Movie Review: The Tragedy and Triumph of “Rosita”

Marcy Bloom

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.

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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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.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.

News Politics

Clinton in Friday Speech: ‘Fight Back Against the Erosion of Reproductive Rights’

Ally Boguhn

Just after the former secretary of state ended her speech, the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump took the stage at another event and struck a different tone.

Hillary Clinton defended reproductive rights in a Friday speech, following the news that the former secretary of state had become the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee. Soon after Clinton’s comments, Donald Trump took the stage at a different event and vowed to protect “the sanctity and dignity of life.” 

In her speech, Clinton detailed her support of access to safe and affordable abortion and contraceptive care.

“It’s been a big week, and there’s nowhere I’d rather end it,” Clinton told the crowd while speaking at an event for Planned Parenthood Action Fund in Washington, D.C. Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of Planned Parenthood, endorsed Clinton in January, offering the Democratic candidate “its first endorsement in a presidential primary in the nonprofit’s 100-year existence,” according to the New York Times.

“Today, I want to start by saying something you don’t hear often enough: Thank you,” she said, offering her gratitude to the organization for caring for its patients “no matter their race, sexual orientation, or immigration status.”

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Clinton continued: “Thank you for being there for every woman, in every state, who has to miss work, drive hundreds of miles sometimes, endure cruel medically unnecessary waiting periods, walk past angry protesters to exercise her constitutional right to safe and legal abortion. I’ve been proud to stand with Planned Parenthood for a long time, and as president I will always have your back.”

Clinton then pivoted to discussing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“When Donald Trump says, ‘Let’s make America great again,’ that is code for ‘Let’s take America backward,’” she said. “Back to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for some, not all. Back to the days when abortion was illegal, women had far fewer options, and life for too many women and girls was limited. Well, Donald, those days are over.”

Citing the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt as proof of the importance of nominating a new justice to the Court’s vacant seat, Clinton called on Congress to “give Judge [Merrick] Garland the hearing he deserves.”

Clinton went on to outline her vision for reproductive rights in the country should she be elected, noting: “If right-wing politicians actually cared as much about protecting women’s health as much as they say they do, they’d join me in calling for more federal funding for Planned Parenthood.”

Calling to “fight back against the erosion of reproductive rights at the federal, state, and local levels,” Clinton pushed for a host of related priorities, such as ensuring clinic patients and staff can safely access clinics; investing in long-lasting reversible contraception; acting to combat the Zika virus; and repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funding for abortion care.

Just after Clinton ended her speech, Trump addressed the Road to Majority conference, hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Concerned Women for America, and struck a very different tone. “Here are the goals … and I wanted it to come from me, from my heart. We want to uphold the sanctity and dignity of life,” Trump told the crowd.

The Republican went on to reiterate his promise to nominate only “pro-life” justices to the Supreme Court should he be elected, before turning to attack Clinton. “She will appoint radical judges who will legislate from the bench, overriding Congress, and the will of the people will mean nothing,” said Trump before claiming Clinton “will push for federal funding of abortion on demand until the moment of birth.”

Though Clinton has championed reproductive rights during her presidential campaign, she told Fox News in March that she would be “in favor of a late-pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother.”