#HelmsHurts: How the U.S. Continues to Deny Critical Health Care to Women in War Zones

Gender-based violence can strike anywhere in the world, but women living in the midst of armed conflict and instability face a particularly desperate situation.  In 2008, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1820, which recognizes that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

In conflicts throughout the world, from Syria to South Sudan to Peru, rape and sexual violence are utilized by militaries and armed groups as a low cost, low-tech weapon of war.

To further compound the tragedy, U.S. policy currently stands between women raped in war zones and the health care they need.

By law, the United States cannot fund abortion “as a method of family planning” throughout the world.  Known as the Helms amendment, this prohibition has long been misinterpreted as a complete ban on global abortion funding, when in fact it should allow for abortion funding in cases where abortion is not being utilized “as a method of family planning” – namely, in cases of rape, life endangerment of the woman, and incest.  IWHC, together with many of our partners, continues to urge the Obama Administration to correctly interpret the law.

Ensuring access to comprehensive and quality health care for survivors must be part of international efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.  Women who face sexual violence, including those who are raped in conflict and war zones, must have full access to reproductive health care, including emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylactics to prevent HIV infection, and safe abortion services.  Current interpretation of the Helms amendment stands between women and the health care they need.

Freedom from violence is a fundamental human right.  Everyone, regardless of gender, economic status, race, sexual orientation, or where they live, have the right to a life free from violence. As the international community continues to mark the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, access to health care must be part of the conversation. Correctly interpreting the Helms Amendment is an immediate step that President Obama could take to ensure that women who survive rape and sexual violence – as well as victims of incest and women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies – have access to safe abortion services.

Photo: hdptcar/Flickr

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