Respect Rape Victims’ Right to Abortions in Syria

by Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

Since 2011, the Syrian civil war continues to inflict irreparable harm on its civilian population and has resulted in over one quarter million civilian deaths. A disturbing and specific factor of the Syrian conflict is the brutal and systematic use of rape and other forms of violence against women. Rape ­– whether perpetrated by ISIS militants, the Damascus regime, or other rebels, is a fate far worse than death for many Syrian women.

In Latakia, a woman reportedly committed suicide because was unable to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Another woman was thrown off a balcony by her own father after he found out she was pregnant as a result of gang rape. Countless other women provided testimony that speaks to the gravity of the violence inflicted on their bodies, be it as an act of genocide, seen with Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS, or as a weapon of war to destroy and divide rebel communities in opposition of the Assad regime.

To quote writer and Syrian refugee, Samar Yazbek, “[women’s] bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”


The Syrian conflict is considered the “largest humanitarian crisis of our time,” according to USAID. A recent report from the Syrian Refugees Website, a project of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, indicates that there are about 11 million refugees and over 13.5 million civilians in need of humanitarian aid.Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), wants to direct more international aid towards assisting women and girls, who he describes as “the most vulnerable and the ones who suffer most.” Women and girls, he further notes, are facing a campaign of widespread rape combined with a woeful lack of reproductive health services.

An estimated 500,000 pregnant Syrian women remain in the war-torn country or are in nearby nations. More than ever, access to abortion services is a critical form of medical care for these wartime rape victims, as well as protected right under the Geneva Conventions. Yet safe abortion services remain woefully lacking. Post-abortion care (care that’s required when women have undergone unsafe abortion procedures), has been identified as one of the major challenges in refugee camps.

Misallocation of funds is partly to blame, which Osotimehin concedes is due to the prioritization of providing food, shelter, and water over “women’s issues.” The resulting gendered bias towards issue-areas renders the discussion of “the dignity, the welfare, and the security of women (…) something that doesn’t play out at all” in donor nations discussions according to Osotimehin. The resulting impact this bias has had on dictating how to address and allocate humanitarian aid is devastating.

Another reason that fewer rape victims are receiving the essential medical care they need is that nearly all the major humanitarian groups in Syria, including UNFPA, are subject to American anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. The United States, through USAID, continues to be the largest government donor to the Syria crisis, with contributions of nearly $5.6 billion, between 2011 and 2016, matching the next three largest donors’ funding combined. This US monopoly limits in large part the services humanitarian aid providers can make available and equipment they can buy with US funds,

This summer, the Democratic Party, in a historic first step, has included in its platform a vow to overturn all domestic laws that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including the Helms Amendment. The reversal of this ban would allow US foreign aid to be used for abortions and other reproductive medical care desperately needed by thousands of women in Syria and throughout the world.

This year is the 67th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. We must reflect as a nation on both the historical legacy, as well as the ongoing protections the treaties afford civilians in conflict. In its inception the Geneva Conventions sought to define the scope of international humanitarian law by regulating armed conflict in service of offering combatants and civilians unalienable protections.

Just as the Geneva Conventions, and their application, have expanded over time in recognition of the evolving nature of armed conflicts, so too must convention signatories commit to modifying domestic policies that obstruct adherence to the treaties’ binding obligations. Such obligations include providing the right to all necessary medical care, which includes access to abortion services for war rape victims.

It is President Obama’s last opportunity to seize this call to action and pass an Executive Order that lifts the Helms Amendment restrictions and recommits American policy to its humanitarian legal obligations. USAID has already recognized the gravity of the Syrian crisis, both in terms of policy commitment and total aid donations. Now, with the support of the new democratic platform, it must incorporate a gender-sensitive commitment to the women of the Syrian crisis in its aid packages, which must include abortion services as obligated by the Geneva Conventions.

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