Co-authored by Janet Benshoof
Forty thousand women and girls become victims of war rape each year. Forty thousand women and girls’ bodies brutalized, their lives shattered, their futures forever altered.
This World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations has called on the global community to celebrate and acknowledge “One Humanity.” In doing so, we must acknowledge that what happens to these forty thousand women after they survive war rape is not humane.
Often forced to bear the children of their rapists, women and girls who survive war rape must involuntarily risk death, illness, injury, continued physical violence, and social isolation from their communities. For many of these women and girls, rape is just the beginning of their torture.
The use of rape as a tool of war is undisputed and endemic. In armed conflicts around the world, war rape and forced impregnation are strategically used to achieve genocide and to demonstrate political and military dominance. Whether it is ISIS trafficking Yazidi women into sex slavery, Boko Haram kidnapping and impregnating schoolgirls, or South Sudanese soldiers engaging in mass rape of aid workers and other civilians, the international community must do more. It must work to prevent the use of rape as a weapon of war, and also to ensure that survivors receive all necessary medical care, including the option of safe abortion.
Failure to offer abortion care to survivors of war rape is, at its core, unlawful sex discrimination. The Geneva Conventions clearly state that women must be treated with “all consideration due their sex,” and that their specific needs, as women, must be taken into account.
Male and female survivors of rape may require different medical care. Women and men raped with objects, for example, may require antibiotics and surgery, while women raped by a male sexual organ may need emergency contraception, HIV prophylaxis, and if she becomes pregnant, the option of abortion. IHL requires that treatment be based on one’s medical condition, not on one’s sex, and makes it unlawful to provide all necessary medical care to a male survivor and not to a female survivor. To do so is the definition of sex discrimination.
The United States should be a champion of non-discriminatory care for all who are “wounded and sick” in armed conflict. That is the standard set out under the Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties concerning the rights and protections of noncombatants, prisoners, and those injured during armed conflict. Access to abortion is therefore not only a matter of offering compassionate care to rape survivors; it is a matter of law.
Yet, a U.S. policy created in 1973 by then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) has been misapplied to deny the option of abortion to survivors of war rape – a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The Helms Amendment bars the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds to provide abortion as a “method of family planning.” Survivors of sexual violence were not planning a family when they were forcibly impregnated, yet the Helms Amendment has been interpreted to prevent U.S. funding for safe abortions, even in these brutal cases. Because the U.S. provides the greatest source of funding to international aid organizations—something for which we should be proud—many aid organizations simply do not provide abortion services to anyone for fear of losing U.S. aid.
Under international humanitarian law (IHL), all who are “wounded and sick” must be provided “to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay the medical care and attention required by their condition.” In short, medical treatment must be provided based on specific needs. Biologically, women and girls who survive war rape and become pregnant have a specific need for abortion access. Failure to provide this care to those who want it can be life threatening, especially for the thousands of adolescent girls who become pregnant each year because of war rape.
Access to abortion as a right under international humanitarian law has been increasingly recognized by the UN Security Council, the UN Secretary-General, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and the European Union. Despite strong calls and support from its allies, the US government has yet to do the same.
Access to abortion is central to women’s equality and dignity. That’s why the Obama Administration must act to correct the unlawful and immoral interpretation of the Helms Amendment. Otherwise, we are complicit in stealing the humanity of survivors, forcing women and girls to live with medical and psychological trauma, alienation, and needless suffering.
We have been working for women’s equality for over 40 years, and it is clear that the world cannot achieve “One Humanity” by ignoring the needs and suffering of countless women and girls. We can see their suffering. Their cries for help must not go unanswered.
Eleanor Smeal is one of the major leaders of the modern-day American feminist movement. Smeal is the president and a cofounder of the Feminist Majority Foundation (founded in 1987) and has served as president of the National Organization for Women for three terms, in addition to her work as an activist, grassroots organizer, lobbyist, and political analyst.