Rhiannon DiClemente, Resident Blogger (’16, Temple University Beasley School of Law)
The number of women and girls raped in conflict worldwide is overwhelming —500,000 during the Rwandan genocide; 64,000 during the civil war in Sierra Leone; more than 40,000 during the conflict in Liberia; 60,000 during the war in former Yugoslavia—the list goes on. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 2 million women have been raped.
Rape is one of the oldest weapons of war, yet throughout most of history has gone unpunished—the spoils of war, collateral damage. Only in the past few decades has rape even been recognized as a crime of war. While the United States government has vowed to prosecute those who perpetrate sexual violence in conflict, it has forgotten one important thing—the victims.
Around the world, women and girls who are pregnant as a result of rape are unable to access the care they rightfully deserve. Why? A 40-year-old law named after a senator who led the crusade to reduce U.S. international aid to what he called “foreign rat holes” and compared abortion rights to the Nazi Holocaust—the Helms Amendment.
America’s “foreign policy skeleton in the closet,” the Helms Amendment prohibits that U.S. funds “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” But that’s not all—Helms prohibits that aid recipients “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” Basically, groups receiving U.S. assistance (i.e. a lot) are prohibited from discussing abortion. In practice, the Helms Amendment has been implemented as a complete ban on abortion. To top it off—this is happening in countries where abortion is legal.
Let’s be clear—rape, incest, and saving a woman’s life are not family planning. Censoring free speech is a violation of human rights. Forcing women and girls to carry unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape is torture. The Helms Amendment is reproductive imperialism.
This politicizing and stigmatizing of abortion has devastating consequences in countries with struggling health systems and unwieldy maternal mortality rates. The lives of women and girls are not a political issue—they deserve better than this archaic, over-reaching, and paternalistic law. True justice for victims of sexual violence in conflict will only be a reality when women’s voices are put at the center of our foreign policy agenda. We must ensure that victims have access to comprehensive post-rape health care, including access to safe abortion care.
At a June 2013 conference on ending sexual violence in conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that “ending [sexual violence in conflict] is not just a personal priority, it is a priority of President Obama, the government of the United State[s] and our allies.” He declared that sexual violence should be “banished to the dark ages and the history books.” To that I say—if you’re serious, send the Helms Amendment there too.