How Congress Can Help Women and Girls in Conflict Zones

U.S. foreign policy prevents the protection of refugees, those in conflict zones, and those impacted by natural disasters. 

Women outside at a camp for the internally displaced in al-Suwar, Sudan, about 15 kilometers north of Wad Madani, on June 22, 2023. The fighting in Sudan between the regular army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, has claimed more than 2,000 lives since April 15. (AFP via Getty Images)

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently publicly condemned increasing gender-based violence in Sudan in conjunction with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and other major global health and human rights groups. This spike in violence—which includes sexual violence toward internally displaced and refugee women and girls—has been steadily rising since conflict began in the region a few months ago.

After UNFPA’s announcement, the House Appropriations Committee passed the 2024 State and Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOP) budget. This proposed funding of approximately $461 million is a striking cut to international family planning funding, shortchanging the current investment of $607.5 million—a financial backing falling far too short to begin with—by 24 percent.

The bill also keeps the Trump-expanded global gag rule, reinstates the Helms Amendment and defunds UNFPA—the agency calling attention to this shocking increase in gender-based violence against Sudan’s displaced populations.

Even before the beginning of the conflict in mid-April, more than 3 million women and girls in Sudan were at risk of gender-based violence, according to UNFPA estimates. That number now sits at a disquieting 4.2 million people.

In humanitarian settings and among refugee populations, the bodies and lives of girls and women are often the first on the line. Yet survivors of these human rights abuses and those at risk do not have access to essential and protective sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are more than a peacetime luxury.

After a natural disaster or conflict, the (understandable) focus on basic necessities like food, shelter and water often overshadows women and adolescent girls’ vital need for sexual and reproductive healthcare.

These needs don’t just disappear after a disaster; no matter the environment, there will always be a want for pregnancy and birth care, abortion and contraception access, gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual violence support, and harmful practices intervention. The need for sexual and reproductive healthcare only increases in unstable environments, as evidenced by UNFPA’s recent publication

When girls are forced to drop out of school—which can often serve as a protective space in times of conflict—they are exposed to a heightened risk of early female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and sexual violence. When a family’s livelihoods and economic health are impacted by war or environmental tragedy, girls are at an increased risk of transactional sex and child marriage. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened these outcomes, threatening global progress to end gender-based violence and child marriage by 2030. 

It is a human right to access healthcare services and counseling that allow individuals to plan and space their families, determine the course of their lives, and control their health and goals. That human right still exists when people are fleeing dangerous situations, displaced or seeking refuge. But U.S. foreign policy and funding choices have prevented the protection and care of refugees, those in conflict zones, and those impacted by natural disasters. 

The Helms Amendment, in place since 1973, prevents U.S. foreign assistance from “funding abortion as a method of family planning” and thwarts U.S. funding from supporting abortion care in international settings.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have long been reported in conflict zones worldwide. Yet, the Helms Amendment has consistently prevented U.S. dollars from funding safe abortions for those in dire need. Language in the amendment specifies that medical providers cannot offer an elective abortion, which can lead to people seeking unsafe options to terminate a pregnancy. For those who have experienced sexual trauma, the ability to control personal decisions in the aftermath of an assault is paramount. Still, the Helms Amendment directly interferes with the ability to make decisions for oneself and receive time-sensitive abortion care. 

Often instrumental in supporting these vulnerable communities is the United Nations Population Fund. UNFPA provides resources, education, and opportunities for global communities to plan their families, escape gender-based violence, and avoid maternal mortality. UNFPA delivers access to contraception, midwife training, prenatal care, and programs targeted to end FGM/C and child marriage. But despite running this critical programming in 150 countries, U.S. funds have been woefully withheld from UNFPA for years. Recent examination of funding levels for the current family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) funding program demonstrates that there should be a commitment of $116 million to UNFPA, but present funding levels amount to $32.5 million. 

While the U.S. cuts corners on funding UNFPA—resulting in a staggering difference of $83.5 million—it puts the health and lives of people at risk, particularly those who already face unstable situations or are seeking refuge. Fully funding UNFPA and repealing the Helms amendment is essential to ensuring that U.S. policy does not continuously harm those already most at risk. 

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have long been reported in conflict zones worldwide. Yet, the Helms Amendment has consistently prevented U.S. dollars from funding safe abortions for those in dire need.

It is far past time that Congress passes the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act, which will repeal Helms, curb unsafe abortions, prevent maternal death, and protect the right to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

With the stroke of a pen, the Biden administration also has the power to issue guidance to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on Helms Amendment interpretation, ensuring exceptions like rape, incest, and life endangerment are allowed.

To strengthen this move, Congress can pass the Support UNFPA Funding Act, which would restore funding to UNFPA for the next five years.  

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are more than a peacetime luxury. While Sudan’s displaced populations face rising rates of sexual violence, the House Appropriations Committee has chosen to pass a budget that will defund the agencies and programs that are most prepared to expertly respond to the needs of girls and women in these environments.

Protecting access to necessary healthcare for refugees and those in humanitarian settings is non-negotiable. That’s why it’s far past time the U.S. prioritizes total funding of UNFPA and repeals its harmful foreign policies. 

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Rachel Marchand, MPH, is the public policy manager and podcast producer for the rePROs Fight Back initiative, where she develops content and strategy related to international and domestic sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice.