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The Global Youth Advocacy Fellows pictured above work to create the #WorldWeWant and are the authors of this post.

In recognition that one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, the global community has designated the period between November 25 and December 10 as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Today marks the 8th day of this global campaign, and is an important time to bring into focus a policy known as the Helms Amendment, which undermines efforts to improve women’s health around the world — including for victims of violence.

As students and advocates, we’re excited to see international progress on women’s rights. Recent declarations from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, South Africa's Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini, and film actress Emma Watson mark this exciting progress, as well as anti-violence movements such as “Carry that Weight” and #YouOkSis. A recent survey shows that countries worldwide are liberalizing their abortion laws and have been doing so for two decades. Today, women and girls around the world have more access to health care, education, and opportunities to participate in local economies than they had before.

Yet the reality is that violence against women and sexual assault continue to be pervasive in the communities in which we live:

  • Among college campuses in the United States, one in five women is a target of sexual assault while in college, and college-age women in the United States are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other age group.
  • Rape remains prevalent around the world, and rates of gender-based violence are especially high in areas of conflict and crisis.
  • In some countries, 70 percent of women are subjected to violence, and rape often is used as a weapon of war and as a tool to silence women in displaced communities and refugee camps.
  • More than 20 million unsafe abortions take place every year worldwide; as a result, millions of women are injured and 47,000 die annually.
  • Girls who are raped often must leave school and may become mothers even when they are still themselves children. Early pregnancy also leads to increased risk of death and disability.

We are working to ensure that individuals who experience violence on our campus and in our communities are able to receive the comprehensive, compassionate care and support they need. But we need to do more. Here and around the world, a young woman who shows up at a health center seeking care after violence, including access to safe abortion services, may face significant challenges. She may have traveled a long distance, faced stigma and discrimination, been kicked out of her home by family, or struggled to raise the money to pay for her visit and travel. After all that, we as a community have to make sure that she isn’t turned away when she finally reaches the health center door.

Amid these terrible realities, we are dismayed that a U.S. policy called the Helms Amendment continues to undermine efforts to improve women’s health around the world. For over 40 years, this harmful law has prevented U.S. foreign assistance programs from supporting abortion “as a method of family planning.” Since its inception, the U.S. government has made a bad situation worse by wrongly implementing the Helms Amendment as a total ban on abortion — even in cases of incest, rape, and life endangerment. The result: Women have been turned away from the vital care they need. Because of Helms, women and young people in desperate situations around the world are denied a health care procedure that’s legal in their countries and in ours.

As Global Youth Advocacy Fellows with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, we strongly believe it is our responsibility to let politicians and lawmakers know that we oppose such policies that hurt women. As the next generation of leaders, we are part of a movement that is fighting for reproductive freedom and justice by making connections between our local communities and communities abroad to ensure we hold our own government accountable to advancing the human rights of people worldwide. We firmly believe in civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer’s insistence that “Nobody's free until everybody's free.” We show up for each other, including and especially when it comes to reproductive freedom.

President Obama has done more than any president in our lifetime to advance women’s access to services like birth control and lifesaving cancer screenings — but more work must be done. Now is the time for the United States to take an important first step to reduce the harm of the Helms Amendment by implementing the policy correctly.


Marlies Biesinger, Vanderbilt University, Class of 2015

Carmen Coppola, Corning Community College, Class of 2014

Nina Gurak, Wesleyan University, Class of 2016

Savannah Owens, University of Washington, Class of 2015

Anna Rodriguez, New College of Florida, Class of 2016

Marissa Saslowsky, Rutgers University, Class of 2015

Sarah Strohmayer, University of Vermont, Class of 2015

Tags: Helms Amendment, Global Youth Advocacy Fellows, 16 Days of Action

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