By Sarah Morison, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine
In August 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unprecedented visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC) to meet with victims of war rape. She pledged $17 million in aid, reflecting a new level of U.S. commitment and concern for girls and women targeted by the enemy for sexual assaults.
Yet, despite being a longtime proponent of access to safe abortion, she did not disclose a dirty little secret – that USAID policy, which falls under her jurisdiction, prohibits all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments and humanitarian aid providers from receiving U.S. funds if they provide abortion counseling or services. The restrictions, placed in all foreign assistance contracts, contain no exceptions for rape or to save the life of a woman. This is due to USAID’s unnecessarily broad and rigid application of the “Helms Amendment” to the Foreign Assistance Act, which, since 1973, has prohibited the use of U.S. funds for the performance of abortion “as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”
War rape — typically gang rape — has been employed in the Congo, Rwanda, Colombia, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, Burma, the Sudan, Sierra Leone and elsewhere as a highly effective military strategy to destroy the families, communities and culture of the enemy without bullets. It has been classified by international courts as a war crime, an act of genocide, a crime against humanity and a form of torture. The U.S. itself acknowledges it as torture and administers aid to victims both from USAID’s Victims of Torture Fund, as well as contributing to a similar UN fund. Forcing a girl or women to continue a resulting pregnancy has also been recognized as torture.
The impact of lack of access to safe abortion for such victims is particularly severe. Faced with the horrifying prospect of giving birth to a child of one of their rapists, they frequently choose between suicide or a clandestine, often deadly, abortion in a non-medical environment. Ironically, USAID does spend money on more costly services, such as: emergency care following unsafe abortions; psychological, prenatal and obstetrical services to the impregnated survivor; and attempts to convince families and communities not to shun such women and their babies, a persistent problem. These services avoid the real issue — that women often desperately want and need the option of abortion to get beyond the rapes. Providing safe abortion in these circumstances is clearly not “a method of family planning” and willing doctors are only “motivated” by compassion for the victims.
Last summer the Global Justice Center initiated the “August 12th Campaign” around this issue. The Global Justice Center’s principal and unique legal argument was that denying abortion counseling or services to women and girls raped in conflict was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Under the Conventions, civilian girls and women wounded in armed conflict are entitled to non-discriminatory and comprehensive medical care, which should include the option of abortion for victims of war rape. Although the actual parties to an armed conflict have the primary obligation to ensure medical care in compliance with the Conventions, all countries that are providing humanitarian medical services must also comply.
The August 12th Campaign, launched on the 62nd anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, brought together an international coalition of eminent organizations and individuals that urged President Obama to take steps to end USAID obstruction of abortion counseling and services to victims of war rape. As one organization poignantly stated, “This needless restriction endangers the lives of rape victims, exacerbates their suffering, and inevitably imposes the legacy of war upon their families, communities, and entire nations for generations to come.”
Last month, more letters were sent, including one signed by many UK parliamentarians. Foreign governments and organizations that do support safe abortion are particularly concerned about U.S. restrictions affecting their own donated funds when they are commingled by large humanitarian organizations such the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN agencies overseeing humanitarian aid.
There have been recent encouraging signs that the Global Justice Center campaign has had an impact. On December 19, 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order, “Instituting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security,” in which the problem of sexual violence against women during conflict was highlighted. It stated that the U.S., in developing its plan, “will respond to the distinct needs of women and children in conflict affected disasters and crises, including by providing safe, equitable access to humanitarian assistance.”
On March 1, 2012 USAID announced that it was launching a new policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment. With regard to “conflict-affected environments,” the new policy includes a commitment to “prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence; and ensure that relief and recovery efforts address the different needs and priorities of women and men.”
Although the specifics are lacking at this point, such language offers hope that future U.S. policy will alleviate, rather than contribute to, the suffering of victims of war rape.