LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women’s rights campaigners urged the Obama administration to support access to safe and voluntary abortion services for women and girls raped in crisis or conflict at a conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
They called on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order guaranteeing U.S. support for post-rape care, specifically including safe pregnancy terminations.
U.S. laws do not bar foreign aid funds from supporting access to abortion for rape victims in crisis or conflict situations. But the Helms Amendment to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which bans the use of U.S. funds for abortions which may be used as a family planning method, has inhibited many organizations from offering abortions to rape victims.
“Rape used as a weapon of war and torture is happening globally. The fact is that some of the women and girls will be impregnated by their rapists and will seek to terminate those pregnancies no matter the risk. It is not only inhumane to force a woman or girl to carry the product of a rape to term, it is potentially deadly,” said Serra Sippel, president of the NGO CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity) which campaigns for women's sexual and reproductive rights.
Failure to include access to adequate pregnancy termination for victims means there is discrimination on women-specific health issues when foreign aid is delivered, campaigners said at the conference “Break the Barriers: Stand with Women and Girls in Conflict and Crisis.”
Women raped in conflicts who become pregnant tend to be rejected by their communities or even their families for giving birth to a “child of the enemy”, according to the report ‘The Legal Landscape for Abortion Provision in U.S. Foreign Assistance” released by CHANGE at the conference.
“The world is keeping quiet, but children born out of rape are a continuous pain,” according to Ruth Ochieng, director of ISIS-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE), a Ugandan NGO providing comprehensive healthcare for women and girls who survive sexual violence in conflict and crisis.
“This is the time to afford abortions to women who have been raped in conflict because unwanted children have caused them psychological distress. Every morning when she bathes this child, she’s back into the bushes where she was raped. She’s reliving the ordeal that 6 soldiers or 21 soldiers put her through. The communities call these children ‘rebels’ and point their fingers at their mothers and their families,” Ochieng said.
The situation is similar in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “The child is not accepted by the community and would often be called by the name of the attacker,” said Justine Bihamba, founder of Women’s Synergy for the Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS), a coalition of Congo-based women’s rights organizations that fights the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.
The victim is often rejected by her own mother, adding to her trauma, Bihamba said.
Abortion in DRC is illegal and Bihamba works with church groups which support pregnancy termination and facilitate access to safe abortions.
Because Bihamba and her colleagues speak out and train women in the rural areas, they have received death threats, been assaulted and some have been raped. Seeking justice in the courts can drag on for five years. While waiting for a result, victims may be further threatened and assaulted by the perpetrator, who is released on bail, and may then join the army and return to get revenge, Bihamba said.
In Uganda, rape can be punished by life imprisonment, but women often abandon court cases because of the long wait and the stigma attached to rape, according to Ochieng. “When she comes back home from the court, I can assure you that woman would not be safe,” she said.
Ochieng has set up healthcare camps in Uganda, Liberia and South Sudan, providing immediate medical intervention to rape victims who contracted sexually transmitted diseases or HIV or are in psychological distress.
But people don’t know the law and doctors may refuse to perform an abortion because of social disapproval of the practice, Ochieng said.
“Many women resort to using dangerous substances to abort. In places like Uganda or Liberia, reproductive rights are not a priority to governments. Women are dying in silence,” she said.
The UK, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden support foreign aid specifically for abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in September a $10 million initiative designed to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict or crisis: “Safe from the Start.”
“The logical next step for the Obama administration, which has taken unprecedented actions to put women’s empowerment at the centre of their policy and to address women’s security, is to take it further and say that it is allowable for foreign aid money going to women to provide for abortions in cases of rape”, said CHANGE’s Serra Sippel.