Talk about a film that has all of the elements of great human drama and pits the marginalized against the powerful. Such is the story of "Rosita," an hour-long documentary by award-winning filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater.
In January 2003, the international press broke the story of a pregnant 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl who had been raped in Costa Rica. Rosita, as she comes to be called to preserve her anonymity, is the daughter of illiterate campesinos who had moved to Costa Rica to pick coffee, the classic story of impoverished immigrants seeking a better life. Rosita is a carefree and intelligent 8-year-old girl who loves her life in the country and loves dolls, dogs, chicken, and hens. She is in the second grade and learning to read and write; she paints and draws the world around her, and is elected "Miss Congeniality" at her school. Her child's world is shattered when she is raped by a 22-year-old neighbor who lures her into his home with promises of sweet tangerines and colorful TV shows.
Blaming herself and fearing punishment, Rosita does not tell her parents what has occurred, but her mother eventually takes her to the local hospital when she sees her daughter vomiting, losing weight, and looking ill. What follows is the beginning of a surreal tragedy where the Costa Rican doctors initially miss the diagnosis of pregnancy, refuse to treat Rosita's sexually transmitted infections because of potential harm to the fetus, lock the child alone in a maternity ward, and try to pressure her to continue the pregnancy, against the will of her parents. A priest is consulted who, with shocking insensitivity and gall, states that it would have been better off if the girl had died. Adding salt to the wound, the ministry of child protection also attempts to remove the traumatized child from the custody of her parents, calling them unfit.
When women's health and feminist organizations based in Nicaragua, Ipas and The Network of Women Against Violence, read of Rosita's saga in the newspapers, they travel to Costa Rica to advocate for the family and clandestinely spirit them out of the country, hoping for better treatment for Rosita back home. However, that is not to be. Francisco and Maria, Rosita's extraordinary parents, are vulnerable and alone as they continue to openly express their desire to obtain a safe therapeutic abortion for their daughter. The Catholic hierarchy becomes embroiled in what is now a national debate at Sunday church masses around the country. Declaring abortion to be a sin and sacrilege, and coldly stating that Rosita can indeed have this baby, Managua's archbishop, an elderly celibate gentleman, also offers to adopt the baby! With the unqualified nerve that only the powerful can have (a recurring theme), he also refers to an incident in 1939 in Peru, where a 5-year-old girl had a baby. He states if she could do it, so can Rosita. The man simply doesn't grasp how dangerous and harmful it is for girls, actually babies themselves, to have babies and seems to ignore the added trauma of rape. Incomprehensibly cold and ignorant.
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Press freedoms are under attack now, more than ever.
In Nicaragua, hospitals are supposed to have a committee of three doctors who "allegedly" grant permission for therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua. However, this is extraordinarily rare, as only 10 "approved" abortions annually have occurred in recent years, out of approximately 36,000 illegal abortions that are performed every year on young, poor, rural, and uneducated girls and women who frequently die from complications. "Rosita's committee," now mysteriously made up of 16 physicians assembled by the government, turns down her parents' request for her abortion, stating that "the girl runs the potential risk of suffering severe damage, including death, in either of the alternatives." Of course, this hypocrisy ignores the very clear medical evidence that legal abortion, when performed by a trained medical professional, is far safer than childbirth, particularly for a child the age of Rosita.
So now Rosita's physical and emotional health and well-being have been abandoned by the medical board's waffling that also completely ignores the wishes of Maria and Francisco. Maria, now at the breaking point, is consumed with worry that her daughter's body is incapable of surviving a pregnancy. Francisco also is bearing the suffering caused by these delays and wonders if he will soon lose his only child to hostile government inaction and oppressive church doctrine. Rosita, too, now 16 weeks pregnant, confused, terrified, withdrawn, and frequently crying, continues to sob "that I don't want this belly…I don't want to share my toys with other children." Deeply concerned for their child's deteriorating mental and physical health, Ipas and the Network of Women Against Violence help them to locate three brave doctors to perform the abortion. In a ground-breaking victory for all Nicaraguan girls and women who are victims of sexual violence, Rosita finally obtains her long-awaited abortion. Poignantly, she wakes up from the anesthesia as if nothing had happened.
But, of course, a great deal has…and this saga is not yet over. The health minister resigns, saying that she had not had the president's support in a dispute with her deputies over the issue. The archbishop excommunicates everyone connected to the abortion. The country's bishops release an open letter to the government which, incredibly, likens abortion to terrorist bombings. But in an amazing outpouring of solidarity to Rosita and her family, and to those who helped her, tens of thousands of women in Nicaragua—and supporters from around the world—sign petitions that are presented to the Vatican, also demanding to be excommunicated. "I also want to be excommunicated for my collaboration in Rosa's abortion that saved her life…All of us have contributed actively in making this possible." Responding to the international uproar, as well as the unsympathetic image of the powerful archbishop picking on poor and suffering campesinos, the Vatican eventually instructs the Nicaraguan archbishop to remain silent on the issue.
What of Rosita? After her abortion, she returned to the life of a child…her drawings and paintings, her school, her future. She is playing with her toys again, and she and her parents are happy on their new farm in Nicaragua.
Rosita's 2003 case shook Nicaragua and many other parts of the world to start to openly discuss abortion and violence against girls and women. But still, it was not enough.
Although she was one of the lucky ones and ultimately received the safe abortion she desperately wanted and needed, the same is not true for far too many of her countrywomen. As one of the heroes of Ipas states in this compelling movie, "Everyone remains silent about the deaths from abortion." Even more astounding, last November, the Nicaraguan congress passed a draconian law, worsening an already tragic situation, and making abortion illegal even when the girl or woman's life is in danger. There will be more Rositas…only, now, even more will die. They already are.
See this movie. You will never forget "Rosita." I know I won't.
Editor's note: Watch the movie trailer below or on the official Rosita website.