THE BLOG
09/13/2013 05:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Women in Syria Need More Than Guided Missiles

I've been watching the news about the war in Syria with a mixture of anger and worry. Yes, I'm angry and deeply disturbed when I read about the thousands of people who have been killed and the millions displaced by their own government. And yes, I'm worried about the prospect of United States military intervention after a decade of war.

But I'm also worried about how regional laws and U.S. law work together to revictimize women fleeing the trauma of war.

The cut and dried numbers behind this crisis mask the tragedy taking place every day: two million Syrians have already crossed over into Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. (So many refugees have fled to tiny Lebanon that the population has effectively increased by 25 percent.) In addition, there are four million people displaced within Syria. At this rate, the aid organization CARE predicts that half of Syria's 22 million citizens will be displaced or in need of assistance by the end of the year.

Three-quarters of the displaced people in and around Syria are women and children, many of whom will be sexually assaulted during the conflict. While there are no firm figures from Syria yet, human rights organizations and refugee agencies have been documenting cases of sexual assault for months. Cases like that of one family, now in Amman, in which three women -- two sisters and their brother's wife -- were raped in front of their brother and father. A psychologist who has been treating the family for post-traumatic stress disorder believes that the brother's wife became pregnant as a result, but because of the shame surrounding rape, neither she nor her husband will acknowledge it.

Women who become pregnant as a result of rape have few options in this part of the world. International human rights agreements have called on nations to decriminalize abortion, but abortion laws in the countries receiving Syrian refugees are very strict, allowing abortion only to save a woman's life (except Turkey, which has much broader exceptions). Strict laws don't mean that abortions don't occur, however. Data from the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute show that hundreds of thousands of women from the region undergo unsafe abortions every year, putting women's life and health at risk.

Dismissing these restrictive laws as a product of these countries' supposedly conservative Muslim cultures would be simplistic. U.S. law restricts the use of our humanitarian assistance from providing abortion care, even if women have been raped. Under the 1973 Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, U.S. funds may not be used to provide abortion as a method of family planning. For women and girls who have been raped in war, is abortion really a means of family planning?

In cultures around the world, including our own, women are expected to carry the mark of their rape, like a scarlet 'R." She may have been brutally attacked in her own home by an enemy soldier, or exploited by a teacher or relative, but societies continue to see women, implicitly or explicitly, at fault. We tell girls how to behave and dress so as not to tempt men. We force them to carry pregnancies that occur when they are raped. The shame is so great for women in this conflict that in interviews with health care providers, women often will not admit being raped, even if evidence from physical exams prove otherwise. Multiple aid agencies and observers have reported that the Syrian government soldiers will rape female relatives in front of prisoners in order to torture men accused of opposing the government. What happens then to women who become pregnant as a result of these attacks if abortion is not a legal option?

These women are further victimized by U.S. humanitarian policy that denies organizations the ability to humanely treat women who have been raped in conflict. In the face of widespread and systematic rape in armed conflicts like Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo and now Syria, respected leading humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee are legally barred from providing safe and compassionate abortion services as part of their emergency medical services, leaving victims to compound their trauma either with a forced pregnancy and motherhood, or an unsafe abortion risking death and injury.

At a time of extreme crisis, women need and deserve the utmost compassion. When I think of how my tax dollars could be used for targeted missile strikes but not for providing safe abortion care to women in desperate circumstances, I want to weep. If we can't help them, who can we help?

As Americans debate whether the United States should act militarily in Syria, my thoughts turn to the women. I have no idea what the right answer is militarily, but I do know that all women refugees are going to need basic reproductive health care, and women who are raped are going to need appropriate treatment, including abortion. So what are we doing for them?