An organization promoting women’s health and reproductive rights is calling on the Obama administration to guarantee post-rape care — including access to safe and voluntary abortions — to women and girls raped in crisis or conflict as part of the United States’ humanitarian response.
The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) issued the call Wednesday, asking President Barack Obama to issue an executive order allowing humanitarian groups receiving U.S. funding to provide the care. The call is being issued as part of an education and advocacy campaign — “Break the Barriers: Stand with Women and Girls in Conflict and Crisis” — launched during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. about the devastating effects of sexual violence.
Advocates say the need for the executive order is due to a provision of the decades-old Helms amendment. The use of U.S. foreign assistance to perform abortion as a method of family planning is prohibited. But CHANGE and others say this doesn’t include cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.
“It’s clarifying for organizations that provide U.S. humanitarian action overseas what is or isn’t allowable under the U.S. policy,” CHANGE President Serra Sippel said of the order.
Sippel said such an order is “the logical next step” for the Obama administration, which has made strides in advocating the needs of women abroad.
“There has been an ongoing effort by this administration to really secure a place for women’s rights and empowerment within U.S. foreign policy and really put women at the center,” Sippel said.
The push for post-rape services comes as women’s rights groups, humanitarian aide workers and non-governmental organizations in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere sound the alarm on sexual violence against women and girls in times of disaster or conflict.
Last week, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) called for more protection for women and girls against sexual violence after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The organization estimates that 65,000 were vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual violence in the disaster-struck nation.
In September, the aid organization, Oxfam, reported that the conflict in Syria had made women and girls increasingly vulnerable to rape.
And in June 2011, the American Journal of Public Health released a study revealing that 48 women between the ages of 15 and 49 are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Increases in rapes were also reported in Haiti, where informal tent cites sprouted up in the aftermath of the country’s monstrous Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. The issue is the subject of the book “Beyond Shock” by journalist Anne-Christine d’Adesky as the fourth anniversary approaches.
But in Haiti, like a number of countries at the center of crisis, abortion is illegal, forcing some advocates to secretly seek services for rape victims. Other times, victims themselves seek out services, often leading to death or complications.
“We know women will seek abortion services for some women no matter what and then you have issues around illegal, unsafe abortions,” Sippel said.
Sippel said her organization is in no way advocating that the U.S. break the law in countries where abortion is forbidden. But given the push on the ground in several nations including Haiti to loosen abortion restrictions, the U.S. should be prepared.
“With the U.S. government, what we‘re saying is ‘You can’t sit on the sidelines,’” Sippel said. “Take a stand for women, and start with this executive order. It’s a signal to the global community that the U.S. government is in agreement. This is a basic service — a necessary service — to make accessible to women who have been raped in conflict and sends a signal to the countries where it is illegal in the case of rape that the U.S. is ready to support these services.”