Is US Foreign Aid Failing Sexual Violence Survivors?

Plamena Solakova

US and Kenyan Presidents together in Nairobi, July 2015. Image available on Flickr.

A few weeks ago, US President Barack Obama visited Kenya, during which time he strongly condemned female genital mutilation, early and forced marriages, sexual assault and domestic violence against women. At the speech at a Nairobi sports center, 5000 Kenyans were loudly applauding Mr Obama, while at the same time, pressure was building up domestically in the US and internationally, for the President to clarify to aid agencies and donors what is known as the Helms Amendment and how it must be practiced in accordance to international laws, and then eventually to scrap it altogether.

The Helms amendment  to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the use of U.S. funds for the performance of abortion “as a method of family planning” or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions. The amendment was introduced in 1973 by Republican Senator Jesse Helms, and in theory it does permit the use of US money for abortions in cases of rape, incest or life-endangering pregnancies of women in developing countries. As long as the abortion is desired by the parent(s) though as a method of family planning, even if it is legal in their respective country, no US money can be used for prior-to-abortion counseling, for the procedure itself, or for post-abortion care.

What happens in practice however, is far worse than the already disappointing original intentions of the amendment – because the language is vague, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has continually failed to provide clear guidance on how to implement the policy and the result is a general total abortion ban, even in cases of sexual violence and in cases of massive conflicts and rape as a weapon of war. The consequences are millions of women heading for unsafe abortions and over 45 000 women dying every year from complications in unsafe abortions in the developing world. Millions more are left with life-long injuries and potentially never being able to have children again. In Kenya itself, the focus of Obama’s recent trip, one in three Kenyan women raped before the age of 18 becomes pregnant as a result of violence. Yet no Dollars are used to help them in practical terms.

To complicate things further, and to burden women’s access to safe abortions even more, an executive order dating back to President Reagan is now known as the “global gag rule”. The 1984 order prohibits foreign Non-governmental organizations from receiving US family planning assistance if they use non-US funds to provide abortion services, counseling or referrals, or engage in advocacy to promote abortion. Since 1984, every Democratic President would lift the order, and every Republican would put it back. Finally this year, it was agreed with bipartisan support, that in the 2016 budget no such policy will exist. This is particularly important as the US is the largest foreign aid country donor in the world, including to NGOs, governments, and United Nations agencies working in the developing world.

Calls for President Obama to use his Kenyan trip to clarify what the Helms amendment means and what cases are excluded from it, came from some 81 House Democrats this month. The amendment, they claimed, is “incorrectly construed as an outright ban on the use of U.S. aid for abortion services” and there is no better time to discuss this that now. Further to damaging the US image abroad, if the current practice of total ban remains in place and thousands of hurt women do not receive the appropriate care they require, the US risks ever more international criticism of violations of article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The latter entitles all victims, including civilian rape victims in war zones, to nondiscriminatory medical care of all kinds. To press the issue even further than mere clarifications, in July 2015, the Global Justice Center in New York even sent a letter to President Obama on behalf of more than 50 international organizations, and asked for urgent executive action to abolish the Helms amendment.

In light of the recent wrong-doings of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, to name just some of the front-runners of sexual violence against women, axing this restrictive US foreign aid policy appears urgent indeed. Not to mention that the US still remains one of very few states in the world to not have ratified the UN convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW – 1979); thus its own domestic arrangements for women may be something to consider too, in line with promoting and caring for the reproductive health and rights of women abroad. After all, a global leader it is – time to prove it!

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