Time to Act for Women and Girls Raped in Conflict

At the Obama administration's six-year mark we can celebrate much that has been done to further the cause of women and girls here in the United States and around the globe. Legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and executive actions on global violence, for example, have moved us forward in significant ways.

But, after six years, President Obama has yet to take a critical step -- completely within his power -- to provide women and girls raped in conflict the help they need.

At the United Nations in September he acknowledged the seriousness of the problem: "Mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war."

Obama's State Department recently released a report on the implementation of the "U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally" -- a strategy triggered by an executive order.

The report is a document with pages and pages of words but shockingly little that stems from women's experiences and needs. There is scant promised or completed action, especially in terms of post-rape care. It does not even mention the U.S. commitment to provide sexual and reproductive health care for rape survivors (a pledge articulated in Obama's "National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security") nor does it recognize the need for safe abortions for those impregnated by their rapists.

The report refers to "inter-agency working groups" and "global public-private partnerships," "information sharing" and the "collection, analysis and use of data and research." To its credit, it does discuss HIV prevention, but otherwise the document is seriously short on actual remedies to combat violence against women or to provide the health care those raped in conflict need.

In contrast, the recent 34-page United Nations report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security is comprehensive and thorough. It is full of research on the key issues, lays out specific courses of action and deals directly with comprehensive health programs for women and girls.

The Secretary-General states the following:

"In line with Security Council resolution 2122 (2013), I call on all actors to support improved access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in conflict-affected settings. This must include access to HIV counseling and testing, which remains limited in many settings, and the safe termination of pregnancies for survivors of conflict-related rape."

So, why is President Obama delaying action on the critical issue of post-rape care in the face of such international support? For starters, leadership at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not directed proper implementation of the Helms amendment. As many know, that unfortunate amendment prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortion "as a method of family planning." Rape, incest and saving a woman's life are not family planning. Yet the amendment is implemented as a complete ban on abortion funding globally.

Correct interpretation of the amendment requires simply that the president use the power of his pen to direct our agencies, including USAID, to properly implement comprehensive care for women and girls.

The U.S. government is the largest bilateral donor of global health, development, and humanitarian assistance. It is unconscionable that the U.S. is failing to use its considerable power to facilitate access to post-rape care for women and girls. After six years in office it is time for the president to move beyond words to support those raped in conflict. If he does, the world will take notice. And so will the "mothers, sisters, daughters," whose suffering the president so appropriately recognized.