Abortion Access in 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.”
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.
GJC Participates in Third Annual Women Law Summit at the NYU School of Law, titled, "Women in Conflict: Gender, Violence, and Peacekeeping"
Friday, 20 February, 2015 at 11:30am - 5:15pm
On February 20th, NYU School of Law held its third annual women's law summit which coincided with the 15th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325. The Summit sought to educate participants about women's roles within conflict and their various means of empowerment, especially within the legal system. The all-female panels were composed of practicing lawyers, doctors, academics, and theorists. GJC founder and president Janet Benshoof gave the keynote address, highlighting the organizations projects, such as a campaign for the prosecution of rape as a prohibited weapon, and a campaign seeking the provision of abortions for women in conflict. Further, GJC, who advocates "power, not pity," was referenced several times throughout the following panels, as speakers detailed the ways in which women might act in conflict. Akila Radhakrishnan, legal director of GJC sat on the final panel about women and the transformation of the legal space, where she spoke on the opportunity for transforming women's rights in Burma.
Today, at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Ms. Illwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian social activist who works at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu, used GJC language and mentioned both IHL & abortion in her statement, saying:
“Implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL) in a gender responsive manner is key to enhancing the protection of civilians. Women must have equal access to accountability mechanisms, reparations and non-discriminatory medical care, including safe abortion and post-abortion care for survivors of sexual and gender based violence.”
This is the first time abortion was referenced in connection with the important right to non-discriminatory medical care and IHL at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.
Click here to read the entire statement.
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.
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.
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.”
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”.
Republicans in Congress are committed to efforts to drain U.S. aid from international family planning programs. Now, as they are freed from the knowledge that a Senate controlled by Democrats would surely block their most extreme measures, they can succeed and harm women worldwide. The United States should be increasing, not decreasing, its current investment of $610 million in funding to international family planning programs, which already prohibit the use of U.S. foreign aid to provide safe abortions “as a method of family planning.”
The prohibition, introduced in 1973 as part of the Helms Amendment, does not define what constitutes “family planning,” yet Republican and Democratic administrations, including Mr. Obama’s, have treated it as a total ban on funding of abortion under any circumstance. As a result, help is denied to women and girls who are victims of rape or whose lives are threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term.
However, there’s still some light at the end of the tunnel, even despite the serious threats posed by this new Congress to women around the world, The President doesn’t need congressional approval to reinterpret the Helms Amendment. The President should act to clarify that the law allows aid to be used to provide safe abortion to women and girls raped in armed conflict.
GJC urges President Obama to issue an executive order lifting U.S. abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid for girls and women raped in armed conflict. Mr. Obama should use his executive authority to end a longstanding misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment, which prohibits foreign aid money from being used to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”
After all, the denial of abortion violates the medical care guarantees of international humanitarian law and the absolute prohibition on gender discrimination under international humanitarian law. It also constitutes torture and cruel treatment in violation of international humanitarian law.
Lift the Ban. Save lives.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture. By formally accepting this treaty 20 years ago, the U.S. Government made a commitment to end the use of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet to this day, the U.S. repeatedly fails to meet its commitments under the treaty with its abortion restrictions on foreign assistance to girls and women raped in armed conflict.
In advance of the 53rd session of the Committee against Torture convening on November 3 in Geneva, the GJC and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) submitted a Shadow Report on “US Abortion Restrictions on Foreign Assistance that Deny Safe Abortion Services to Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict” to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) that monitors implementation of the Convention. Forty three other reports were submitted through the USHRN (U.S. Human Rights Network) to the Committee as well.
Rape is torture. Forcing women to carry the child of their rapist by denying safe abortion services to war rape victims results in extended and intensified physical and psychological suffering. It is a legal and moral imperative to provide all necessary medical care, including abortion services, to war rape survivors. Currently, as a result of the Helms Amendment, the US has a “no abortion” policy placed on all US foreign aid. GJC & OMCT in their Shadow Report urge the Committee Against Torture to call on the United States to reassess and change this policy that is in violation of the convention.
CAT Day of Action © UNHRN
Today, GJC is participating in the CAT Day of Action. Next month, human rights activists will gather for the United Nations’ review of the U.S. Government’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture. Join GJC in urging President Obama to issue an Executive Order overturning the Helms Amendment on the 20th anniversary of US ratifying CAT.
Stop Violence. End Torture.
US Abortion Restrictions of Foreign Aid Perpetuate Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – October 21, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY & GENEVA] - Today marks the 20th anniversary of U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Yet to this day, the U.S. repeatedly fails to meet its commitments under the treaty with its abortion restrictions on foreign assistance to girls and women raped in armed conflict.
GJC writes open letter to Commissioner Georgieva of the European Commission in response to her September 8, 2014 letter explaining the European Union's position on abortion and the Geneva Conventions.