On Sunday, Boko Haram released a video reporting the alleged status of hundreds of girls held hostage by the militant group, including the over 250 schoolgirls that were abducted in 2014. The video, which pans across a group of girls, at least one of whom is holding a young child, has renewed concerns over the sexual violence being inflicted on these young women.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of civilians in Northern Nigeria and is known for abducting women and girls, many of whom then suffer rape and sexual violence. After over 200 allegedly visibly pregnant girls were rescued from Boko Haram last year by the Nigerian army, the need to offer these survivors access to abortion services was evident.
“During their captivity, lasting in many cases for months or even years, women and girls have been sexually enslaved, raped and forced into so-called ‘marriages,’” explained a UN representative during a special session on Boko Haram in July. “Many survivors of these horrific experiences are now pregnant by their rapists…and several reportedly wish to terminate these unwanted pregnancies.”
Despite Nigerian legal barriers, global women’s advocates say that the framework for providing rape victims access to abortion is there. In particular, the Geneva Conventions—a series of treaties concerning the rights and protections of noncombatants, prisoners, and those injured during armed conflict—require that all civilians who are “wounded and sick” be able to access health care on a non-discriminatory basis. But because the United States, the single largest donor to global women’s health programs, interprets the notorious Helms Amendment as barring all funding for any kind of abortion assistance or information, these survivors go without full access to medical care, a violation of human dignity and international humanitarian law that puts the lives of survivors at risk.
According to a report by Laura Bassett for the Huffington Post, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) distributed emergency supplies for the women and girls rescued from Boko Haram, including treatments for sexually transmitted infections and items for birth attendants. “But it couldn’t offer any of the rape survivors the option to end their pregnancies. Some of the girls reportedly sought out illegal, unsafe abortions. Others were too afraid to take the risk and were shunned by their communities for giving birth to the children of killers.”
“What the U.S. government does is allow the extreme politicization of abortion in the United States to dictate how they’re responding in this kind of crisis, which to me is unconscionable,” said Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
The Obama administration does have the legal option of interpreting the Helms Amendment as having an exception for pregnant victims of war rape, but has so far been unwilling to do so. The Helms Amendment prevents aid organizations from using U.S. foreign assistance funds to provide abortion as a “method of family planning.” Those who seek to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or those whose pregnancies become life threatening, do not seek to use abortion as a “method of family planning.” Under these circumstances, the Helms Amendment should not be a barrier to accessing abortion services.
Advocates are, therefore, calling on the Obama Administration to take executive action to correct the current misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment and end the needless suffering of women and girls raped in conflict, including those whose rights have been violated by Boko Haram.