On the 67th anniversary of the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties concerning the rights and protections of noncombatants, prisoners, and those injured during armed conflict, the United States continues to overlook one of its most important protections: the right of the “wounded and sick” to non-discriminatory medical care .
Despite ratifying the Conventions 61 years ago, the United States government, the largest aid donor in the world, has implemented a policy that denies survivors of war rape access to abortion, a practice that amounts to a denial of basic, and often lifesaving, medical care to some of war’s most vulnerable victims.
The routine use of rape as a tool of war has been documented in conflicts around the world, from South Sudan to Syria to Nigeria, and constitutes a form of torture. In ISIS controlled areas, for example, Yazidi women and other minorities are sold as sex slaves in public markets to be violently abused and traded like cattle. Boko Haram has deliberately raped hundreds of women and girls, intentionally impregnating them as a strategy to dominate rural communities . In South Sudan, rape as a form of ethnic cleansing is committed by all parties to the conflict; one hospital reported that 74 percent of the victims are under the age of 18.
Using rape as a tool of war is not a new strategy, but statistics on the full extent of its use have been difficult to obtain, or simply not kept. We do know, however, that war rape is endemic. According to the Global Justice Center, 40,000 women and girls are raped in conflict each year, but many more have suffered during specific conflicts. During the Rwandan genocide, for example, between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in just a 100-day period, resulting in the birth of approximately 20,000 children. Mass rape has also been reported in conflicts in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, and dozens more.
Often the victims of war rape are young girls. At least 50 percent of survivors are under the age of 18, but in some areas, up to 80 percent of those targeted are children, and many are very young adolescents. Even without the additional devastation that comes with war and armed conflict, pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for adolescent girls in developing countries. The risk of maternal death for girls aged 15 years and younger is twice that of an adult, and these girls have higher rates of injury, infection or disease related to pregnancy and childbirth. For girls raped in conflict, the physical consequences are even worse as many are brutalized and are living in already perilous conditions. The ability to access abortion, therefore, has life or death consequences.
In addition to its physical impact, war rape and resulting pregnancy can have enormous psychological and social effects. Many survivors of war rape are ostracized by their communities, abandoned, or face additional physical violence because of the rape or resulting pregnancy.
Forcing a survivor of rape to bear the child of her rapist is torture. Yet, a U.S. policy, created in 1973 by then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), has denied life-saving medical care to survivors, in violation of the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law.
The Helms Amendment barrs any international aid organization from using United States’ funds to provide abortion as a “method of family planning.” Abortion in the case of war rape is not a “method of family planning,” yet, in practice, the Helms Amendment has been interpreted to prevent the use of foreign aid to fund safe abortions even in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.
Because the United States is often the greatest source of funding for international aid organizations, they often do-away with abortion services entirely, as it is too difficult to meticulously separate out US money from other donors while navigating the emergencies of an active conflict zone.
The Helms Amendment allows men around the globe to use women’s bodies as a tool of war. By forcing women to live with a medical trauma caused by rape, they are forcing some women into a life of alienation, suffering and destitution. Offering abortion to women who have been horrificly violated is not a matter of “family-planning,” it’s a matter of human decency. Failure to provide abortion services for rape victims is gender discrimination in its barest form. When rape results in pregnancy, the option of safe abortion must be offered as a part of all necessary care to these war victims.
Human rights advocates, including the Feminist Majority, have long-called on President Obama to take executive action to correct the misinterpretation of the Helms Amendment and fulfill our obligations under the Geneva Conventions. So far, the Administration has failed to act. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of survivors of war rape continue to suffer needlessly.