President Obama Urged to End U.S. Violation of the Rights of Rape Survivors in Armed Conflict

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—August 25, 2011

To coincide with the anniversary of the U.S. signing the Geneva Conventions, the Global Justice Center launched the global “August 12th”campaign to urge President Obama to immediately lift the “no abortion” restriction attached to all U.S. humanitarian aid for medical care given to girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict.

[NEW YORK, NY] – Thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict face additional suffering by being routinely denied abortions in humanitarian medical settings. The Geneva Conventions mandate “comprehensive” and “non-discriminatory” medical care to the wounded and sick during armed conflict and United Nations treaty bodies and courts characterize deliberate denial of abortion to impregnated rape victims as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Yet, the United States (the “U.S.”) attaches a “no abortion” prohibition to all U.S. humanitarian aid, including for war rape victims whose rights are guaranteed under the laws of war. Therefore, the Global Justice Center (the “GJC”) coordinated a consortium of over 3,000 leading legal, human rights, public health and humanitarian organizations and experts from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, and Latin & South America to urge President Obama to immediately lift the “no abortion” restriction attached to all U.S. humanitarian aid. Click here to view the GJC’s letter to the President.

Amanitare's Letter to President Obama

Letter sent to President Obama by Amanitare as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

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Women's Link Worldwide Letter to President Obama

Letter sent to President Obama by Women's Link Worldwide as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The letter was also signed by: Asociacion y lideres en Accion, Colombia; Catolicas por el derecho a decidir, Colombia; Rincon Perfetti Abogados y Consultores Internationales, Colombia; Fundacion Orientame, Colombia; International Federation of Women Lawyers, Uganda; Fundacion Colombia Diversa, Colombia; Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinario sobre las Mujeres; Fundacion para la Formacion de Lideres Afrocolombianos Afolider, Colombia; and Conferencia National de Organizaciones Afrocolombianas Cnoa, Colombia.

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Reproductive Rights Organizations Group Letter

Letter sent to President Obama by a group of Reproductive Rights organizations as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The letter was signed by: American Medical Women's Association; Center for Reproductive Rights; International Planned Parenthood Federation; Ipas; Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights; and Women on Waves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisabeth Jorgensen

April 25, 2011

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

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

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

NY City Bar Association Letter to Obama

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

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New York City Bar Association Letter to President Obama

March 4, 2011

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

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—March 4, 2011

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

GJC 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.