Abortion Access in Conflict

The Washington Post Calls U.S. Abortion Ban “Inhumane”

On May 29, 2015 The Washington Post’s editorial board published an article titled “An Inhumane U.S. Policy.” This piece focuses on the harrowing experiences of women and girls around the world living in conflict zones, and emphasizes the reality of rape being used as weapon of war and the great need for President Obama to overturn the Helms amendment.

The Washington Post reports on the conditions of the women and girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The victims described their conditions in captivity, stating that they would often be locked up in houses and raped. Oftentimes, the militants would rape the women and girls with the intention of impregnating them so that Boko Haram’s mission could be sustained.  The Washington Post also mentions a report done by Human Rights Watch on a similar scenario in northern Iraq, in which it was documented that Yzidi women and girls experienced perpetual sexual violence by Islamist militants in the area. It is important to note that sexual violence is also currently being used as a tactic of war in Syria, South Sudan, and other places worldwide.

Due to the Helms Amendment of 1973, these women and girls who are raped and impregnated by Boko Haram and other militant groups are not able to get lifesaving abortions. Many are often left with the limited choices of attempting to bear the child or unsafely trying to abort the child themselves, both of which engender numerous medical and social consequences. The Helms amendment has harsh restrictions on United States foreign aid, and mandates that this aid cannot be used to fund abortions regardless of reason. More than 200 of the women and girls recently rescued by Boko Haram in Nigeria are pregnant; with the Helms Amendment and subsequent abortion ban in place, what can be done to help them?

The answer lies in the overturning of the Helms Amendment, which can be done with an executive order from President Obama. While President Obama has acknowledged that rape is a weapon of war, he has not taken definitive action. As an integral part of Global Justice Center’s “Rape as a Weapon of War” project, we have urged President Obama to sign an executive order that clarifies exceptions to the Helms Amendment when rape, incest, or a life-threatening situation is present.

Overturning the Helms Amendment would mean providing appropriate medical care and lifesaving abortions to the women and girls who are victims of war rape. President Obama must stand up for the rights of women and girls to reduce their hardship and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Lift the Ban: The Impact of US Abortion Restrictions on Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

When almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were recently kidnapped by local terrorist organization Boko Haram, the United States sent military and foreign aid to help rescue the victims and combat the threat posed by the militants. However, while the US support includes provisions for the victims’ protection and care, the abortion ban attached to US foreign aid bars the option of safe termination of pregnancies resulting from rape – in spite of the armed group’s announced intent to marry some of the schoolgirls and sell others into sex slavery.

In Nigeria, a major state-recipient of US foreign aid, girls and women are routinely raped as a tactic of war. This phenomenon is not unique to domestic terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, but is also practiced by the country’s military and police forces. When these rape victims, many of whom are young girls, become pregnant, the US abortion ban limits the services available to them and forces them to bear the children of their rapists. US policy thus increases the morbidity and mortality of girls and women who are impregnated by war rape.

Download PDF

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

Involvement of Adolescent Girls in Overturning the Effects of 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.”