01/15/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Women, Abortion, and Helms: Executive Action to Break Barriers

Increasingly, women's bodies are battlegrounds. Not just figurative battlegrounds, as in debates on abortion and contraception, but literally -- women's bodies are spaces where soldiers assert domination to gain a tactical advantage over other combatants, to build trust and camaraderie among soldiers, and to subdue communities to their will. Rape has become such a common tool of war that it spans cultures and geographic regions -- it circles the globe.

It should not take much for us to imagine the pain associated with such violation. Women raped in conflict experience physical pain, of course, but also intense psychological trauma over not being able to define and protect their boundaries, their selves. Yet as they seek to reestablish control over their lives, some of the most significant barriers they face come from the U.S. government.

In December, women from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo traveled to Washington, D.C., to share stories about women and girls raped in crisis and conflict -- and the aftermath. They talked about the need for comprehensive post-rape health care, including access to safe, voluntary abortion services. They joined CHANGE in calling on President Obama to take executive action -- such as an executive order -- to ensure U.S. support for these services.

"Especially for a young girl who is just starting her life, faced with this unwanted pregnancy," said Justine Masika Bihamba, founder and executive director of Women's Synergy for the Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS) a Congo-based coalition that advocates for women's rights and fights the use of rape as a weapon of war. "We must support safe abortion for cases of rape in conflict situations."

"In Africa, the body of a woman is the battleground. Women are the center of African society," said Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, executive director of ISIS-WICCE, a Uganda-based organization that provides comprehensive health care to women and girls raped in conflict and crisis. "When you destroy her sexuality, her right to safe abortion, you destroy the community."

These women are not alone in raising their voices. This week, The New York Times editorial board called on President Obama to issue an executive order clarifying the Helms amendment, a decades-old provision that prohibits U.S. funding for abortions overseas as a method of family planning. The editorial pointed out that, while Helms does not prohibit access to abortion services for women in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment, lack of clarity in how it is applied in the field has had the effect of "an absolute abortion ban."

At CHANGE, we staunchly agree with The New York Times editorial and unflinchingly support the brave champions of justice who joined us at the December launch of the campaign, "Break the Barriers: Stand with Women and Girls Raped in Conflict or Crisis."

Forty-eight women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 are raped every hour in eastern Congo. In some cases, more than 80 percent of war rape victims are children under 18. The most extensive form of violence in Syria since the conflict began is sexual violence, including rape.

Not for all of these women and girls, but for many, a pregnancy resulting from rape is an additional violation, another crushing example of her lack of control over what happens within her body. Imagine when she finds that her slightest reassertion of control -- to safely end an unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape -- is also outside her grasp, not necessarily because of her own country's laws, but because of policies coming from the United States.

The Obama administration has taken landmark steps to prevent and respond to gender-based violence -- especially in conflict and crisis settings -- and we applaud them for their leadership. We also stand with Justine and Ruth, and women and girls globally, in urging the administration to take the next logical step in its work to ensure gender equality by issuing an executive order that guarantees U.S. support of access to safe, voluntary abortion for women and girls in the cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.