How the US is undermining women’s rights at the UN

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A UN resolution focusing on sexual violence in conflict has been destabilised as the US threatens to halt access to treatment for survivors.

Preview above: Is the UN doing enough to prevent sexual abuse and violence on the ground? Watch UN Sex Abuse Scandal here.

The US has been actively undermining women’s rights at the UN this weekend. They have been wreaking havoc with negotiations for a Security Council resolution on wartime sexual violence.

The resolution was due to pass as part of an annual debate on conflict related sexual violence being held tonight. The purpose of the debate is to improve accountability and ensure international responses focus on survivors.

But the US threatened to override the resolution with its veto power because the draft called for survivors to be given access to their full range of sexual and reproductive health rights including emergency contraception, safe termination of pregnancy and HIV prevention and treatment.

How does the Security Council work?

The Security Council is the part of the UN responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. It has ten members who are elected by UN member states for a period of two years each, but it’s the five permanent members (US, UK, France, China and Russia) who have veto power to overrule any decision.

Why the US is behaving like this?

The US would not budge even when Germany, the current President of the Security Council, came back with less explicit language that had already been agreed in an earlier resolution and has been implemented since 2013.

Women’s rights activists who have worked on these issues for decades are blown away by the fact that the US might not even allow the Security Council to call for survivors to be given access to “sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support and other multi-sectoral services”.

The negotiating strategy relates to what is known as the Global Gag rule that prevents non-government organisations from providing legal abortion services or referrals and barring advocacy on abortion issues. But the strategy is more to do with the incredibly conservative views of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The actions of the US risk the very lives of women affected by sexual violence in armed conflict all around the world. They are putting the lives of women at risk who may die in childbirth, in unsafe abortions, or due to complications from social ostracism.

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Is the UN doing enough to prevent sexual abuse and violence on the ground? Follow UN peacekeepers as they undergo training to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.
Is the UN doing enough to prevent sexual abuse and violence on the ground? Follow UN peacekeepers as they undergo training to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.

What are the crimes?

Conflict-related sexual violence includes not just rape, but other forms of sexualised violence including sexual slavery, human trafficking, forced marriage, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy. These abuses can be war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

In countries like DR Congo, where rape is a well-known weapon of war, we know HIV transmission is vastly increased through mass rape.  

Pregnancy is one of the most visible and significant effects of rape. In wartime, women who fall pregnant with the children of their rapists are often further ostracised from their communities who have trouble seeing beyond the enemy that devastated their lives.

Stigma is a huge problem for survivors and the presence of an unwanted child can make that even more difficult to overcome.

The Consequences

Women have the right to make their own choices about their bodies, but in the context of armed conflict, the international community has a responsibility to provide them assistance to access those rights.

Children born of wartime rape are often marginalised and rejected by their community and nation. They are rarely included in post conflict development programs and are often an incredible burden on already overstretched families.

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‘Life is so hard that girls are prepared to do anything just to earn their living’ Hear from a victim of alleged sexual abuse from a UN peacekeeper.
‘Life is so hard that girls are prepared to do anything just to earn their living’ Hear from a victim of alleged sexual abuse from a UN peacekeeper.

The backlash

Madeleine Rees OBE, Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and long-time advocate for women affected by conflict related sexual violence says “it’s unconscionable that the Trump administration should continue its misogynistic policies right into the core of violence against women: denying appropriate health care to women who have been raped and tortured in armed conflict.”

But these policies are also standing in the way of peace and security, which is the primary function of the Security Council. It has been over a decade since it was recognised that sexual and gender based violence contributes to armed conflict and prevents the restoration of peace and security.

This point was reinforced last year, when the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to survivor advocate, Nadia Murad; and gynaecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege for their work on conflict related sexual violence.

Both laureates are scheduled to brief the Security Council during this evening’s debate. Who knows how they are likely to feel when they see the extent to which the final resolution differs so greatly from what their monumental experience, and advocacy for survivors of conflict related sexual violence, tells them is fair and so sorely needed.


Susan Hutchinson is a freelance writer for Dateline. She has is an expert on gender in armed conflict and is undertaking a PhD at the Australian National University on the Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security. She is the architect of the prosecute; don’t perpetrate campaign to end impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict and a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security.