Todd Akin Redux! – Rep. Rick Berg Supports Prison for Rape Victims Choosing Abortion

Senatorial Candidate Rep. Rick Berg. Credit: David Samson, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Hot on the heels of Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” firestorm, yet another senatorial candidate has taken an extreme and inhumane stance on a rape victim’s right to choose. In 2007, Rep. Berg (R-ND) voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize abortion, even in cases of rape. The North Dakota penal code knows four categories of felony, ranging from AA to C with AA carrying the severest punishment of a life sentence. It is telling that the bill Berg voted for lists abortion as Class AA “crime”. Horrifically enough, sexual crime classifies as category B offense. In essence, the bill results is a penal system that punishes the victim and not the perpetrator.

The bill was never signed into law, and even if it were, the Supreme Court would have struck it down as unconstitutional. Yet, while Republicans and Democrats have both distanced themselves from these views calling them extreme in domestic policy, punishing war rape victims is mainstream in American foreign policy.

Last year the Global Justice Center launched our “August 12th” campaign, and we continue leading the charge to urge President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the abortion ban on US humanitarian aid, a policy that “twice tortures” war rape victims by denying them their full medical rights, including access to safe abortion services. Consistent with Rep. Berg’s views, USAID’s policy bars recipients of American aid from providing critical services and information about safe abortion options to girls and women in conflict zones impregnated through rape—even in life-threatening cases. These recipients include NGOs and other humanitarian agencies working on the ground in conflict areas such as Burma, Congo or the Sudan, where rape is systematically used as a weapon of war. Current US policy hinders these organizations in helping rape victims. The Atlantic recently published a GJC article about this critical issue. The 1973 Helms Amendment, which is cited as the legal background for USAID’s policy, only prohibits the funding of abortion as a means of family planning—it should not be interpreted as applying to cases of rape or where a woman’s life is in danger. In fact, the current interpretation undisputedly violates international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. It is time to change this.

In wake of the Akin scandal, President Obama emphasized a women’s right to make her own health choices. It is now time for the President to take action and issue an executive order lifting the ban. Restore full medical rights to these girls and women who have suffered the horrors of rape and war.

DNC: Rhetoric vs. Action

From the Wall Street Journal to CNN, everybody feels Democrats at the DNC have been relentless about women’s right to make their own choices. According to Michelle Obama, the president believes women “are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies”. In the words of Nancy Pelosi, a vote for President Obama is “a vote for women’s rights”. Deval Patrick would keep the government out of a woman’s decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy. Obama himself says Washingtion politicians “should not control women’s health care choices”.

Why then does America’s government, through the the policies of USAID, deny the right to an abortion for girls and women systematically raped in conflict areas like the Congo, Burma and the Sudan? Join the GJC’s August 12 campaign and urge president Obama to lift the abortion ban.

As Aung San Suu Kyi Visits US, International Law Violations in Burma Constitution are Highlighted

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s is in Washington DC today to received the Congressional Gold Medal. She will also be meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a proud moment for the Burmese community and for the Global Justice Center, which has worked tirelessly on democracy issues in Burma.

However, we also recognize that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete. A major obstacle continues to be the country’s constitution, which entrenches military influence over Burma’s civilian government. Daw Suu Kyi said herself that amending the constitution must be a top priority, and we agree with her. The Global Justice Center calls for the international community to challenge the constitution as a violation of fundamental international law—including the UN Charter.

Burma has seen substantial change these past few years; a civilian government was formed, political prisoners were released (Suu Kyi herself being one example), and, this April, opposition parties were allowed to take part in the by-elections, carrying 43 out of 44 open parliamentary seats (but continuing to exert little influence overall). However, Burma has yet to fully commit to democracy. The Burmese civilian government still owes its parliamentary majority to the fraudulent elections of 2010, and the current constitution hinders further democratization and gives complete autonomy to the military. This makes it nearly impossible to prosecute Burma’s military rulers, who are guilty of egregious crimes—including the use of systematic rape of ethnic women as a weapon of war, torture, forced relocation and forced labor. All are rampant violations of fundamental international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The impunity accorded to the military under the current constitution leaves civilian victims, particularly those in the conflict areas of the Burmese border, virtually without legal protection. Activities of the Myanmar military are also in breach of a set of agreements that govern nuclear development.

The Burmese government and the international community must ensure that Burma is meeting international law requirements. Yet, because the constitution gives the military a “legal vacuum” the government would be legally unable to fulfill these obligations. Thus Burma’s new constitution stands in breach of core international commitments.

The Global Justice Center urges the international community to stand with the people of Burma and challenge the legality of the constitution.

(For an in-depth analysis of the constitution and restraint it puts on the civilian government, read GJC president Janet Benshoof’s report, co-written with the Burma Lawyers Council or see the Global Justice Center Project Page on Burma.)

Think Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks on “legitimate rape” went too far?

So do we. In fact, so does the Obama administration and the Romney campaign, both of whom were quick to condemn Rep. Akin’s ill-advised remarks that women who are “legitimately” raped rarely get pregnant.

Akin’s statements are particularly shocking as they ignore the fact that rape is routinely used as a weapon of war in areas of armed conflict, particularly in areas of ethnic conflicts as a way to redefine ethnic composition, as in Darfur or Rwanda.

Yet, despite both Presidential candidates proclaiming Akin’s remarks as unacceptable, the fact is the United States currently hinders access to safe abortions for thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict every day.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers US humanitarian aid, puts a “no abortion clause” on every contract with NGOs, international organizations or even governments, preventing rightful access to safe abortion services for women – even in cases of rape or when the women’s life is in danger.

USAID’s position on this is clear and provides that “while USAID supports treatment for abortion-related complications, USAID does not support abortion as a means of family planning nor does USAID provide abortions in any circumstances.”

For this reason the Global Justice Center (GJC) launched the “August 12th” campaign last year – in commemoration of the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Under the Geneva Conventions girls and women raped in armed conflict are “protected persons” and entitled, as the “wounded and sick,” to “receive to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay,the medical care and attention required by their condition.”

Therefore the US “no abortion” clause not only exacerbates the suffering of rape victims in war, it violates the rights of these victims under international humanitarian law.

On November 5, 2010 during the Universal Periodic Review of the United States by the UN Human Rights Council, Norway recommended that the US “remove its blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given to women and girls raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict.”

Since the launch of GJC’s “August 12th” campaign, more than 60 international organizations have written urgent letters to President Obama calling on him to lift the abortion restrictions. Among them are Amnesty International U.S.A., the New York City Bar Association, the Paris Bar Association, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and the American Medical Women’s Association.

Most recently added to the call to lift the ban is a powerful letter from Women’s Synergie for Victims of Sexual Violence co-founder Justine Masika Bihamba, who works in the conflict area of Eastern Congo. To read Justine’s letter, click here. President Obama now has support from all over the world to lift these restrictions via an executive order.  

In wake of the response to Rep. Akin’s remarks from both Democrats and Republicans alike, the US must now support its words through actions. It is time for President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the abortion ban and ensure that girls and women raped in war are also allowed to make their own health care decisions. A girl or woman impregnated by rape should not be forced to bear the child of her rapist – whether it is in the United States or in armed conflict zones around the world.

The ICC Delivers its First Sentence: Sexual Violence Noticeably Missing from Congolese Warlord’s Conviction and Sentencing

On July 10, just 10 days after its 10th anniversary, the ICC delivered its first sentence.  The ICC sentenced Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese militia leader, to 14 years in prison for the recruitment and use of child soldiers as a part of his rebel army, the Union of Congolese Patriots, from 2002-2003.  Throughout that time, Lubanga and his army abducted, trained and used children to terrorize and kill villagers in the Ituri region of the DRC.  While the justices clearly agreed that Lubanga deserved to be sentenced, one of the three judges, Elizabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica, wrote a dissenting opinion saying that the sentence had been too lenient.  Judge Benito suggested that the sentence should have been longer so as to properly reflect the extent of damage done to the child soldiers and their families.

One example of the type of damage that Judge Benito may have been referring to is sexual violence.  Among the crimes included in Lubanga’s trial, sexual violence was noticeably missing from the list. This was seemingly a product of the prosecutor’s shortcomings.  Presiding judge Adrian Fulford criticized the prosecution saying that “Not only did the former prosecutor fail to apply to include sexual violence or sexual slavery at any stage during these proceedings, including in the original charges, but he actively opposed taking this step during the trial when he submitted that it would cause unfairness to the accused if he was convicted on this basis.”  The ICC’s rules of procedure allow for additional crimes to be introduced and considered during the sentencing stage.  However, despite this capability, the judges determined that there was insufficient evidence presented to link sexual violence to the proven child soldier recruitment, and sexual violence therefore played no part in Lubanga’s sentence.

This glaring oversight, regardless of whether it be largely at the hands of the prosecution or the judges, is yet another example of the failure to recognize the plight of the female child soldier.  Female child soldiers are subjected to the same horrific conditions and treatment as all other child soldiers but suffer even further through sexual violence and diminished ability to escape.  Grace Akallo, a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda described how she and other girls as young as 7 were given as wives, where they would then be regularly subjected to sexual abuse.  They were sent to fight at the front lines while pregnant, with children on their backs, and some were even left with no choice other than to give birth on the front lines.  There is undoubtedly a shared stigma among all child soldiers, but the female experience is significantly different from that of the male and failure to take additional measures to recognize this distinction is a failure to protect women’s rights.

Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice pointed out the contradictory nature of the scenario because “the Rome Statute contains the most advanced articulation in international criminal law of acts of sexual violence committed, particularly in armed conflict situations, and yet the first case for the ICC didn’t include any charges for gender-based crimes.”  Judge Sang-Hyun Song, President of the ICC said that “the ICC promotes a model of gender-sensitive justice… the needs of women and children receive special attention in the ICC,” and that “international justice promises to serve as a warning to those who intend to exploit and abuse the most vulnerable members of our society that they will be tried, prosecuted and punished.”  While these remarks are hopeful and comforting, the recent performance by the prosecution and the sentence that followed demonstrated a weak showing that would hardly serve as an effective warning to other exploiters of vulnerable groups.  Lubanga’s sentence and the absence of sexual violence from the charges against him highlight the unfortunate ease with which women’s rights can be overlooked and this is unacceptable.  A lesson must be learned from the failure to distinguish and defend the specific rights of the female child soldier.  It is critical that in future ICC trials and sentencing, all parties involved take it upon themselves to ensure that women’s rights in any and all circumstances are protected and promoted, as a necessary prerequisite pursuant to the “gender-sensitive justice” that Judge Sang-Hyung Song spoke of.

The critical connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions

With the 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals approaching, the United Nations recently issued a report detailing the progress made on each goal.  While some goals have made major gains and will reach their targets by 2015, “Goal 5: Improve maternal health”, is not seeing the gains other goals have made.  The stated target of Goal 5 was to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio”.  Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia account for most of the maternal mortality cases.

The report notes that maternal mortality rates could decrease by ensuring that women receive ante-natal care, give birth in the presence of skilled health professionals, and have unobstructed access to family planning and contraceptives.  Though the report mentions access to family planning and contraceptives, it makes no explicit mention of access to safe abortions.  The connection between maternal mortality rates and lack of access to safe abortions is critical, and cannot be ignored.  The CEDAW Committee has repeatedly made the connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions, noting the “high rates of maternal mortality due to high numbers of abortions among adolescents, and unsafe, clandestine, and illegal abortions”.

July’s summit on family planning in London raised $2.6 billion dollars to improve access to family planning and contraceptives for an additional 120 million women by 2020.  One article suggests that “[w]hat vaccinations are to infant mortality, contraception is to maternal mortality.”  The organizers of the family planning summit claim that the money raised will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy.  While it is important for women to be able to obtain contraceptives wherever they are in the world, it is equally as important that women have access to safe abortions if contraceptives fail, or if a rape victim seeks an abortion to help end the psychological trauma still lingering from her assault.   If women are forced to resort to unsafe abortions because they are illegal, unaffordable, or unobtainable, the maternal mortality rate will stay steady.

When Times Get Tough, Women’s Rights Shouldn’t Suffer

Hard times happen. They can happen anytime and anywhere. They can happen on a scale as small as a community or family or as large as an entire region or country. The causes range from economic crises to armed conflicts and everything in between. In fact, the one thing that seems to be universal about hard times is that they lead to less respect for women’s rights.

In Nepal, girls are essentially sold into slavery when their families are struggling with debt. The ethnic Tharu practice a form of indentured servitude known as “kamlari”. Tharu families struggling with extreme poverty ease their debt burdens by leasing their daughters to higher caste landlords to use as servants for as little as $30 a year. Girls as young as six enter the system and are forced to do menial labor. These girls suffer a wide range of abuses, including beatings and rape, and are not allowed to go to school. Activists have been struggling to free girls from the kamlari system but the system has persisted in isolated parts of Nepal.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are traded as a form of dispute settlement. Daughters are given to rival parties to settle disputes in a practice known as “swara” or “vani”. Swara is used to settle crimes such as murder, adultery, and kidnapping. A daughter from the family of the perpetrator (usually the girl’s father or brother) is forced to marry into the family of the victim. The girls are often quite young and the men they are forced to marry are often significantly older. Swara brides are treated terribly by their in-laws and husbands. They are treated like servants, constantly taunted, frequently beaten, and sometimes even killed.

In Niger, there is a tradition of marrying girls off at a very young age. Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage with approximately 50% of girls marrying before the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven. Girls are married off in exchange for dowries, including livestock and cash, which can be very helpful for families struggling with poverty. The country is currently in the middle of a hunger crisis resulting from a severe drought. Therefore, families that were already poor are now finding it even more difficult to put food on the table and there is a legitimate fear that families will begin marrying off their daughters with greater frequency and at younger ages if the crisis continues. Child brides in Niger lead difficult lives. They are often married to men who are much older, they are unable to attend school, forced to have sexual intercourse, denied freedom, beaten, and often abandoned when their polygamous husbands take younger brides. Additionally, child brides tend to be impregnated long before their bodies are ready to bear children, which often leads to serious health problems and even death.

In Madagascar, girls are frequently forced into prostitution when their families don’t have enough money to survive. In the southern region of the island, they have what is called “tsenan’ampela” (literally girls market). Families send their girls to market towns without money, forcing them to prostitute themselves at the tsenan’ampela until they have enough money to buy food and supplies for the family.

In times of conflict, rape and sexual assault are frequently used against women as weapons of war. This is currently happening in Syria in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces. Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. There is evidence that forces are targeting victims related to the Free Syrian Army as a way to punish the rebels with reports of soldiers going into houses looking for male members of the rebel forces and then raping the women. Many of the women have been killed after being assaulted, which is a tactic used in conflict zones to show complete control over the enemy.

The situations described above are just a handful of examples of how women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of hardship, and the list could go on and on. The list of excuses for these types of discrimination is equally long and includes explanations blaming culture, tradition, inevitability, and ignorance. However, the truth is that there is no excuse for sacrificing women’s rights in hard times. According to Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This broad definition of discrimination against women means that for at least the 187 countries that are a party to CEDAW, there is an obligation to ensure that women’s rights are respected and that women do not suffer disproportionately in any circumstance, including times of hardship. As such, women and girls should never be turned into a commodity and sold off when their families need food and money, and they should never brutalized for crimes they have not committed or battles they have not fought. When times get tough, women should be given an equal say in finding a solution.

Disappointment at Rio+20 for Women

The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.

Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.

Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.

Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a  report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.

Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.

How Women in Power Can Help Change Society

“Sisters in Law”, a documentary following State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba in the small Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, is a wonderful example of how women in government can help transform the lives of women.  These women used their positions to help eliminate injustice towards women and to fight against Cameroon’s patriarchal society, where traditional attitudes ignored violence against women and even silenced them.  The documentary follows Ngassa and Ntuba as they prosecute a man for beating his wife and successfully convict him (the first time a man has been successfully convicted for spousal abuse in Kumba in over 17 years), in addition to helping a young girl get justice after being raped by an adult neighbor.

This documentary is a shining example of how women in positions of power can truly help achieve social change and improve situations for women.  Women in the small village of Kumba began to feel more confident and secure under Ngassa and Ntuba’s lead, and began to stand up against their abusers and against the male-dominated structure of their society to enforce their rights.  Women are severely underrepresented in the political world, despite making up about half of the population in any given country.  Currently, women only make up 19.6 percent of the membership of parliaments around the world.  In the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 23, it is suggested that countries implement gender neutral quotas requiring that neither sex constitute less than 40% of a public body, quotas for women in public office, and rules giving preference to women nominees.  The Committee also noted that “research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized.”  Gender quotas do not have to apply only to the public sphere, as shown by Norway’s gender quota for “market-listed companies to fill 40 percent of the seats on their corporate supervisory boards with women.”

In order to boost political participation, and improve basic human rights and women’s rights, countries should consider implementing gender quotas for both legislative and judicial bodies.  If more women like Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba were put into positions of power, whether by being elected or being placed through a quota, it is almost certain that the situation for women around the world would improve greatly.

Observing World Refugee Day and the Plight of Displaced Girls

If you happened to be in New York City last night and were wondering why the Empire State Building was blue, here is your answer: the Empire State Building, along with major landmarks around the globe, was lit up in blue yesterday to commemorate World Refugee Day. The UNHCR honored the day in New York by opening a new exhibit dedicated to the world’s refugees entitled In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees.

Joan Timoney, the Director of Advocacy and External Relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission, spoke at the opening of the exhibit, and we were struck by her description of the “lost potential” of displaced girls. While life is difficult for all displaced persons, displaced girls tend to be exposed to even greater risks because of their gender. For instance, displaced girls are susceptible to exploitation and abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancy, forced marriage, and forced labor. Displaced girls also have less access to education and resources than their male counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that women and girls have a lower status than men and boys in most societies. This unequal status is exacerbated in times of conflict and civil strife, continuing even after displaced girls are able to leave refugee camps.

To avoid losing their potential, these girls need access to security, education, and resources. Fortunately, the Women’s Refugee Commission is working to do just that with its Protecting and Empowering Displaced Girls project. The goals of the project are to ensure that displaced girls are safe and have the opportunity to finish school, develop a sense of confidence, and learn their rights and important skills so they can go on to lead fulfilling lives without abuse. This is incredibly important work and we would like to applaud the Women’s Refugee Commission for its efforts.

To learn more about the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work, visit their website.

The exhibit, In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees, is free and will be on view at the United Nations Visitors Centre until Aug. 7, 2012. For more information, visit their website.

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.

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.

How the “August 12th Campaign” sparked a movement

Top Queen Councils in protest against President Obama’s “no abortion” clause

The London Times published an article feauturing the Queen’s Counsel’s effort to pressure President Barack Obama to issue an Executive Order lifting the “no abortion” clause that affects U.S humanitarian aid for girls and women involved in conflict.

This movement was inspired by the launching of the Global Justice Center’s “August 12th” campaign which urges President Obama to reinstate U.S support for the Geneva Conventions by removing the blanket abortion prohibitions embedded in U.S humanitarian aid that endanger women and girls who have been raped and impregnated in armed conflict. To read more information regarding to this campaign, click here.

Almost 50 of the UK’s most prominent Queen’s Counsel, headed by Amanda Pinto, QC, director of international affairs of the Criminal Bar Association and Vice Chairman of the international committee of the Bar Council, have written urging Obama to take action on this issue.

To read the article click here.

Global Justice Center’s Suggestions and Comments Regarding the Integration of Gender Equality and International Law for the Draft Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan

The GJC publishes suggestions and comments regarding the integration of gender equality and international law for the draft transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan.

These suggestions are formatted in a list of the topic, constitutional article and the GJC's issues/comments with it. The topics include Gender Equality, International Law, Prevention of Underage Marriages, Right to Litigation, Public Health Care, Family, Defence of the Republic of South Sudan, Establishment and Composition of the Council of Ministers, and Appointment of Justices and Judges. There are 18 entries in the list.

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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.

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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