Letter to the NY Times Editor, Rape in Syria, March 2014

Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director of the Global Justice Center, responds to an article in the New York Times, “Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Put Syria in Free Fall” that describes three years of conflict without mentioning the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Download PDF

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.

Stigma of War Rape in Nigeria

Recently hundreds of girls were rescued from Boko Haram. These military rescues have been widely applauded and measures are being taken to help the women in their healing. Tragically, certain Nigerian communities look upon the survivors of Boko Haram’s abductions with distrust and dislike. The animosity stems from hatred for the terrorist organization and fear of their tactics, but nonetheless, the victims are entirely innocent and deserve to be treated with respect.

Those who managed to escape from the famous Chibok abduction last April have been taunted and ridiculed. It is thought that their time with the organization somehow tainted them as ‘Boko Haram Wives.” Some of these girls, who were only in captivity for a short time, have chosen to leave their homes because the harassment can be so intense.

Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno, created further challenges, when he said “I am seriously worried with the fact that most women tend to hate and abandon children they deliver from rape. Now, the problem is that these children could go to the streets unattended to, they then lack access to food, health care and education. The result is that they could indeed inherit their fathers’ ideology somehow.”

From interviews, it has been ascertained that the survivors of Boko Haram feel deeply shamed. There are numerous organizations working to provide support, critical now, as hundreds of women and children have recently been rescued and need medical and psychological attention.

The one medical service these organizations cannot provide is abortion. Due to the Helms Amendment passed in 1973, which bars any US foreign aid funds from going to an organization that provides abortion services, international aid organizations are hamstrung in their ability to fully help these girls.

Rape as a weapon of war constitutes torture and, in some cases, genocide. As survivors of war rape, these girls are allowed the protections provided to victims of war and torture and deserve comprehensive medical rights, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The denial and restrictions of these rights puts the United States in direct conflict with the Geneva Conventions.

Even pro-life supporters will admit that there should be an abortion exception for rape. The women and girls who survived Boko Haram are victims of war rape and sexual slavery. Those that returned pregnant are facing additional suffering due to being denied their rights under the Geneva Conventions. Many of the impregnated women are young and malnourished, leading to complications in the pregnancy and further, if these women were to delivery safely, it is likely that their children would be endangered by the same distrust and associations with Boko Haram.

It is more urgent than ever, for the women and girls who are being kidnapped by terrorist groups, that President Obama overturn the Helms Amendment and grant them full access to medical care.

Click here to read the full article. 

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.

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. 

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.

Download PDF

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.

Malala’s Appeal and GJC Support of Education

A recent United Nations report asserted that as many as 70 nations allowed girls to be abused for seeking an education and that attacks upon educated girls are facing an alarming upsurge, with more than 3,600 separate events reported in a single year. In 2012, this particular strain of gender-based violence made its way into the mainstream news and the campaign for girls’ education was given a face and voice in the form of Malala Yousafzai.

Malala championed education rights for girls from a very young age and before she was even a teenager, she wrote a blog for the BBC, detailing her experience with the Taliban. From 2009 through 2012, she rose to prominence as an advocate for women and children, giving interviews and promoting education. In late 2012, she was shot by a gunman on her school bus. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful and sparked global outrage but the Taliban reiterated their threat to execute her and her father. Since the attack, Malala has continued her commitment to education for women and children, for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Three days ago, on the 300 day anniversary of the abduction of 300 Nigerian girls, who remain in the custody of Boko Haram, Malala issued a call to action, saying, “I call on people everywhere to join me in demanding urgent action to free these heroic girls…These young women risked everything to get an education that most of us take for granted. I will not forget my sisters. We cannot forget them. We must demand their freedom until they are reunited with the families and back in school, getting the education they so desperately desire.”

If the kidnapped school girls are rescued, the largest impediment to their continued education is pregnancy. If these school girls become pregnant during their captivity, they will be forced to bear the child of their rapist due to a little known US policy called the Helms Amendment that puts an abortion ban on all US foreign aid. Many NGOs in conflict zones, as a result of this legislation, choose to follow the American requirement so that they can continue receiving American money.

Founder of GJC, Janet Benshoof, argued on behalf of the kidnapped girls in her appeal to President Obama on Human Rights Day. Benshoof urged the president to sign an executive order allowing for abortions in conflict zones, where mass, genocidal rapes have taken place. Abortions might forestall the inevitable deterioration of the women’s health, whether it be from pregnancy at to young an age, ostracization, or depression and eventual suicide. GJC supports the mission of the UN and Malala Yousafzai in espousing universal education, but before education can be made available, women and children must be safe in their bodies, and afforded the necessary medical care they deserve.

“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”.