The rescue of hundreds of Nigerian women and girls from terrorist group Boko Haram received more press coverage than the human rights of women and girls are generally allocated. But what wasn’t included in that coverage is how the U.S. is actively denying those same women and girls the medical care they desperately need.
Many of those rescued were raped and forcibly impregnated while being held captive. This is becoming an all too common tactic of war, employed by Boko Haram and other groups such as the so-called Islamic State. The governor of Borno State in Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active, told reporters, “The sect leaders make a very conscious effort to impregnate the women…Some of them, I was told, even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are doing become children that will inherit their ideology.”
In Iraq and Syria, one humanitarian aid worker described the Islamic State’s strategy of systematic rape and forced pregnancy as having the goal of breaking “their spirits so they would become compliant mothers to children of the Islamic caliphate.”
After surviving systemic gang rape and torture, with international aid groups in the survivor camps and governments around the world looking on, these women and girls are being forced to bear the children of their rapists, in large part due to U.S. abortion restrictions on foreign assistance. UNFPA, the major organization treating the rescued Boko Haram schoolgirls, has stated explicitly that they will not provide abortion services. Nor can they: UNFPA will be defunded by the U.S. if they provide abortions with money from any donor.
These restrictions stem from the archaic Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which restricts foreign aid from being used to provide abortion services in cases of “family planning” (which is understood to allow exceptions for rape, life of the woman and incest). However, the Obama Administration has continued the former Bush Administration policy of administering and enforcing these restrictions as a complete ban on abortion by eliminating the congressionally permitted exceptions for rape, life and incest. This means that if an aid organization is funded at all by U.S. foreign aid—including U.S. aid mixed with funds provided by the United Nations or other foreign governments—then the organization’s funding is subject to this ban on abortion.
Restricting abortion access for these women and girls violates international law mandating medical care to the sick and wounded under the Geneva Conventions. Recognizing this is especially important for countries like Nigeria, where abortion is highly restricted under national law; the mandates of international humanitarian law can be used to provide abortion services to women who desperately need them.
During a recent human rights review at the U.N. (the Universal Periodic Review), six countries challenged the application of the U.S. abortion restrictions for girls and women raped in war. This is not the first time the restrictions received such scrutiny: Since 2010, the application of the Helms Amendment has been criticized by other countries demanding that the U.S. change its policy, including allies such as the U.K. and Norway, the European Parliament and over 60 organizations from around the world.
While the U.S. continues to impose its regressive policy, the international community increasingly recognizes the importance of safe abortion services for girls and women raped in war. In 2013, the U.N. Security Council passed two resolutions, which the U.S. voted yes on, calling on U.N. member states to ensure that humanitarian aid for victims of war rape includes access to abortion as a part of their rights to comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made clear that restrictive abortion laws and the denial of abortion constitute structural gender-based discrimination and that medical response to war rape victims must be provided in line with international humanitarian law.
The U.N. resolutions motivated the British government to officially change its foreign aid policy to affirm that its funds can be used to provide abortion services for girls and women raped in war. The U.K. government also stated that the denial of an abortion in these cases can constitute torture or cruel and inhuman treatment. Just last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Nigeria urging access to abortion services for those raped in the conflict, in line with the non-discrimination mandates of humanitarian law.
Yet, there has been no action from the Obama Administration to date, who seem more preoccupied with trade bills than women’s rights. And this failure to act has been deadly: Girls and women are dying in war zones around the world as a result of denied abortions, whether from childbirth, unsafe abortions or suicide.
It is entirely within President Obama’s power to accept the recommendations made during the review of the United States and then act on them by issuing an executive order ensuring exceptions for rape, life of the woman and incest, and for those raped in war, affirming their rights under the Geneva Conventions to all necessary medical care. Ensuring that the brave women and girls who survive untold horrors at the hands of terrorist groups receive the medical care they are entitled to, is the least that he can do.
Sign the Global Justice Center’s petition telling President Obama to overturn Helms, to help the women and girls raped by Boko Haram and the Islamic State.