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Human Rights

U.S. Urged to Change Policy on Support to Victims of Sexual Violence

WASHINGTON , Dec 12 2013 (IPS) - The U.S. government is being urged to roll back a longstanding policy that has banned foreign aid funding from being used for health care services for victims of sexual violence in conflict situations.

A group of leading U.S. and African NGOs gathered here Wednesday to launch a global campaign that, if successful, would provide millions of women and girls in crisis and conflict areas around the world with post-rape access to comprehensive health care.

The Centre for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), an advocacy group, was joined by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in calling on the administration of President Barack Obama to clarify or repeal four-decade-old legislation, known as the Helms Amendment, that forbids U.S. foreign aid recipients from using this funding to perform abortions “as a method of family planning.”

“The 1973 Helms Amendment is a law that says no funds are allowed for abortions overseas as a matter of family planning – full stop,” Serra Sippel, the president of CHANGE, told IPS. “But when we talk about abortion in the case of rape, that’s not family planning, so the law [actually] doesn’t forbid foreign assistance to pay for these cases.”

At the new campaign’s launch, Sippel said nearly 50 women between the ages of 15 and 49 are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), “where rape is used as a war weapon.”

Unwanted pregnancies resulting from rapes in conflict situations have become a particularly visible feature of the ongoing violence in the DRC, where people living in the eastern part of the country remain subject to marauding militias in a war that has claimed nearly three million lives. This situation is exacerbated by the ongoing social stigma surrounding rape across many parts of Africa.

“I will tell you about a 20-year-old girl who was raped and who, since abortion in the DRC is illegal, kept the baby, hiding her pregnancy because rape causes so much shame there,” Justine Masika Bihamba, the founder of the Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS), a network of 35 women’s rights organisations in the DRC, told IPS.

“But when she gave birth, she went with her mom – who didn’t want her to keep the child – and wrapped the baby in flannel and abandoned it along the road.”

When a hunter passed by and found the baby, he called for help.

“But everyone was afraid,” Bihamba continued, “and no one had the courage to come and cover the child. When they brought it to the hospital, they found out that the child was dehydrated and was about to die.”

The story underscores how difficult it can be for rape survivors to move on with their lives. Often, Bihamba said, women try to hide a post-rape pregnancy because evidence of her assault would brand her as “inferior” to other women, perhaps making it difficult later on to find a husband.

Changing the law

The new campaign, “Break the Barriers”, is now set to step up pressure on the Obama administration to support and allow access to safe abortion services for the millions of women and girls who face sexual violence in areas plagued by conflict. Currently, the confusion surrounding the Helms Amendment makes this difficult.

The problem, advocates suggest, is that the law has been interpreted by U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to include post-rape abortions, despite the fact that the text only refers to family-planning purposes.

(USAID was unable to respond to requests for comment by deadline.)

“President Obama doesn’t actually need congressional action to do this,” CHANGE’s Sippel said. “We are simply asking him to clarify, through an executive order, that the law doesn’t bar funding for abortions in cases of life endangerment.”

Yet others say more drastic change is required.

“We think that the Helms law is just bad law,” Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “It deprives women of critical services and it really doesn’t advance human rights in any way.”

Gerntholtz says the Helms Amendment should be repealed.

Future roadmap

But the U.S. government has also recently taken a series of measures that recognise sexual violence as a frequent characteristic of conflict. In 2011, the Obama administration issued an executive order, the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which sought to “protect women from sexual and gender-based violence and to ensure equal access to relief and recovery assistance.”

Yet advocates point out that women’s security worldwide remains unacceptably weak. Recent U.N. statistics find that the first half of 2013 saw 705 registered cases of sexual violence in the DRC alone, while the World Health Organisation notes that nearly 50,000 women and girls continue to die from unsafe abortions every year.

The Obama administration also recently embraced U.N. Security Council Resolution 2122, adopted in October, which is set to strengthen women’s participation in “all phases of conflict prevention, resolution and recovery,” in addition to ensuring better access to comprehensive reproductive services.

But, activists say, more needs to be done.

“We would like to see the U.S. develop a roadmap and strategies that will enable [reproductive services] to reach the most vulnerable,” Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, the executive director of the Uganda-based Isis-WICCE, a women’s rights group, told IPS.

But while the newly launched campaign puts a strong emphasis on what the U.S. government could and should do, there are obstacles to what U.S. activism can achieve. Perhaps most importantly, abortion remains illegal in many countries.

In the DRC, for instance, abortion is criminalised by two articles of the country’s criminal code, which punish “women who get an abortion, but also anyone who assists them with the practice,” SFVS’s Bihamba told IPS.

Even if the Helms Amendment were to be repealed or clarified, U.S. and international humanitarian agencies would likely face legal hurdles in the provision of abortion on the ground.

Still, advocates hope that a strong U.S. stance on the issue will send an important signal globally.

“An executive order coming from the [Obama administration] would show the world that the U.S. government is stepping up to recognising that women who have been raped need access to abortion services,” CHANGE’s Sippel told IPS. “Global leadership by the U.S. government can really help push [countries] like the DRC to move forward and change their laws.”

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