We commend the UK, U.S. and others for playing a leadership role at the largest ever summit on ending sexual violence in conflict. This leadership helped focus global attention on an urgent issue. We applaud Secretary of State John Kerry for doubling his commitment to the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative, and for calling on his diplomats to integrate gender equality in their work. Unfortunately, throughout the summit and in Kerry’s speech, we did not hear enough about what happens after women and girls survive rape.
Kerry’s focus on prevention and putting a stop to impunity is an important part of the larger strategy in the fight to end sexual violence in conflict, but we can’t ignore the rights of women and girls who experience unimaginable sexual violence. Survivors of war rape have the right to the necessary care and support required to rebuild their lives.
We do agree with Kerry, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie that it's #TimeToAct, but it has been the time to act for decades. It's also time to listen. It’s time to listen to the women and girls who have experienced sexual violence and who are working tirelessly in their communities, countries and regions to advocate for their rights and to meet the needs of all survivors. The only way to have meaningful, sustainable action globally is to listen to the women on the ground.
It's time to listen to women's rights leaders in Nigeria who, almost 60 days after nearly 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped, are still protesting the government to bring back their girls. Without the systems in place to address the healthcare needs of escapees and their families, women's groups set up their own trauma counseling centers, with the help of international funding.
It's time to listen to Nela Pamukovic, who began working with Bosnian war rape survivors 20 years ago and continues to tirelessly advocate for proper post-rape care. Nela and the Women's Network of Croatia go from town to town, bringing together survivors of war rape for psychological counseling. They begin the healing process by sharing their stories - stories of sexual abuse that have been buried for years.
Survivors of rape in conflict zones like Nigeria and the former Yugoslavia, like Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo deserve safe access to medical care, counseling and abortion, if they choose. It’s our obligation to devote significant resources, including U.S. funding, to the healthcare needs of survivors. Unfortunately, a little-known, 40 year-old U.S. law stands in our way and has proven an enduring barrier to comprehensive post-rape care for women.
The Helms amendment – which was never mentioned by leaders during the summit – 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, 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. 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 government of 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, who 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, and South Sudan.
Let’s listen to women like Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, Nela Pamukovic and break barriers to comprehensive post-rape care. The #TimeToAct is truly now - before the international spotlight on sexual violence in conflict fades away.