Ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in EU humanitarian aid

Sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war in conflict regions and causes untold damage and suffering to its victims. Lorna Hutchinson reports on a recent webinar examining this issue.
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By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

25 Oct 2020

Opening the discussion, Dutch Renew Europe deputy Sophie in t‘ Veld said that a topic close to her heart for many years has been the plight of women in conflict situations - in particular those who are the victims of rape as a weapon of war.

“I think it has been established that the systematic rape and deliberate impregnation of women can be considered genocide because it is very deliberately meant to destroy a nation, a people, a community. But of course, it is also an individual tragedy for women who are very often - on top of having been violently raped and impregnated - expelled from their community without access to proper sexual and reproductive health care and abortion if they need one and want one.”

“Survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are at great risk in both pregnancy and childbirth. The conditions imposed by war - malnutrition, anaemia, malaria, exposure, infection, and disease - greatly increase the risk of maternal mortality and injuries from childbirth” Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center

European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarcic, began his keynote speech by saying that sexual and gender-based violence is not just another form of violence; it is a threat to human life and a denial of human dignity. “Sadly, women and girls suffer most; they are often the target for discrimination and sexual abuse. In times of conflict, sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war; but also when natural disasters strike, cases of rape and assault rise quickly. This is a very painful reality on the ground and we hear about it on a daily basis.”

Lenarcic said that sexual and gender-based violence often goes unreported, lurking in the shadows and remaining unaddressed during moments of crisis. “That is why we must speak out. As humanitarians, we have a duty to provide a voice for those who have been silenced.”

He said that survivors of rape in the context of armed conflicts require specific attention and should have access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services. “Where a pregnancy threatens the life of a woman or a girl or causes unbearable suffering, international humanitarian law may justify provision for safe abortions. However, the provision of these services will depend on, of course, the individual woman’s wishes, but also on the security of the humanitarian workers as well as on context-related factors such as the legal framework of the country where these activities take place. At the same time, the clear existence of the rights to abortion under humanitarian law has not been established in an authoritative manner.”

Dr Manisha Kumar, head of the Safe Abortion Care Taskforce for Médecins Sans Frontières, said that unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal death worldwide and the only one that is almost entirely preventable. “Every safe abortion provided is potentially a maternal death averted because any pregnant person with an unwanted pregnancy who is seeking to terminate that pregnancy is at risk. If they do not have access to safe abortion care, they are at risk of undergoing an unsafe abortion and risking all of the complications and consequences to their health that we treat every day in our hospitals.”

Kumar emphasised that safe abortion care needs to be understood as a medical necessity, independent of the context and the reason for the abortion. Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center in New York, said that in the past ten years of their work on abortion access in humanitarian settings, there has been both great progress as well as backlash.

“Pregnant persons are still routinely denied access to safe abortion services in humanitarian settings and proactive action grounded in fundamental rights under international law - including by powerful humanitarian donors like the European Commission - is vitally needed.”

“The systematic rape and deliberate impregnation of women can be considered genocide because it is very deliberately meant to destroy a nation, a people, a community” Renew Europe MEP, Sophie in t’ Veld

She said that of those who become pregnant from sexual violence and conflict, many seek to terminate their pregnancy. She cited one study in Eastern DRC which found that nearly half of women who become pregnant from sexual violence seek or undergo termination of their pregnancy, often using medications obtained outside the pharma-healthcare sector.

Similarly, in the wake of the Rohingya genocide there were reports of spikes in the number of pregnant women and girls in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Radhakrishnan explained that during a UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar in 2018, medical clinics reported increased requests for late-term termination, and girls aged 13 to 17 requested terminations from clinics stating that they had been raped.

Where they were unable to obtain medical terminations, the mission reported that women and girls resorted to unsafe abortions. This, said Radhakrishnan, “tells us two very important things: first, that abortion services are clearly needed and desired by pregnant persons in humanitarian settings, and second, that the unavailability of safe abortions does not reduce the instance of abortion; rather, it makes it unsafe and asks pregnant people to take unnecessary risks with their health and lives.”

“In addition, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are at great risk in both pregnancy and childbirth. The conditions imposed by war - malnutrition, anaemia, malaria, exposure, infection, and disease - greatly increase the risk of maternal mortality and injuries from childbirth. In these contexts, abortion is often a health or life-saving intervention.”

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