By Lisa Shannon
November 1, 2016
Eleven-year-old “Asima” was marked with scars from daily whippings and rapes following her first 20 days as an ISIS sex slave. When ISIS returned her for a few days to her grandmother, also in captivity, she wept and shook, unable to speak.
Then the slavers came back to take Asima again. Her grandmother begged them: She’s so small! Just leave her!
ISIS took her anyway. Asima hasn’t been seen since.
Countless other girls like Asima have faced similar brutality, and ended up pregnant. Extremists all too often attack women and girls not as “war booty,” but rather in a macabre power-grab — the girls and women are coveted territory. But if these women seek an abortion, they are stymied, in part by U.S. policy.
Passed in 1973, the Helms Amendment limits funding for abortions abroad, but has been imposed as an outright ban. So if a young girl like Asima were to escape ISIS custody pregnant, the United States would not chip in even the $1 cost of a drug like misoprostol, known for safe, effective pregnancy termination.
Because the Helms Amendment only prohibits funding for “abortion as a method of family planning,” it is clear that support for safe abortion in some instances, like cases of rape, incest, or mortal threat, is allowed. A simple reinterpretation on the part of the president would allow aid dollars for terminating rape-induced pregnancies. Despite 88 percent of American voters supporting abortion access under these circumstances, every administration from Nixon to Obama has tiptoed around potential controversy, maintaining the status-quo interpretation of the ban to include these extreme cases.
Girls and women are responding to the pressing psychological imperative to reject extremists’ claim to their bodies and lives. Girls have already faced the trauma of rape. Adding a pregnancy creates a permanent prison. Congolese “Elodie” who was attacked at fifteen years old recalls, “The day I learned I was pregnant was as terrible as it was when I was raped.”
Rape survivors predictably take measures into their own hands, with quiet, inexpensive means, desperately hoping to recover their lives. Stories from the field abound: they swallow unfamiliar cocktails of pills or barks. They pay men to stomp on their back and stomachs until they bleed. They wrap newborns up and leave them on doorsteps or in ditches.
And when all else fails, is suicide such a surprise? Just as captured soldiers might bite down on cyanide pills, suicidal thoughts and acts are a constant refrain in reports from frontline advocates in Somalia, Iraq, and Congo: by kitchen knife. By homemade noose. By gasoline and match.
This is on top of the 47,000 girls and women who die every year worldwide from unsafe abortions. It is time for a complete repeal of the Helms Amendment. Our new president and Congress must step up.
Hillary Clinton has made a historic pledge, vowing to fix the flawed enforcement of the Helms Amendment and to fight for its outright repeal if elected. Donald Trump and the G.O.P. have not, instead doubling down on their extremist positions, both domestically and abroad.
Voters must demand an answer from every candidate running for national office: which side are you on?
Lisa Shannon (@LisaJShannon) is founder of Run for Congo Women and co-founder of Sister Somalia.