Here’s what one Kenyan woman says about being forced to carry through a pregnancy that resulted from a rape during a conflict period. Obama could end such suffering by clarifying that U.S. law actually does allow abortion funding in such circumstances, a health activist says.
A rape victim on her way to a session with a caregiver, at a safe house in Monrovia, Liberia.
Credit: UN Photo/Staton Winter
UNITED NATIONS In March, Jacqueline Namuye Mutere, a citizen of Kenya, was scheduled to participate at a panel here on the role of donor governments in responding to conflict-related rape.
Due to a visa problem, however, she was denied entrance to the United States and could not make the panel, where she was going to give a personal account of being victimized by rape during a period of violent conflict.
Determined to make others understand why she so desperately wanted an abortion when she became pregnant, she spoke with Women’s eNews recently via Skype and told her story.
Mutere had been working in Nairobi as a community developer to empower people with information and tools for personal and community advancement. She also consulted on HIV prevention and treatment until she was raped in January 2008, during a spate of violence following a disputed election in Kenya.
“My life became very difficult. My health went down,” she said. “I had just given birth to my fourth child less than a year before. My body wasn’t ready to go through another pregnancy. And I didn’t want anyone to know I was pregnant so I tried to hide it. And the mental pressure of hiding something, while at the same time feeling my body growing, that affected me very much. I didn’t eat or sleep well and started losing weight.”
Being a widow, Mutere said things were hard financially. “I was worried about how I was going to feed this child when I already had a 1-year-old and three other children in the house. I could no longer work because I was too weak physically and mentally so I had no income and an extra mouth to feed. ”
Mutere said the stress was causing her to lose her grip. “I was sliding into depression, was easily agitated and would sometimes become hyper and go into fits and tantrums. It was an emotional rollercoaster and I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when I decided to have an abortion.”
Rape is wielded as a weapon of war in 21 countries, according to a U.N. report released last year.
For victims in these countries, research has shown that access to comprehensive post-rape care is crucial to any hope of recovering physical, mental and emotional health. It must include, according to another report issued by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, access to “the safe termination of pregnancies for survivors of conflict-related rape.”
Without it, women, if they survive, suffer from lasting consequences that affect their ability to earn a living, care for their children and generally prevent them from piecing their lives back together.
Hindered by U.S. Funding Law
Nongovernmental organizations such as Medécines Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) do their best to provide such care, but their efforts are hindered in part by U.S. foreign assistance laws that restrict funding to reproductive health facilities that provide abortion services abroad.
In January 2009, President Barack Obama rescinded the so-called Global Gag Rule– a law formally called The Mexico City Policy–that bars U.S. foreign assistance to any activities of health facilities that provide abortion services.
However, a lesser-known similar law has remained in effect since its adoption in 1973. The Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, named for its author, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, does not technically prohibit funding to service providers who perform abortions in cases of life endangerment, incest or rape. The Helms amendment only states that no U.S. aid can fund providers of abortion “as a method of family planning.”
Yet, the policy has always been applied, and continues to be applied, more broadly, with devastating consequences for victims of sexual violence. (Read more in a report by the Guttmacher Institute.)
Even the Global Gag Rule, which in many respects was a more restrictive law, specified exceptions for cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington, D.C., hopes Obama, before leaving office, will issue an executive order clarifying U.S. foreign assistance is allowed to support abortion access in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.
Sippel said there has never been an official legal interpretation of the Helms law, “so we are asking President Obama to get his lawyers together and do this.”
“If the president of the United States of America says that women and girls who are raped in conflict deserve access to these services to restore their lives, that is a tremendous step for human rights,” she said in an interview at the U.N.
In the Skype interview, Mutere said that after consulting with a doctor, she scheduled an appointment for an abortion through a local health clinic that regularly and safely provided such services.
However, Kenya’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the world (even after the 2010 constitution relaxed them slightly) and the government had begun cracking down on abortion providers. On the appointed day, Mutere found her clinic closed. She could not afford to get an abortion at the hospital, the only other safe provider of which she was aware. So she decided to carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption.
“My story is not the story of other women, who try to obtain an abortion even when it is unsafe,” Mutere told Women’s eNews. “Some have botched abortions and give birth to children with disabilities or they end up with life threatening diseases or conditions because they get infected and develop sepsis.”
Without access to comprehensive post-rape care, women already suffering from conflict and the trauma of rape often seek abortions from unsafe providers if they become pregnant. This accounts for roughly 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Mutere gave birth to a healthy little girl named Princess on Nov. 12, 2008. Ultimately, she decided to keep her baby, but she continued to suffer.
“After giving birth, I was very ill,” she said. “I was discharged from the hospital, but went back a week later with an infection and stayed for three months. When I finally came out, I started my recovery process. I went for counseling. I got in touch with myself. I did meditation. It took the whole year to heal myself.”
At the counseling sessions, Mutere met other survivors. “They were really, really defeated and had no options in life whatsoever. Some talked about how they hated their babies and even abused them. They were depressed and expressed a lot of aggression.”
Her experiences inspired Mutere to form a community-based group that helps rape victims heal and supports other groups in the community working to counter gender-based violence.
She named her group Grace Agenda. Grace has many definitions, but for Mutere, it means strength.
Initially there were just five other women in the group. “I encouraged them to open up and learn not to transfer their trauma to the child. Gradually they did. From there, I started working with women with disabilities. Some had mental disabilities, others physical. All had been raped as a consequence of being disabled, either because they couldn’t comprehend what was going on when the perpetrator approached them, or because they couldn’t run away as fast as their peers.”
Grace Agenda was founded in 2010 and formally incorporated in 2013. In addition to its Nairobi headquarters, it has an office in the multiethnic town of Busia, near the Ugandan border, where many people suffered ethnically-targeted violence triggered by disputes over the 2007 presidential election results.
Grace Agenda also advocates for reparations in accordance with a report submitted to the government in 2013 by the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2008 by an act of the Kenyan Parliament. That report recommends reparations for all victims of human rights violations in Kenya that have occurred since the country gained independence in 1963.
In partnership with the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., Grace Agenda is trying to pressure the government to carry out the report’s recommandations.
Mutere is upset that neither she nor any other rape victims have been invited to weigh in on the discussion of reparations, despite proactively seeking out opportunities to do so.
“Once or twice I did engage with the National Gender Inequality Commission to discuss what parameters would be used to determine compensation if reparations are ever granted,” she said. “It is not easy to assign a value to suffering. If a woman who has disabilities or is HIV positive is raped and gives birth, what can be done to repair her life? Would you give her a voucher for health care? What about the children? How do you take care of children who are born as a result of political conflict?”
Mutere said the state ought to be responsible for the offspring too. “The commission recommended an annual stipend for 10 years,” she said, “but my question is: How does this compensate the woman? What value are you adding to her life because she has this child? And what happens to the child? The child needs education, needs to eat and sleep and to be taken care of and to live a good life.”