Helms hurts: War, rape, and politics of the absurd

by Lisa Shannon, co-founder of Sister Somalia
Friday, 18 March 2016 10:18 GMT

In this file May 28, 2010 photo, pregnant women wait for health checks at Salesian Sisters Diocese in Wau, Sudan. REUTERS/Mohamed Nurdldin Abdallh

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For past 40 years, USAID has withheld support for abortions abroad, even in extreme cases such as rape and incest. This is absurd.

Marta loved school, and made it to sixth grade by the time she was twelve - no small feat in Congo. But then, she was gang raped. There was no way to hide her pregnancy on her little 12-year-old frame. Her family found out, and kicked her out of the house.

Naama Haviv, longtime human rights activist and Executive Director of Panzi Foundation USA met Marta last fall in a brothel. "She had no other choice," Haviv wrote of the encounter. "The men pay 1,000 Congolese Francs – around $1.00 – for 'quick sex' They put the youngest girls out front to lure in the customers."

At the time, Marta was just hoping she hadn’t caught HIV— many of her customers refuse to wear condoms.

Any conversation about rape in conflict— from Congo to Somalia to Syria— is incomplete without discussing the pregnancies the rapes produce, and subsequent issues of abortion. For many survivors, their rape is inextricably linked to a pregnancy—and the stakes cannot be higher. As horrific as rape is all on its own, it is not a singular trauma. When the survivor is impregnated, the rape becomes a catalyst for an avalanche of misfortunes that ultimately can cost her safety and livelihood. Rape can bury a woman, figuratively and often, literally.

Many seek wildly dangerous abortions, such as consuming cocktails of bark, seeds, and a grab-bag of pills, or paying men to stomp on their stomachs and back until they bleed, a procedure known to rupture the uterus and kill the woman. In fact, more than 47,000 women and girls die every year as a result of unsafe abortions — 62 percent of these in Africa.

But many survivors don’t have even unsafe abortions as an option. “The day I learned I was pregnant was as terrible as it was when I was raped….I should have terminated the pregnancy but there was no way,” says “Elodie”, who was gang raped and impregnated in Congo when she was 15. “I thought of the end of my life.”

Across cultures, suicidal thoughts are a shocking and consistent refrain from rape survivors who become pregnant. In Mogadishu, 17-year old “Kaltuun” was desperate to escape her forced marriage to a much older man when he raped and impregnated her. With no options, she doused herself gasoline and set herself on fire.

Others do their best to hide the pregnancy under layers of loose clothing, secretly give birth, then abandon the children. The Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo is currently raising more than 50 children left behind by rape-survivor mothers.  Others leave the newborn infants on dusty side streets and ditches. Frontline aid workers in Mogadishu report that three to four newborns are cast out in garbage bags every week.

For those who birth and keep the children, the situation can grow worse still. In Somalia, 30-something mother of seven “Iman” was rejected by her husband and lost all of her children. But that was just the start. Once she gave birth, the unrelenting calls from al-Shabaab began, demanding she kill the baby, or they would kill her. Al-Shabaab doesn’t care she was gang raped by Somali soldiers. She had a baby without a father, adultery in their view, punishable by public stoning.

These are the women and girls whose lives are profoundly, unalterably impacted by lack of access to safe abortion.

Despite the catastrophic impact of pregnancy on survivors, so thick is the stigma around abortion, mere mention of it invites celebrated human rights leaders to speak in hushed tones and insist on “off the record” conversations for fear of government reprisals, crackdowns, and damaged reputations.

The 43-year-old Helms Amendment, led by the notoriously bigoted Senator Jesse Helms, banned the United States funding for abortions abroad “as a method of family planning.”

Here’s the twist: Supporting abortion for women survivors of rape, incest, and life endangerment abroad, isn’t actually illegal. The status quo in US domestic programs that ban abortion funding is to allow exceptions for extreme cases, such rape, incest, or life endangerment. Nonetheless, for the past 40 years, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, USAID has withheld all support for abortions abroad, even in these most extreme, life-threatening circumstances.

The policy issue is a simple question of the president’s interpretation: Are the pregnancies due to gang rape, forced marriage, and the like—driving girls to suicide, forced prostitution at 12 years old, the death threats, the newborns thrown out with garbage— reasonably interpreted as issues of “family planning”?


A recent report by Guttmacher Policy Review, describes the fallout from the Helms amendment, from “shortages in life-saving resources” to “a pervasive atmosphere of confusion, misunderstanding, and inhibition around other abortion-related activities.”

Take misoprostol, a drug used to treat ulcers and stop postpartum hemorrhage often associated with unsafe abortions. In combination with mifepristone— and to a great extent on its own— misoprostol also delivers safe, effective, inexpensive first-trimester abortions. 

Because of the Helms Amendment, USAID will not fund misoprostol.

The solution, for starters, is as simple as the president reinterpreting the law. Both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders made history last month by committing to fix Helms if elected. Republican presidential candidates should join them and stand beside women and girls who need our help worldwide. Given that 88 percent of Americans support abortion rights in extreme cases such as when the life of the mother is at risk, the shift would bring foreign aid in line with the values held nearly universally by the American public.

Reinterpretation of Helms is no silver bullet. But it would be a first step in broader shifts, such as providing rape kits with emergency contraception, funding misoprostol and other life saving equipment to health clinics, while giving frontline activists the extra boost in breaking the deadly silence now enshrouding vital discussions.

With support from the United States, a 12-year-old survivor of gang rape like Marta might not have to panic, tugging at her school uniform, desperately trying to hide a swelling belly on her bony frame. She wouldn’t have to drop out of school, lose her home, her family and sell herself for a dollar.

Instead, with a dollar or two in support from the United States, she could visit a health clinic, receive a safe abortion, and get back her body—and her life. 

Lisa Shannon is an American author, human rights activist, and founder of Run for Congo Women and co-founder of Sister Somalia.