Rape as a Weapon of War

Contradictions and Empty Guestures – USAID’s New Policy on Gender Equality

According to the United States Agency of International Development’s new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, “Gender equality and female empowerment are …fundamental for the realization of human rights.” This policy directing USAID aims to: Reduce gender disparities in access to resources and opportunities, reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects on individuals and communities and increase capabilities of women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes. Certainly these are lofty and noble goals. Yet, is USAID making an empty gesture?

The tactical and deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war has been reported in at least 36 recent conflicts. Often, rape is used as an effective tool to terrorize and destroy communities, leaving women and girls with significant and sometimes deadly, physical, psychological and social consequences. Following the horrific wake of the Rwandan Genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found that rape can be a war crime, crime against humanity and constitutive act of genocide.

Yet, for the victims of these heinous crimes, the chance of having a full and healthy life is often denied. Even if women impregnated by rape survive the high risks of maternal mortality, they often suffer further ostracisation from their community. Facing these harmful outcomes, women are denied the option of abortions – perpetuating their suffering and trauma.

USAID, while paying much lip-service to its gender-egalitarian vision, hardly mentions sexual violence against women in its policy. As one of its policy goals, USAID aims to reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects. In light of the suffering of impregnated women through rape, isn’t the most effective means in mitigating the harmful effects to provide safe abortions?

However, currently under the Helms Amendment and other related abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funding to motivate or provide abortions. This prohibits all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments and humanitarian aid providers from using U.S. funds to “motivate” or provide abortions. The restrictions, placed in allforeign assistance contracts, contain no exceptions for rape or to save the life of a woman and affects the provision of services, as well as censors all abortion speech. Thus far from alleviating and mitigating the harmful effects of sexual violence, the prohibition actually perpetuates further suffering for the victims.

Additionally, the current restrictions violates the rights afforded to the “wounded and sick” persons, who are entitled to non-discriminatory and comprehensive medical care as envisioned under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the legally-binding principles of customary international law. The prohibition has the effect of systematically denying girls and women in armed conflicts the right to complete and comprehensive medical care. How can women realize the fundamental human rights when current USAID restrictions deny them?

Although the USAID’s new policy highlights the importance of gender equality, it fails to meaningfully alleviate the harmful consequences of sexual violence. Behind the talk of gender equality and women empowerment lays a deep contradiction. While promising women relief and the realization of their human rights, USAID restrictions do the opposite. If women are to truly enjoy the ideals set out in USAID’s new policy paper, the Helms Amendment needs to be revoked.

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.

GJC Staff Members Attend Rally to Take Rape Seriously

On Tuesday, November 9, 2010 several GJC staff members attended The Rally to Take Rape Seriously hosted by NOW-NYC in conjunction with other anti-violence advocacy groups working to protect women and girls.  Tony Simmons, a NYC juvenile justice counselor, pleaded guilty to raping one teenage girl and sexually assaulting two others while they were in his custody.  The Manhattan Supreme Court Justice in the case has proposed a sentence of probation, meaning a self-admitted rapist, who violated underage girls whom he was employed to keep safe, will not be serving any jail time.


This unfortunate incident is one more clear illustration of the vast amount of work necessary on many different fronts before women and girls can readily access safety and justice.  The Global Justice Center occupies a distinct position in the movement to end violence against women by employing international humanitarian and human rights law for the purpose of protecting victims of violence and discrimination.  While GJC projects focus on the legal rights of women abroad, in countries like Iraq, Burma, and Sierra Leone, we are reminded that women still lack access to rights here in the United States as well. 

The rally highlighted this serious deficiency in the US justice system as women speakers pointed out the implications of Tony Simmons’ unjust proposed sentence: that girls with a criminal record are less deserving of justice than others; that the calculated taking of advantage of such girls should be rewarded with extremely lenient sentences; and that these victims are being failed twofold—first by Tony Simmons, and second by the system which has been created to protect them.

Re-victimization of the most vulnerable groups of girls and women comes in many forms.  The DRC has been named one of the worst places on earth to be a woman due to high numbers of rape and torture the female population endures.  (Note that there are also high numbers of men being raped in the Congo.)  US restrictions on foreign aid that prohibit providing or even discussing abortions, an essential medical service, are a policy that further punishes victims of rape and impregnation in conflict zones, forcing women and girls to carry unwanted or unhealthy pregnancies to term.

Rally participants are doing crucial work to draw attention to institutionalized, entrenched discrimination which acts as “salt in the wounds” of people who have already suffered unimaginably.  The global anti-violence and women’s equality movements rely on activism in every form, combating these issues from numerous angles and different perspectives.  The rally serves as a reminder that these injustices are not unique to war-torn countries and are a testament to the importance of human rights organizations in creating awareness and advocating for change.

To sign the petition urging Justice Cassandra Mullins to give Tony Simmons a just sentence this upcoming Monday, November 15, follow this link:

http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/now-nyc_justiceforassaultvictims/

For more information on this story:

http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/10/03/2010-10-03_raped_by_judge_and_justice_system.html

http://jezebel.com/5657224/counselor-rapes-3-girls-merely-sentenced-to-probation

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.

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.