12th Campaign is challenging the routine denial of medical rights to war rape victims as a violation of the right to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. Thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict are routinely denied their rightful access to safe abortions, and we must put a stop to this. Furthermore, girls and women are raped daily to accomplish military objectives, including genocide. Rape is more effective and cost effective than any other unlawful weapon used in armed conflict today, yet it is routinely overlooked by the international community. GJC’s Rape as a Weapon of War project is working to ensure that states using this method of warfare are held accountable for their actions.

Stephanie Johanssen, legal counsel for European and UN affairs at GJC, has been working tirelessly on behalf of GJC as a member of the working group on women, peace, and security to monitor implementation of Security Council resolutions on the role and rights of women in conflict situations. GJC uses its consultative status with the United Nations to be a leading voice urging UN bodies to fulfill their obligations to act against fundamental law violations. The UN is the epicenter of global efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of war crimes, and gives GJC the ideal access point to strengthen the impact of our legal arguments.

Please support us in making a difference in the lives of thousands of women worldwide!

CSW 57: The Gap between Image and Reality

The 57th session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) is over and the agreed conclusions have been adopted. Some delegations made reservations but did not block the adoption of the final draft. Every year, the CSW session also serves as a forum for UN member states to do a bit of PR for themselves. Words like “committed,” “dedicated,” “acknowledge,” and “affirm” are heard often and most countries have an interest to show the world how they are leaders when it comes to furthering women’s rights. However, all too often, these statements stand in stark contrast with a country’s foreign policy. The United States is one example.

In explaining the US position on the Agreed Conclusions of this year’s CSW, U.S. Deputy Representative to ECOSOC Terri Robl, said in a statement on March 15: “Reproductive rights and the full implementation of these international agreements are essential to the prevention, mitigation and elimination of violence against women and girls. The United States reaffirms our continuing commitment to protect and promote reproductive rights.” If the United States is committed to protect and protect women’s reproductive rights why not lament the Agreed Conclusion’s weak reference concerning the right to safe abortion access which was limited to national laws?

Because reality looks very different:

USAID administrative policy, formally adopted in 2008, contains no exception for abortions for rape or to save the life of the rape victim, and is, at least on paper, more restrictive than federal statutory requirements (including the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which first placed abortion restrictions on foreign aid in 1973).

As the largest provider of humanitarian aid in the world and by funding most major humanitarian actors, the US is able to dominate the field of humanitarian aid with its no abortion policy and is responsible in large part for the global failure to provide the option of abortion to victims of war rape. Many have joined with the Global Justice Center to challenge this inhumane US policy as a violation of the rights of girls and women to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions.

CSW may be over, but the time is now for the US to live up to its rhetoric.