Abortion Access in Conflict

Thinking of Yazidi Women and Girls on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

On June 19, as the international community observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, rape remains a central reality of war for women and girls around the world.

War rape is both a historical and contemporary part of war: it is not simply a byproduct of fighting but often serves as a central military tactic. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “the systematic rape of women … [was] in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.” Yugoslav women were “often […] interned until it was too late for them to undergo an abortion,” thereby ensuring the creation of a new ethnic reality.

Today, in ISIS controlled territories, ISIS leaders “elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” Multiple accounts by former ISIS captives detail month-long rapes, severe physical and mental trauma, and forced pregnancies.

War rape thus serves to traumatize and create fear in the short term and to extend genocidal effects by producing new ethnic identities in the long term.

Yet despite the horrific psychological and biological results of war rape the United States’ Helms Amendment precludes any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services.

Denying abortions to war rape victims endangers innocent women’s lives, helps to perpetuate genocide and its effects, and violates the Geneva Conventions.

Even though the Hyde Amendment, a similar domestic amendment to the Helms Amendment, includes exceptions for rape and cases in which the mother’s health is in danger, foreign victims of war rape are not afforded these rights.

In 2015, Obama noted that the “Golden Rule,” that “seems to bind people of all faiths,” is to “treat one another as we wish to be treated,” — to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If victims of war rape are to receive the medical care they deserve, the Obama Administration must apply this Golden Rule not only to domestic victims of rape, but to war rape victims in other countries as well.This involves recognizing their rights to non-discriminatory medical treatment and issuing an executive order that limits the scope of the Helms Amendment.

Making IHL Work For Women and Girls

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) has admirably taken on the task of rethinking and retooling humanitarian action to meet the challenges facing the world today. In modern conflicts, the increased targeting of civilians, including the strategic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, means that humanitarian action must be tailored to respond to victims’ distinct needs. In other words, because humanitarian needs in conflict are specific, we need specific and relevant ways to respond to them.

Importantly, this response must be grounded in the rights of war victims under International Humanitarian Law (“IHL” or the laws of war). This includes comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support, and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence.

However, while the nature and face of modern conflict has changed, the laws of war have remained mired in the antiquated models of warfare they were derived from; men fighting men on defined battlefields. In the context of modern humanitarian action, where civilians constitute over 90% of those affected by war and where women and girls are often specifically targeted, this has meant that women and girls are left behind.

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EU Finalizes Divorce From US Abortion Ban

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE -  February 24, 2016

[NEW YORK, NY]– Today, the EU adopted its 2016 budget containing the first ever anti-Helms Amendment. The US Helms amendment currently imposes an abortion ban on all US foreign aid, including support for girls and women raped in armed conflict.

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.

 

Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.

Listen to Akila Radhakrishnan Participate in Reproaction’s Act and Learn Webinar on Helms

For six years President Obama has failed to extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones. At this Reproaction Act and Learn webinar, advocates and experts explained the Helms Amendment and how President Obama’s continued inaction hurts women around the world. We provided a clear answer to this common question: What’s the difference between Helms, Hyde, and the Global Gag Rule? Finally, we shared actions you can take to ensure Obama doesn’t leave a #BadLegacy on reproductive rights.

Featuring these guest panelists:

- Rev. Harry Knox, President/CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
- Akila Radhakrishnan, Legal Director for the Global Justice Center
- Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (by advance remarks)

If you support Reproaction’s #BadLegacy campaign, or want to find out what it’s all about, you won’t want to miss this webinar.

Listen here.

Global Justice Center’s Trip to Nigeria

Two of GJC’s staff members, Akila and Sherrie, recently returned from a two week long fact-finding trip in Nigeria. GJC is currently working on two projects concerning Nigeria; namely, the August 12thcampaign and the Genocide campaign. This trip gave valuable insight into how to best address the needs of the people in GJC’s projects.

Akila and Sherrie traveled to Abuja, Yola, and Lagos where they met with many government officials, local non-profits, and international organizations. They had the opportunity to attend the Bring Back Our Girls vigil in Abuja, which has taken place every day since the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014. They also visited Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Abuja and Yola, where they toured the camps and spoke with many people who were displaced to the conflict with Boko Haram.

Akila and Sherrie have brought back a wealth of knowledge to GJC. Their observations and the information gained from their meetings will be instrumental in strengthening GJC’s projects moving forward.  

Helms Amendment: Outdated, Yet Still Overlooked

The 2016 election season in the US is upon us. Politicians have already begun to declare their candidacies and have begun campaigning.

One big name candidate is Hillary Clinton, running on the Democratic ticket. In one of her campaign videos posted to Facebook on July 21, she responded to Mitch McConnell’s assertion that she is playing the “gender card” by standing up for women’s rights. A blurb accompanying the video reads, “So—what cards are he and other Republicans holding?” However, there is something troubling in Clinton’s response video that must be addressed.

The video shows a person’s hand holding a deck of cards. Throughout the video, the person reveals cards that have been edited to depict information about Clinton’s Republican opposition and their various misogynistic policies and rhetoric. It ends with a clip of Clinton speaking.

One piece of information that appears on a card is that Scott Walker and John Kasich both signed laws that ban abortions after 20 weeks, even when rape and incest are involved. While this snippet aims to undermine her opponents and reveal her commitment to women’s rights, Clinton fails to address the crucial, troubling truth of the matter: that her own Democratic party is perpetuating an abortion ban abroad in US foreign policy.

The 1973 Helms amendment prohibits any US foreign aid from funding abortions, regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. This abortion ban prevents women and girls who have been raped in conflict from accessing abortions that could save their lives and help relieve their suffering.

Pressure is currently mounting on President Obama to issue an executive order overturning Helms; however, he has not yet acted. In May, five countries challenged the US’s implementation of Helms at the US’s Universal Periodic Review (a review of the US human rights record). Furthermore, in early July more than 50 human rights groups signed on to a letter that was sent to President Obama urging him to respond to the UPR and stand up for women and girls around the world. He has until September to respond.

Clinton is bold to call out Scott Walker and John Kasich for their staunch anti-choice beliefs, which impact women and girls in the US every day. However, it is time for the US to stand up for women and girls around the world and lift the abortion ban internationally. There is an evident discrepancy between the way Democrats approach abortion internally and abroad, and this hypocrisy must be addressed.

Watch the video here.

Read more about the UPR here.

Read more about the sign on letter here.

Coalition of Human Rights, Legal, Medical and Religious Groups Call on Obama to Lift Abortion Ban on Aid to War Rape Victims

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  - July 7, 2015

[NEW YORK, NY]– Pressure is mounting on the White House to lift the abortion ban on US foreign aid for girls and women raped in armed conflicts. An international coalition of human rights, legal, medical and religious groups have signed a letter to President Obama urging him to issue an executive order lifting the ban and affirming the rights of female war rape victims to comprehensive medical care, including abortion, under the Geneva Conventions.

Over 50 Human Rights Groups Urge President Obama to Overturn Helms

Today, more than 50 human rights groups from over 22 different countries took action on behalf of women and girls raped in conflict by sending a letter to President Obama pressuring him to issue an executive order that would lift the Helms abortion ban. Among the organizations that have signed the letter are the Global Justice Center, Amnesty International, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Human Rights Watch, and the World Organization Against Torture. Groups have also signed onto the letter from conflict countries directly impacted by the abortion ban, including the West African Bar Association, the Iraq Women’s Network, the Syrian women’s League, and the Nigerian Medical Women’s Association. This letter is a testament to the pressure that is mounting on the United States to affirm the rights of female war rape victims as mandated under the Geneva Conventions.

At the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that took place in May 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed the United States’ human rights record. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom formally recommended that the United States take action on an outdated abortion ban that violates the Geneva Conventions: the Helms Amendment.

The 1973 Helms Amendment is a huge obstacle in giving women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence the medical care that they need. These war rape victims are being denied lifesaving medical care, as the Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to fund necessary abortions. Being the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, the U.S. is currently imposing its abortion ban on the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and the countries of conflict themselves.

With the systemic rape and forced impregnation of women and girls by extremist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram, it is vital that the U.S. overturn its abortion ban. The denial of abortions, especially in these circumstances, violates the rights of women and girls in conflict as mandated under the Geneva Conventions. These women and girls have the right to non-discriminatory medical care and freedom from torture.

The U.S. must respond to the UPR’s recommendations regarding the Helms amendment by this September. The Global Justice Center urges President Obama to execute an executive order to lift the abortion ban tied to U.S. foreign aid for, at a minimum, women and girls whose lives are endangered or who have suffered through rape and/or incest. Furthermore, the Global Justice Center encourages the President to affirm U.S. support for non-discriminatory medical care for women and girls around the world.

The clock is ticking. President Obama has less than two months left to respond to the UPR recommendations. The Global Justice Center urges the President to overturn the ban so that U.S. aid will serve its purpose, lives will be saved, and suffering will be alleviated.

Read the full letter sent to President Obama here.

Read GJC’s press release regarding the letter here.

One Year Since ISIS’s Declaration of the Caliphate: Sexual Violence Must be Stopped

Today marks exactly one year since ISIS declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. An NBC News article by Cassandra Vinograd and Ammar Cheikh Omar published this morning discusses the strength that ISIS has amassed during the past year. ISIS has maintained control and been strengthened by territorial expansion and the far-reaching influence of its ideology. Affiliates of ISIS have even sprung up around the world, for example in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance to ISIS.  It is even speculated that Boko Haram will soon declare a caliphate of its own.

There have been many attempts to curb ISIS’s power over the past year. However, the Iraqi military is not effective at fighting ISIS, and even though the United States has tried to weaken ISIS with airstrikes since last August, ISIS does not seem to be faltering. There are also hundreds of rebel groups that are currently fighting ISIS under the FSA, but they are not well organized and are lacking in resources, ammunition, and arms. Conversely, ISIS is extremely coordinated and well-resourced. In fact, “more people than ever are perpetrating violence in the group’s name.” The propaganda issued by ISIS is “infectious” and is successful at attracting fighters. So far the coalition forces have not been able to stop this trend, or ISIS itself.

According to Human Rights Watch’s April 15, 2015 publication “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systemic Rape,” ISIS has been committing war crimes against women and girls by systemically raping them, assaulting them, and subjecting them to sexual slavery. These women and girls are regarded as property and are forced to endure intense torture. The exact number of captive Yazidis is unknown due to the fact that the conflict is ongoing and many Yazidis have had to flee. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, roughly 3,000 Yazidis are still in captivity while other sources, such as local officials and community activists, believe that the numbers are much higher.

While it is important for the international community to be working towards the long term goal of weakening ISIS, there are steps that can be taken immediately to help the woman and girls who suffer daily under their reign of terror. For example, Yazidi women and girls are being systematically raped by ISIS and are being forced to carry the child of their rapist due to an antiquated US policy. It is crucial that President Obama overturn the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prevents any US aid from funding imperative, safe abortions to these women and girls who are in desperate need of relief. The international community should also be working to end impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence. For example, it is vital that the International Criminal Court recognize the gendered abductions of these Yazidi women and girls as genocide. Recognizing this as genocide will cause an immediate duty to act among states and send a clear message to the perpetrators of this sexual violence that it will not be tolerated. The women and girls living in Iraq and Syria cannot wait another day, and the US and international community cannot wait another year to take actions on their behalf.

European Parliament’s Resolution Increases Pressure on U.S.

On June 9, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that would grant abortion access to women and girls who are victim of war rape. This resolution has come at a key time, as recently one-third of the 293 girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria were found to be pregnant.

However, due to the U.S.’s Helms Amendment, no U.S. aid can be given to organizations that provide abortion services. These girls are often forced to give birth in dangerous conditions and care for the child of their rapist. The European Parliament is the most recent body to come out against the U.S.’s brutal and outdated abortion ban.

This resolution, detailed in the equalities report “The EU Strategy for Equality between Women and Men Post 2015,” is the fifth resolution on abortion and war rape that has been adopted in the last three years. At the U.S.’s UPR in May, five countries challenged the U.S.’s abortion ban and demanded justification for its continued implementation.

This resolution shows mounting pressure on the U.S. and President Obama to overturn the Helms Amendment. As stated by GJC President Janet Benshoof, “Obama must choose now if his legacy will include turning a blind eye to the plight of women and girls raped in war.”

Read GJC’s Press Release here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read more.