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The Right to an Abortion for Girls and Women Raped in Armed Conflict

Thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict are routinely denied abortions with devastating consequences.

This brief sets out that (1) rape victims, as the “wounded and sick,” are entitled to abortions under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, its Additional Protocols I and II and customary international law, and (2) when states fail to provide abortions or fail to ensure that humanitarian actors on its territory provide abortions, these states are violating international humanitarian law.

A girl or woman who is a victim of war rape and is denied an abortion when she wants one faces one of three options: (1) undergoing an unsafe abortion; (2) carrying to term an unwanted pregnancy that increases her risk of maternal mortality; or (3) committing suicide. Further, when rape is used as a method of genocide and women are denied abortions, this can further the genocidal intent of the perpetrators. This is because rape in these circumstances is being used to eradicate a particular racial, ethnic, religious, or national group by ensuring that the woman gives birth to the child of the enemy.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Akayesu and the subsequent classification of rape as a war crime and crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court are historic legal advances recognizing a woman’s right to accountability for rape in conflict. However, this recognition of rape is not sufficient. It must be accompanied by measures to ensure that these victims receive the full range of medical care needed for their injuries, including abortions.

In conflict settings, these victims are denied abortions for a myriad of reasons. This brief specifically highlights how US abortion restrictions imposed on all humanitarian aid play a prominent role in this denial. The Global Justice Center (GJC) challenged these restrictions in a shadow report filed with the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States in November 2010.

This brief concludes with a set of recommendations to States, the United Nations, the United States and civil society on what immediate steps they can take to enforce the legal rights to abortions of these victims.

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