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Helms Amendment Abandons Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya and Ethiopia

Late last month Ethiopia and Kenya welcomed President Obama, but he isn’t the only person they are hosting. Ethiopia and Kenya each host over half a million refugees, the largest refugee populations on the continent and some of the largest in the world. Many of these individuals have been displaced by the violence and unrest in their native Somalia or have fled the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.

The use of gender-based violence, including rape and forced marriage, by various armed groups in these situations has been pervasive, with the most atrocious reports grabbing international headlines and drawing condemnation from around the globe.

However, survivors need far more than just words, they need access to comprehensive post-rape care, including safe abortion services.

Sexual violence survivors in Somalia and South Sudan face many obstacles to obtaining the vital care that they need. Reproductive and other health services were already limited in these states and years of conflict have only further degraded weak health systems. The chaos and insecurity of conflict and displacement can also make it difficult for women to seek services like emergency contraception, which could prevent pregnancy. Women who have been raped often face stigma in their communities and abortion laws in South Sudan and Somalia lack rape exceptions, making it illegal for women to receive a safe abortion.

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President Obama can help survivors of sexual violence by correcting the implementation of the Helms amendment to explicitly allow funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.

Even those displaced women and girls who now find themselves in Ethiopia or Kenya, where abortion is explicitly legal in cases of rape, or where laws are generally interpreted to allow abortion in these scenarios (as is the case in Kenya), face yet another barrier—a harmful United States foreign policy restriction, known as the Helms amendment. The Helms amendment prohibits the use of US foreign assistance funds for abortion as a “method of family planning”, but has been misapplied as a total ban on funding for abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or when a pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. Left with few options, many of these women resort to unsafe abortions that could result in injury, disability or even death.

President Obama can help survivors of sexual violence by correcting the implementation of the Helms amendment to explicitly allow funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. Instead, he has chosen not to act. Disappointingly, the president also did not take the opportunity during his recent trips to Kenya and Ethiopia to talk directly to women and civil society organizations about the impact this necessary change could have in ensuring access to safe abortion.

There is still time to do the right thing, and PAI will not lessen our call for action. Women who are sexual violence survivors simply deserve better.

President Obama and the United States should be standing with women around the world, not standing between them and the post-rape medical care they need.

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