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Survivors of ISIS Sexual Violence Deserve Access to Safe and Legal Abortion

The violent atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have become notorious, and this week the militant’s brutality toward women and girls made headlines with an opinion piece by Samer Muscati, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. She recalls the story of a 12-year-old girl “Jalila” who escaped after being abducted from her home and raped by ISIS militants. Stories like this — of violence, rape, early and forced marriage, and slavery have become all too familiar as ISIS continues to fight for control of the region. However, as Muscati highlights, the trauma doesn’t come to an end when these women and girls escape the cruelty of ISIS. The difficulties they face afterward in accessing critical reproductive health services and other types of post-rape care can prolong the nightmare.

For survivors of sexual violence, there is only a small window of time in which emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for STIs can be effective. Some women are held by their attackers for days or weeks, or forced to flee long distances when they escape. So for them, it may be impossible to access these services in time. Even for women who are able to seek medical services immediately, they are so inconsistently provided that they still may be unable to receive the timely care they need. As a result, some women become pregnant.

These women and girls are left with few options. Safe abortion services are unavailable to most, as abortion is highly restricted in much of the region. Abortion is actually illegal in Iraq, with only a non-explicit and narrowly interpreted exception to protect the life of the woman. Women and girls desperate to put the situation behind them and fearful of the stigma rape and pregnancy may bring on them and their families have turned to dangerous procedures and even suicide.

The magnitude of the situation has shown how critical it is that women have access to safe abortion services. In response to this growing crisis, Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq where many have fled to escape violence, has started looking at the possibility of creating new laws to allow women raped by ISIS to receive abortions.

Muscati’s piece is a call to action to governments in the region, the United Nations, and international donors to ensure that women and girls have access to a full range of medical and psychosocial services they need. For PAI, it’s a confirmation of what we already know to be true: For women, including those who are survivors of sexual violence or are living in areas affected by conflict, reproductive health services like emergency contraception, treatment for injuries and STIs, maternal health care, and safe and legal abortion can be lifesaving.

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