Protests outside the White House are usually about the issue of the moment – Obamacare, same-sex marriage, Michael Brown. But the activists outside the White House today want to bring attention to an issue that has sadly endured for ages and mostly affects people far, far away. But it’s a problem the Obama administration hasn’t done all it can to address – and needs to.
The rape of women and girls during wartime has garnered increasing international attention in recent years, but the problem remains dire. The US government as a key humanitarian donor has increasingly invested in programs designed to reduce the risks of sexual violence during war. But the US undermines this valuable work by not covering the full range of a woman’s care after she is raped, thanks in part to the 41-year-old Helms Amendment, which prohibits the use of US funding for abortion “as a method of family planning.” The Obama administration has adopted a strict interpretation of this policy, which means that humanitarian groups operating in conflict zones cannot use US funding to provide women and girls pregnant from rape access to safe abortions if they want them. Because of the policy, humanitarian groups may even withhold information or counselling about abortion.
There is no reliable global data about how many women and girls become pregnant as a result of rape in conflict. A study from Liberia suggests that 15 percent of rapes in that conflict resulted in pregnancy. Human rights practitioners and public health officials from Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and other countries at war, have collected evidence from conflict rape survivors showing both that pregnancy happens and that it has devastating consequences for women and girls. They are left to continue unwanted pregnancies and bear children they often cannot care for and who are daily reminders of the brutal attacks they suffered. This, in turn, makes these children more vulnerable to stigmatization, abuse, and abandonment.
The international community is increasingly recognizing the importance of providing comprehensive health care to women and girls after they are raped. The most recent Security Council resolution on women, peace, and security, adopted in 2013, notes that women need access to the full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including for pregnancy, without discrimination.
President Obama has repeatedly said that the US supports the right of all women and girls to realize their full potential. He should make good on that. It won’t take much: an Executive Order clarifying that the Helms Amendment does not apply to pregnancy resulting from sexual violence will unblock funding, allowing service providers to offer the best care possible to women and girls who so desperately need and want it.