Women raped in crisis or conflict

During the 2012 elections, the issues of “legitimate rape,” pregnancies resulting from it and the rights of women were brought to the forefront. There were plenty of political consequences for candidates who took extreme positions and showed themselves insensitive to the issue of rape.

But one area that is getting more and more attention is the issue of violence against women overseas — in many cases, horrific stories of rape in conflict and crisis.

Right now, we are hearing stories of rapes after the typhoon in the Philippines. The United Nations Population Fund reported that up to 65,000 women from age 15 to 49 are at risk of sexual violence after the disaster. Similar problems occurred in 15 camps after the earthquake in Haiti.

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The history of rape in conflict situations is truly horrendous. It is not new, but it is now being talked about and investigated and prosecuted. Violence against women is a tool of war in places like Syria, Sudan and, of course, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 48 women or girls are raped every hour. In Bosnia, between 20,000 and 50,000 female civilians were raped; in Rwanda the estimates given are as low as 250,000 and as high as 500,000.

It is difficult to get your head around the numbers but even more difficult to try and comprehend what must be happening to these women and girls.

According to a report from Save the Children, 65 percent to 80 percent of war rape victims are girls less than 18 years old.

These women and girls need comprehensive healthcare, including access to safe, voluntary abortions if they become pregnant.

Right now, the U.S. government is prohibited, under the Helms Amendment (named for former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.), from using foreign aid funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” Executive branch interpretation of this 1973 law has basically shut down use of any U.S. humanitarian aid for such help.

Now, it seems pretty clear that helping women in such crisis and conflict situations where pregnancy is due to rape is not in any way, shape or form “family planning.”

Help for these women should be part and parcel of our humanitarian aid policy.

Next week, on Dec 11, women from Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda are joining the Center for Health and Gender Equity and Human Rights Watch to bring to light the need for such comprehensive care.

They will tell their stories of rape in conflict and crisis and they will call on the Obama administration to make it clear that such care should include safe abortions for women who have been raped.

Let us hope that their words and their stories carry the weight that they deserve.

This post was updated on Dec. 5 to clarify the language and interpretation of the Helms Amendment.