Peer post – Lord Lester of Herne Hill on medical care for rape victims in war

Lord Lester of Herne Hill will tonight lead a debate in the Lords on the Government’s approach to funding medical care for women impregnated by rape in armed conflict. Here he says why the Government needs to “fill the vacuum of global leadership” to ensure abortion services are available to them when medically necessary

Lord Lester of Herne Hill
Lord Lester of Herne Hill

The central question this debate seeks to clarify is the Government’s strategy for ensuring that UK-funded medical care for women and girls impregnated by rape in armed conflict is non-discriminatory and includes abortion services where medically necessary.

These are the Government’s obligations under international humanitarian law and UK law implementing the Geneva Conventions. Despite these legal obligations and the life-threatening nature of pregnancies arising out of war rape, girls and women raped in armed conflict are routinely denied abortions in humanitarian medical settings, including those funded by the Department for International Development (DfID).

Sexual violence against women is a global evil. In its most pernicious form rape of girls and women is used as a weapon of choice in the majority of today’s armed conflicts. All rapes are terrible, but rape used as a weapon of war is often fatal. About 70% of conflict-related rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are gang rapes, most accompanied by mutilating injuries to women, including deliberate HIV infection. One third of the victims of war rape in the DRC are girls under age 18, and since many are raped in the context of sexual slavery, they incur the greatest risk of pregnancy.

Girls and women subject to rape and used as a weapon of war are persons “wounded and sick” in armed conflict, guaranteed absolute rights to nondiscriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. Yet these women war victims are routinely denied life and health saving abortions in humanitarian settings, leaving them with the “choice” of risking an unsafe abortion, suicide, or being forced to bear the child of their rapists.

The right at stake in this debate is not a right to abortion, it is the inalienable right of all persons “wounded and sick” in armed conflicts, including women, to life and health saving medical care. Plastic surgery, blood transfusions, amputations, prostheses, dental treatment and penile reconstruction surgery are all medical care procedures protected by international law when they are needed by persons “wounded and sick” in armed conflict.

Two powerful forces perpetuate the anti-abortion medical protocols imposed on women raped in war: the United States government and the ICRC – the International Red Cross.

The United States imposes a “no abortion” ban on its foreign aid, requiring all recipients to pledge not to discuss abortion or provide abortions with US funds. The ICRC, whose largest single donor is the US, is clear in its internal operational guidelines for ICRC staff treating women victims of sexual violence in armed conflicy – that “its medical staff do not perform abortions.”

Our government can and should fill the vacuum of global leadership on this issue by ensuring that DFID’s humanitarian aid advances, not undermines, the rights of women raped in war to non-discriminatory medical care, which includes abortions.


Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.


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