As we mark International Women's Day, I'm reminded of the way American foreign policy affects women and girls around the world. The United States has placed a high priority on advancing women's health and the rights of women and girls around the world, and we should always be seeking more ways to include these issues in our global agenda.
There are a few areas where we can act right now: ensuring women's reproductive health needs are prioritized in the response to the Zika virus, and removing barriers blocking access to safe abortion services, even in the most extreme circumstances.
Zika may soon touch nearly every country in the Western hemisphere, bringing with it a particularly damaging impact on women and children. Scientists tell us that the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, and that there appears to be a connection between Zika and a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly. As a result, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised pregnant American women to avoid unnecessary travel to Zika-affected countries, and for women wishing to avoid pregnancy have recommended counseling on family planning and use of effective contraceptive methods.
Unfortunately, approximately 23 million women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean--the region hardest hit by the virus--have unmet contraceptive needs. Experts forecast that these women will account for nearly a quarter of expected Zika cases. Absent quick action, these women will be denied the ability to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and, potentially, poor pregnancy outcomes.
That's why the United States and our partners must direct resources and information to those who need it. We should look to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides voluntary family planning information and services, excluding abortion, in more than 150 countries--including every Zika-affected country, at the government's request.
Last month, I joined 105 of my colleagues calling for a greater investment in maternal, child, and reproductive health care, including support for UNFPA. Restrictive reproductive health laws in Latin America already pose great challenges to women. We must act quickly to ensure the Zika virus doesn't make these problems worse.
The United States can also be a global leader on women's health by ensuring that women around the world who are raped, are victims of incest or face a life-endangering pregnancy can receive the care they need in U.S.-supported programs.
Since its passage in 1973, the so-called Helms Amendment has prohibited the use of American foreign aid for "the performance of abortion as a method of family planning." Administrations have implemented the Helms Amendment as a blanket ban on the use of U.S. aid for abortion services, even in the cases of rape, incest, or danger to a woman's life. The result forces women around the world to seek abortions performed by untrained individuals unbound by baseline medical standards. More than 85 percent of unsafe abortions take place in developing countries. Every year, thousands of women die of complications that follow these dangerous procedures. Millions more suffer as a result of critical injuries.
In many countries around the world, and particularly those engaged in conflict or crisis, gender-based violence and rape affect women and girls with heartbreaking frequency. By ensuring that those who seek abortions have access to safe services, the U.S. could help ease their burdens. Yet the Helms Amendment forces these women and girls, who have already endured so much, to further risk their health and well-being.
In August, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and I were joined by 81 Members of Congress calling on President Obama to issue guidance to clarify that Helms permits exceptions in the events of rape, incest or danger to a woman's life. I hope that the President, who has been so committed to the health and rights of women and girls, will fortify his legacy by issuing this critical guidance before the end of his term.
These are just two of the many pressing issues facing women and girls worldwide. There is much work to be done, and the U.S. must continue to play a leading role. As a son, a husband, and a father, I am heartbroken by the suffering and indignity that so many women face - but I am encouraged to know that our country can help. When we celebrate the next International Women's Day in 2017, I hope we can look back at this year as a time of real progress on these critical issues.
Representative Engel is the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What's Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations' theme for International Women's Day this year: "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality." To view all of the posts in the series, click here.