Will 'Safe From the Start' Bring Needed Change for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict and Crisis?

This week at the U.N. General Assembly, amid critical talks about peace and security in Syria and across the Middle East, another narrative is taking its rightful place in New York -- the health and human rights of women and girls globally. Global leaders are finally seeking solutions to an issue that has long awaited attention: gender-based violence in conflict and crisis.

Right now, where there is conflict or crisis, be it Syria, Egypt, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, women are being raped. These sustained and deliberate acts of violence directed against women and girls are designed to tear families and villages apart, terrorize women and girls, and break the will of the opposition. The incorporation of rape as a tool in conflict is barbaric and inhumane. Rape in conflict, rape used as a weapon of war, rape as a method of torture is not a new phenomenon, but is part of a growing global epidemic.

According to Save the Children, up to 80 percent of war rape victims are under 18. A recent Oxfam report states that the "most extensive form of violence" women and girls face in Syria since the conflict began is sexual violence -- including rape.

In New York on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a new $10 million U.S. initiative, Safe from the Start, designed to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict and crisis and build on the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. While I applaud this latest step by the Obama administration to advance gender equity -- especially in humanitarian crisis -- this step can only be sure-footed through support and implementation of comprehensive post-rape health care -- care that includes access to safe and voluntary abortion.

Better than any previous administration, the Obama administration has shown that it fully understands what women are experiencing in war zones. Through the National Action Plan and the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally the U.S. is now a proponent of providing comprehensive services to women and girls raped during conflict. I encourage them to continue this leadership as they work with international partners on Safe from the Start.

Today, on the heels of Secretary Kerry's announcement, the Guttmacher Institute released an analysis of the Helms Amendment -- the decades-old provision that forbids U.S. spending on abortions overseas for purposes of family planning, but does not prohibit U.S. foreign assistance in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Despite that distinction, Helms has been implemented in the field as a complete ban. As a result of this chilling effect, survivors of sexual violence in crisis and conflict lack access to safe abortion services, leaving them to bear children forced on them by rape, or risk their lives with unsafe abortion.

After surviving a rape, access to comprehensive health care is critical. And when women and adolescent girls who are survivors of sexual violence become pregnant, they should have the option to terminate the pregnancy in a safe environment with appropriate health care. Health care delivery in crisis and conflict situations that excludes voluntary abortion services only serves to exacerbate the barriers to wellbeing for these women and girls.

Safe from the Start is an opportunity for the U.S. to provide necessary health care for women and girls who have been raped. We must urge the U.S. government, multilateral agencies, and NGO partners of this important initiative to do the right thing and offer abortion services in their implementation of post-rape care. Our foreign policy can serve as a hindrance to human rights for women and girls raped in crisis or conflict situations, or it can be the catalyst for change.