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Sexual assault survivors could lose health access under Trump


Over the last two years, the Trump administration has become increasingly emboldened in its bid to roll back women’s reproductive health and rights. The latest in this strategy of ideology over evidence is the administration’s move last week to prohibit the UN Security Council from approving language that would help survivors of sexual violence that occurs during war.

References to sexual and reproductive health were excised on the grounds that they imply support for abortion. This is a rejection of a commitment to women’s health that has long been supported by the council and featured in numerous resolutions that it and the 193-member General Assembly have adopted.

{mosads}The Trump administration’s callous actions will have devastating consequences. In conflicts throughout the world, sexual violence against women and girls is widespread and strategic, as perpetrators target women and girls from ethnic, religious, or political groups they oppose. Denying access to health care to survivors of sexual violence, such as rape and trafficking, is a violation of their basic human right to health.

Beyond the horrific, violent acts, survivors also face “guilt by association” with the perpetrator; fear of suspected sexually transmitted infections; the perceived dishonor of lost virginity; and the stigma of maternity out of wedlock, especially where children conceived through rape are considered “children of the enemy.” When governments are unresponsive or discriminatory, survivors are traumatized twice: first by the perpetrator, and again by governments who refuse to support them, a violation that compounds their trauma by putting them at risk of further health complications.

Survivors of sexual violence need and have organized and advocated for a variety of critical services, including HIV post-exposure prophylaxis; emergency contraception; and mental health services. In some cases, they need abortion services if they were raped during conflict. Public health experts and doctors universally recognize these services as the standard of care for survivors of sexual assault.

One of President Trump’s first acts in office was to sign an expanded version of the global gag rule, which denies U.S. federal funding to NGOs that provide abortion counseling or referrals, advocate to decriminalize abortion, or expand abortion services.

This rule made it even harder for grassroots organizations to provide specialized health services to marginalized women and girls. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was banned from using the words “fetus,” “transgender” and “science-based” in its 2018 budget documents.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department’s last two annual human rights reports have deleted sections on women’s reproductive rights, including rates of preventable maternal deaths and access to contraception. These actions are part of an insidious and strategic attempt to excise crucial language that protects marginalized groups of people.    

The Trump administration’s attacks on the rights of women and girls threaten to turn back decades of progress. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of UNFPA, the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency, advocates around the world are not sitting idly by, but are meeting this blatant disregard for women’s health with widespread condemnation. The international advocacy community must hold the U.S. accountable for all of the damage its ideological zeal has caused and will continue to cause to women and girls.

Terry McGovern J.D. is Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn professor and chair, department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She is also the founding director of the Global Health Justice and Governance Program at Columbia University.

Tags Assault Donald Trump Sexual assault UN Security Council

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