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Changing the Conversation on Sexual Violence in Conflict

A little-known, 41-year-old U.S. law has erected an enduring barrier to comprehensive post-rape care for women.

World leaders have failed to make healthcare and healing for survivors a priority in addressing the epidemic of rape in conflict. (Photo: Amnesty International / Flickr)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and other world leaders at the largest ever summit on rape in war. We commend the United States, United Kingdom, and others for playing a leadership role in these global efforts to address and prevent rape in conflict. Rape has become an all-too-common weapon of war aimed to control, intimidate, and humiliate millions of women and girls.

But the conversation and action need to go further. For far too long, the international dialogue has stopped at prevention. Leaders have failed to discuss how to respond to the aftermath of rape. They have failed to address the healthcare needs of survivors. And they have failed to make sure women and girls get the necessary care and support to rebuild their lives.

A little-known, 41-year-old U.S. law is a key reason for these continued and systemic failures. It has proven an enduring barrier to comprehensive post-rape care for women, including access to counseling, support, and safe abortion.

The Legacy of Jesse Helms

The Helms amendment restricts the use of U.S. aid for abortions “as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions,” but does not prohibit such funding in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. However, a lack of clarity around the amendment has resulted in its misapplication as a complete ban on funding abortion.

As a result, most organizations that rely on U.S. aid too often turn their backs when pregnant rape survivors ask for help. Those health providers are afraid to lose their funding and therefore avoid abortion services and referrals altogether.

This must end. The long-overdue global conversation about rape in conflict must include the pressing need for women and girls to access comprehensive post-rape care. This was a conversation the world needed decades ago, with wars being waged against women’s bodies in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Burma. It was needed in 2011 when conflict broke out in Libya. It is needed more than ever today.

For every day of inaction, horrific wars worldwide rage on. Nearly 50 women and girls are raped every hour in eastern Congo. Sexual violence is a primary reason women and girls are fleeing Syria, according to the International Rescue Committee. In the aftermath of such unimaginable sexual violence, these women and girls are being denied health care they need, including access to abortion.

Listening to Women

It’s time for policymakers to listen to the voices of women and girls who survive rape. Women and girls who, in the midst of bloody civil wars and regional conflicts, are courageously working to heal themselves and others, and stop the vicious cycle of violence.

“I plead for the government of the United States—a government that is respected and its policies replicated across the globe—to start investing its money to heal the mind, body, and spirit of women who have been affected by conflict,” says Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, Executive Director ofIsis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) in Uganda and longtime Global Fund for Women grantee partner. She has worked for over three decades to address the forgotten healthcare needs of women in conflict and post-conflict settings, organizing medical camps in Uganda, Liberia, South Sudan, and refugee camps in Africa.

Global Fund for Women and the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) echo this plea. We call on the United States to be bold in its leadership on a global response to sexual violence, and in doing so, to address both prevention and responses to sexual violence. With more than 65 leaders of U.S. and international organizations from 30 nations standing with us, we have asked Secretary Kerry to take action at the London Summit.

With the momentum of the London Summit propelling us forward, now is the time to end the decades of misapplication of the Helms amendment and break the barriers to post-rape care. Now is the time to listen to the needs of women and girls globally.

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