Abortion Access in Conflict

Since the passing of Roe vs. Wade, the United States has been placing abortion restrictions on its foreign aid. These restrictions impact thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict who are routinely denied access to safe abortions.

Women and girls raped in war are considered “wounded and sick” and therefore are entitled to full medical care under the Geneva Conventions. For rape victims, this medical care includes abortion services. Our Abortion Access in Conflict campaign demands women and girls receive the necessary medical care they need.

GJC is fighting for the US to lift the abortion restrictions placed on all humanitarian aid for war victims and do so while explicitly referencing the rights of female war victims under the Geneva Conventions. We are fighting to ensure that abortions are provided on the ground in humanitarian medical settings around the world.


Chilean Health Minister Reply - Original

 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 the original, untranslated copy of the letter the Chilean Health Minister sent in reply to the GJC.

Read GJC's original letter here.

Read a translated version of this letter here.

Download PDF

Global Justice Center and Other Women's Health Advocates Call for the Obama Administration to Make the US a Leader in Pushing for Reproductive Rights Worldwide in Conscience Magazine

Women's health advocates are disillusioned with the lack of effort the Obama Administration has made in addressing reproductive rights for women around the world. Michelle Goldberg details the work of these advocates and the frustration they are experiencing with the Administration in a recent article published in Conscience Magazine. Since 1973, with the passage of the Helms and later Siljander Amendments, prohibitive US policies have prevented access to reproductive healthcare for women around the globe. Fortunately, the GJC sees a new and unique opportunity for the current Administration to overturn the policies that prohibit access to abortion for girls and women raped in armed conflict.

Both the Helms and Siljander Amendments leave room for interpretation, and as Goldberg notes, "American aid programs needn't interpret [those Amendments] as narrowly as they do." Barbara Crane, Vice President of Ipas points out that a precedent does exists for exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and to save a woman's life. Until now, the US has refused to provide abortion care, even for women and girls impregnated as a result of rape. As enumerated by the Global Justice Center in a legal brief released earlier this year, it is a violation of the rights of girls and women in conflict to deprive them of adequate medical services under the Geneva Conventions. These detrimental US restrictions must be overturned as they further victimize those most in need of protection and complete healthcare; girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict.

The international reproductive community had high hopes when the President decided to overturn the Global Gag Rule three days into office; however it only removed restrictions placed on foreign NGOs receiving US funding from engaging in any abortion related activities using their own private funds. Real impact can be made by repealing the Helms Amendment, which will remove censorship on the $49 billion dollars in foreign aid distributed by the US. While many feel as though the chance has been lost, especially with Republican control of the House, and recent attempts to drastically reduce funding for family planning, an executive order would immediately ensure that US funds provide care to the women and girls that need it the most.

Global Justice Center and Other Women’s Health Advocates Call for the Obama Administration to Make the US a Leader in Pushing for Reproductive Rights Worldwide

Women’s health advocates are disillusioned with the lack of effort the Obama Administration has made in addressing reproductive rights for women around the world. Michelle Goldberg details the work of these advocates and the frustration they are experiencing with the Administration in a recent article published in Conscience Magazine. Since 1973, with the passage of the Helms and later Siljander Amendments, prohibitive US policies have prevented access to reproductive healthcare for women around the globe. Fortunately, the GJC sees a new and unique opportunity for the current Administration to overturn the policies that prohibit access to abortion for girls and women raped in armed conflict.

Both the Helms and Siljander Amendments leave room for interpretation, and as Goldberg notes, “American aid programs needn’t interpret [those Amendments] as narrowly as they do.” Barbara Crane, Vice President of Ipas points out that a precedent does exists for exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and to save a woman’s life. Until now, the US has refused to provide abortion care, even for women and girls impregnated as a result of rape. As enumerated by the Global Justice Center in a legal brief released earlier this year, it is a violation of the rights of girls and women in conflict to deprive them of adequate medical services under the Geneva Conventions. These detrimental US restrictions must be overturned as they further victimize those most in need of protection and complete healthcare; girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict.

The international reproductive community had high hopes when the President decided to overturn the Global Gag Rule three days into office; however it only removed restrictions placed on foreign NGOs receiving US funding from engaging in any abortion related activities using their own private funds. Real impact can be made by repealing the Helms Amendment, which will remove censorship on the $49 billion dollars in foreign aid distributed by the US. While many feel as though the chance has been lost, especially with Republican control of the House, and recent attempts to drastically reduce funding for family planning, an executive order would immediately ensure that US funds provide care to the women and girls that need it the most.

Advancing Gender Equality: What I Learned from the 55th Commission on the Status of Women

In late February, I attended the 55th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. The purpose of CSW is to create a forum where leaders and activists in the gender equality field can brainstorm on how to formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide. My impressions from the event were, (1) cooperation from government is essential to the advancement of gender equality; (2) that cooperation has increased over the years; and (3) there are viable non-government solutions that are essential regardless of the level of government cooperation. It seems that the fight for gender equality has become “workable”; in other words, there seems to be a light at the end of what has been a long, long tunnel.

The State Department’s response on March 18, 2011 to recommendations made at the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the US appropriately reflects exactly where we are in the struggle for gender equality. In response to Norway’s recommendation that the US  “remov[e] blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given women and girls who are raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict”, the US responded that it could not remove the blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid because of “currently applicable restrictions.” On the one hand, there’s hope because the response implies that we have a government amiable to the idea of change. On the other hand, there are restrictions requiring removal or begging for a work-around solution. GJC believes this is “a subtle but clear milestone in our global campaign to ensure victims of rape in conflict receive full medical care, including abortions.” You can read the GJC’s press release and full legal update here.

One of the events I attended at CSW on February 22nd called Making Countries Accountable on Gender Equity and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights emphasized the importance of government accountability as a way of achieving gender equality. The Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM) and Strategies from the South (SOUTH) organized a panel of experts and representatives from UN agencies and several civil society organizations[1] to highlight their experiences and lessons learned about holding governments accountable forgender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The panel speakers were in unison that they want a way to track what help is being offered at the country and level and a way of measuring how useful that help is to the problems of gender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

One solution is to have real-time information gathering drive solutions and government assistance. For example, this year, the General Assembly launched the UN Women (formerly UNFriend), an organization which aims to raise $500 million in program funds to help meet its goals of eliminating discrimination against women and girls; empowering women and achieving equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security. An important initial goal for UN Women will be to access the needs and gaps in programs worldwide and then, to ensure that government expenditure is meeting those needs by monitoring those programs. The underlying idea is that learning from progress and pitfalls needs to be a strategy built into the operations of UN Women and its program affiliates. In this way, holding the government (and its expenditure) accountable will be a way to measure whether its assistance is actually effective.

While it is clear that there has been a steady increase of effort from the government to address gender inequalities and to prevent violence against women as a way of preventing HIV and AIDs, according to the UNFPA, women still account for nearly half the 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. The fact that the epidemic is still at staggeringly high levels is a sobering reality; but the panel’s message is that it is not one that is insurmountable. One pitfall is the information disconnect between governments and country women. As a panel speaker from the Asia Pacific for Law and Development[2] (APWLD) articulated, women do not always know the status of the law within their country; in many countries, there is non-existence of legal mechanisms, discriminatory laws are still in place or States lack the will to implement existing law that may be favorable to gender equality. One possible solution is to promote information sharing and access through grassroots organizations. Kakamega District Home-Based Care Alliance in Africa is one grassroots women-led effort working to improve AIDS governance at the local level.  In addition to providing essential support to vulnerable community members impacted by the epidemic, the Alliance unites caregivers and draws recognition to grassroots work, most often done on a voluntary basis.

Another way of addressing the problems of reproductive health is by providing medical practitioners information and guidance on how to treat women during times of crisis. On February 28th, I attended another CSW event hosted by the Women’s Refugee Commission to launch the 2010 Inter-Agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings[3]in New York. The field manual is an update of its 1999 version and has become an authoritative guidance on reproductive health interventions in humanitarian settings. Encouragingly, the latest report includes an entire section on comprehensive abortion care, a section that was not included in the last version. However, the report restricts the provision of abortion services to raped girls and women to circumstances where abortion is legal under local law. GJC reported in its 2011 report The Right to an Abortion for Girls and Women Raped in Armed Conflict, that this deference to local abortion laws is inaccurate because in situations of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and norms of customary international humanitarian law take precedence over national laws. Nonetheless, the field manual is undoubtedly a necessary practical tool. Some medical practitioners have no or little medical training and having a reliable resource will be invaluable in times of emergencies.

The solution to some challenges in promoting gender equality and advancement of women worldwide is partly financial. World-wide circulation of the field manual and developing it as an online, living document will take time and resources, both of which require money. The first panel discussion emphasized the importance of communication and accountability as a way of achieving gender equality and global reproductive health. The fact that UN Women has a $500 million dollar campaign goal doesn’t make one hopeful for immediate change. The way forward is not entirely reliant on financial support for grassroots activity, but it does seem like it offers the most immediate solution while governmental organizations continue to evolve their internal legal process for addressing the problem. Predictably, diversifying our efforts across many potential avenues for change continues to be the most effective way of advancing the solution.

Lisabeth Jorgensen

April 25, 2011

[1] Panel Speakers included: Purnima Mane (United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA); Nazneen Damji (UNIFEM – part of UN Women); Alexandra Garita (International Women’s Health Coalition- IWHC); Ebony Johnson (International Community of Women – ICW); Mikiko Otani (The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – APWLD); and Shannon Hayes (Huairou Commission). The Panel was moderated by Mabel Bianco, President of FEIM.

[2] APWLD is a NGO, non-profit organization committed to enabling women to use law as an instrument of social change for equality, justice and development. http://www.apwld.org/

[3]The audience was welcomed by moderator Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Humanitarian Response Branch Chief, UNFPA and Ambassador Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations; Ambassador Hasan Kleib, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations and Ms. Purnima Mane, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund. The rest of the speakers present were Sandra Krause, Reproductive Health Program Director, Women’s Refugee Commission; Dr. Grace Kodindo, Assistant Professor, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University and Ms. Ashley Wolfington, Reproductive Health Specialist, International Rescue Committee.

NY City Bar Association Letter to Obama

A letter was sent by the Association of the Bar in New York City as a part of GJC's August 12 Campaign challenging the legality of US abortion prohibitions imposed on US humanitarian aid for women raped in armed conflict.  

Download PDF

New York City Bar Association Letter to President Obama

March 4, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid and that he accept Norway's Universal Periodic Review recommendation on abortion for rape victims.

Download PDF

On International Women’s Day, GJC Salutes the NY City Bar Association for Challenging the Legality of the US Abortion Prohibitions Imposed on US Humanitarian Aid for Women Raped in Armed Conflict

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—March 4, 2011

[NEW YORK, NY]- On March 4, 2011, the Association of the Bar of New York, on behalf of some 22,000 members, wrote to President Obama urging the Administration to lift the abortion prohibitions put on all US humanitarian aid for women and girl survivors of rape used as a weapon of war. The Association argues that “the denial of the full range of medically appropriate care to victims of rape in situations of armed conflict constitutes a violation of their rights under applicable international law.”

GJC in Geneva: Challenging US Policy that Denies Abortions to Victims Raped in Conflict

We are pleased to share with you a crucial step in our work to repeal the illegal U.S. policy that prevents women and girls raped and impregnated in conflict from accessing abortions.

Previously, we wrote about the international legal arguments that we were developing to challenge the abortion restrictions that the United States places on all of its humanitarian aid going to organizations and governments working in conflict countries.

After six months of research and advocacy, Janet, Akila, and Gina from the Global Justice Center are in Geneva raising these legal arguments at the UN Human Rights Council’s Review of the United States. They are meeting with member states of the Human Rights Council to urge them to question the US about these restrictions that effectively deny necessary care to the thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated during war.

Today, we are excited to report that Norway has taken the lead by submitting the following question:

“The Global Justice Center (GJC) filed a shadow report for the universal periodic review of the US expressing concern with regard to US blanket abortion restriction on humanitarian aid and abortion speech restrictions on US rule of law and democracy programs. Does the US have any plans to remove its blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering the medical care given women and girls who are raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict? Does the US government apply abortion speech restrictions on its rule of law and democracy programs?”

These questions form the very basis of the Human Rights Council’s recommendations. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is the UN body tasked with monitoring the human rights records of the 192 members of the United Nations. Every four years, member states are required to have a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in front of the Human Rights Council, during which each country receives recommendations on how to comply with their human rights obligations.

The US State Department has said they intend to comply with the UNHRC’s recommendations, so Norway’s questions sets the stage for changing U.S. policy in order to better protect and advance the rights of women and girls raped and impregnated in conflict.

Women who have been raped and impregnated in armed conflict in countries such as the Congo and Sudan have the legal right to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. This includes the right to abortions wherever victims of rape request them.

As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States must change its policy of attaching conditions to its humanitarian aid which prohibit recipients from speaking about abortion.

Click here to read the Global Justice Center’s Call to Action that we are distributing right now to Human Rights Council member states in Geneva.

Helms Amendment at Work in the Congo

The late August four-day onslaught of mass sexual violence in Walikale, in Eastern Congo, is just the most recent example of a societal epidemic that has come to define the region with devastating consequences. Although early figures suggested that approximately 150 women were raped during this outbreak (most of whom were gang raped by between two to six people), these numbers have continued to escalate.  As of now, a staggering 303 cases of women, children, and men have been reported; it is likely that many more victims have remained silent. Further, in recent testimony to the Security Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to the DRC, Robert Meece, said that “[t]he best data available, for example, suggests that over 15,000 rapes were committed last year in eastern DRC.”

These events continue to illustrate the severity of the conflict, as well as the urgency with which we need to address the US restrictions that impede complete humanitarian assistance for female victims in conflict.  Rather than doing everything in its power to help these victims, US anti-abortion conditions on foreign aid deny access to abortion services to women and girls raped in conflict.  Many human rights reports have found that pregnancy exacerbates the consequences of rape in conflict settings for the victims.

The only medical response in the situation in Walikale was provided by the International Medical Corps (IMC), whose work in eastern DRC is funded by USAID.  Because of the aid restrictions outlined in the Helms Amendment, IMC cannot provide abortion services to any women who present at their treatment center.  This is particularly disturbing in light of information from IMC stating that only two of the victims from Walikale received treatment within 72 hours, the timeframe during which emergency contraception is effective.   The MONUSCO report documenting the incident further states that only 100 of these victims received treatment within 3 weeks.  It is clear that while IMC occupies the medical assistance field there, any woman impregnated as a result of these rapes will not have access to abortion – a violation of international humanitarian law guarantees of non-discriminatory medical care and prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

A Call For All Member States of the Human Rights Council: End the Gross Violations of the Rights of Girls and Women Raped and Impregnated in Armed Conflict, to Non-Discriminatory Medical Care, Including Abortions, Under the Geneva Convention

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—November 2010

[NEW YORK, NY] - Thousands of girls and women, impregnated by rape in armed conflict are routinely and illegally denied lifesaving abortions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burma and Sudan. The right to non-discriminatory medical care for these victims, which includes the option of abortion, is enshrined in common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

GJC President Janet Benshoof Speaks at MP-Hosted Event

From October 27, 2010

At Portcullis House, London, UK

On October 27, GJC President Janet Benshoof appeared at a Parliamentary event hosted by the Conservative Women’s Organization where she discussed how states have an obligation to ensure that women and girls raped and impregnated in conflict have access to an abortion. Click here to read CWO’s piece below.
 

UK Baroness Uddin Uses GJC Legal Arguements in House of Lords Debate to Call for end to Discriminatory Care of Women Raped in Conflict

In her statement last Thursday, UK Baroness Uddin used a new legal argument from the Global Justice Center to call for the end to the routine denial of access to abortions for women who are raped and impregnated in conflict. Baroness Uddin identified the United States policy of censoring humanitarian aid recipients from speaking about or providing access to abortions as playing a major role in the continuing violation of the rights of these victims and called on the UK to ask questions of the United States about this policy when it is reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. 

From UK House of Lords debate on the Millennium Development Goals, October 7, 2010, at link below, columns 307-308:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101007-0002.htm#10100714000795

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this important discussion. In the UK we should be rightly proud of the British leadership in advancing the millennium development goals which represent a vision of a world transformed where equality and justice prevail.

However, while we are very pleased, one group of women remains outside the MDG effort. Until we address this failure, we cannot speak of real progress. Today I ask our Government to call explicitly for girls and women who are forcibly impregnated by the vicious use of rape in armed conflict to be included under MDG 5-reducing maternal mortality. “Rape as a weapon of war” is a phrase commonly used accurately to describe what is happening alongside today’s armed conflicts, but we rarely speak about the consequences of this weapon. Thousands of girls and women impregnated by rape used as a weapon of war are routinely denied access to abortions. Girls and women die from their attempts to self-abort and from suicide resulting from untold stigmatization leading to social marginalization.

We should do what no other country has done: to ensure that the humanitarian medical aid provided to girls and women in places such as Congo, Sudan and Burma-an endless list of countries-gives them choices and access to abortion when pregnancy is a direct result of rape as a weapon of war. This is a moral imperative and a legal obligation. The Geneva Convention requires that civilians and combatant victims receive non-discriminatory medical care, whether it is provided by the state in conflict or by others. Why, then, are pregnant rape victims given discriminatory medical care through the routine denial of access to abortion? The embedded inequality towards women in conflict settings has been recognised by the Security Council in such historic resolutions as 1325 and 1820. Equal justice for women is not limited to the courtroom, it must be extended to supporting those women who are victims of the inhuman practice of rape as a weapon of war.

I draw the attention of the House to the recent report of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam, which details examples of the impact, stigma and suffering of raped children and women in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, where no legal provision exists to support them. It also mentions that women should be given preventive care-that is, utilisation of contraception-as though women who are raped can be prepared for such horrors.

One of the solutions proposed by women’s organisations, including the international human rights organisation the Global Justice Center, is that access to abortion must be a critical part of the support available to women. The centre filed a shadow report with the Human Rights Council asking it to recommend that the US remove the prohibitions put on humanitarian aid to rape victims in conflict, as it violates the US obligation under the Geneva Convention. The UK can and must support this issue by asking questions of the US during the council’s review process due shortly.

I know that these are difficult matters for many individuals and countries to address, and international donor communities have thus far resisted pressurising countries to review their policies. Neither criminal abortion laws in the conflict state nor foreign aid contracts with the United States can serve as defence to a state provision of discriminatory medical care to all victims under international humanitarian law.

Time is short, and I should have liked to highlight many examples of countries such as Bangladesh where the suffering and humiliation of rape has left decades of suffering, ill health and stigma. The UK must take a lead to end that discrimination. This will mark real progress towards the millennium development goals and towards ensuring equal rights for women under international humanitarian law.

Global Justice Center Challenges the Abortion Speech Censorship Imposed by the U.S. on all Foreign Aid Recipients, at the UN Human Rights Council

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - May 26, 2010

[NEW YORK, NY] - The Global Justice Center, in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council, challenges the censorship of abortion related speech imposed on all U.S. foreign aid. The Global Justice Center identifies the alarming effects of this censorship, including denying impregnated rape victims in conflict access to information about abortion services. “For the United States to prevent women and girls who have been gang raped and impregnated by the military in places like the Congo, Sudan, or Burma from their full range of medical treatment options, including abortion, is cruel, inhumane, and violates fundamental international laws such as the Geneva Conventions,” says Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof. “It is not what America stands for.”