Few care services available for women, raped and pregnant, escaping ISIS captivity

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By Serra Sippel/Guest blogger — April 23, 2015

Just last week, Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on the campaign of rape being waged in Iraq by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and called for much-needed medical and psychological help for the survivors. The organization interviewed 20 women and girls in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk earlier this year who escaped captivity by the militant group, and also spoke to medical workers who are doing their best to help the survivors.

According to the HRW report, nearly all the women and girls interviewed said they “had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as ‘gifts.’” What they, and so many others, have gone through is horrific. Many of the survivors testified that they tried to commit suicide and watched as others did the same. Some women and girls are reportedly returning from captivity pregnant from rape.

Several studies have found that pregnancy from rape in conflict amplifies the psychological, social, and physical consequences for survivors. During wartime, “pregnancy is a leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19, most frequently due to complications of delivery and unsafe abortion,” according to a 2009 report by Save the Children and the United Nations Population Fund.

The HRW report also took an in-depth look at the post-rape care that these women and girls are receiving—and what they are not. The organization called for improved efforts to provide access to mental health care and safe abortion services and also called for improved training for medical professionals, nongovernmental organizations, and journalists who interact with rape survivors.

“The women and girls need trauma support and ongoing counseling,” said the Human Rights Watch report. “Not all had immediate access to treatment for injuries; emergency contraception; safe and legal abortion services, including sexual and reproductive health access; and psychosocial support.”

War rape and sexualized violence continues almost unabated in Iraq and Syria, particularly by the extremist group ISIS as well as by Assad forces, who have long committed violence against women in detention and at checkpoints. According to a March 23 report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sexualized violence is used by ISIS to spread terror, persecute ethnic and religious minorities, and suppress communities that oppose its ideology. Still, the report says, “it is extremely difficult to obtain reliable data on conflict-related sexual violence” in Syria because of the "prevailing insecurity, fear of stigma and reprisal, the lack of specialized services, and challenge in accessing those services.”

While human rights experts have found that pregnancy from rape can exacerbate the consequences of the attack itself, not much has been done. Yes, the United Nations has condemned it; U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed outrage; and world leaders and celebrities have convened in London and New York to address it. Graphic press coverage has turned the stomachs of global citizens.

But there is much, much more left to do.

In addition to doing everything in its power to end kidnapping, rape, and forced marriages, the global community—including donor nations, the UN, and civil society—must help ensure access to quality post-rape care for survivors. The international community must work together to provide the medical and psychological help needed through international relief organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and government aid.

The U.S. government can do its part by ensuring that its foreign aid packages that address rape in conflict and crisis settings provide desperately needed services that women are not getting: safe abortion care. Obama has the power to break political barriers to safe abortion assistance to women and girls who are raped in conflict—something that right now is stalled by conservative U.S. politics.

Under the Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, U.S. foreign assistance cannot be used for abortions “as a method of family planning,” but it does not prevent assistance in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Yet, despite this distinction, no U.S. president has ever implemented the measure correctly. Obama should take executive action on the Helms Amendment. After all, to assert that what is happening to these women and girls has anything to do with “family planning” is a desecration of the term. A woman raped has already been unforgivably denied her say in how her family will be planned.

This call to action has been supported by organizations from all over the world including Human Rights Watch, the Global Fund for Women, Amnesty International USA, Pathfinder International, Catholics for Choice, and the International Campaign to Stop Rape in Conflict. It has been supported by faith leaders from across the nation. It has been supported by the former administrator of USAID, the agency largely tasked with administering humanitarian aid overseas.

The Human Rights Watch report makes it clear that now is the time for Obama to finally act. Now is the time to offer up more than just words. Now is the time to stand with women and girls raped in conflict. With executive action once and for all, Obama can do just that.