Commentary Violence

In Peru, an Epidemic of Rape and Double Jeopardy for Rape Victims Seeking Abortion

Francoise Girard

Peru has more reported cases of rape and sexual violence than any other country in South America. Eight in ten of these victims are minors. Women and girls in this situation are faced with two options: seek an illegal abortion and risk going to jail or carry the pregnancy to term.

Peru, while famous for its modern culinary delights and ancient civilizations, also has a far less flattering distinction: it has more reported cases of rape and sexual violence than any other country in South America. Eight in ten of these victims are minors.

Researchers estimate that 35,000 pregnancies occur every year in Peru as a result of rape. Women and girls in this situation are faced with two options: seek an illegal abortion and risk going to jail or carry the pregnancy to term and suffer the psychological and physical trauma that go along with giving birth to your rapist’s child. Women who can prove that a pregnancy is the result of rape receive a “reduced” sentence of three months in jail (the standard prison sentence for illegal abortions in Peru is two years). Perversely, this reduced sentence does not apply to married women who are raped by their husbands, even though marital rape is a crime under Peruvian law. Doctors who perform abortions in cases of rape face up to six years in prison.

A coalition of women’s rights groups have launched a campaign to challenge this cruel violation of human rights. The campaign, Dejala Decidir (“Let her decide”), seeks to introduce a new law that decriminalizes abortion in cases of rape (currently, abortion is only permitted when the woman’s life or health is at risk). The groups, led by partners of the International Women’s Health CoalitionPROMSEX, Demus, Catholics for the Right to Decide-Peru, Manuela Ramos, CLADEM-Peru, and Flora Tristán—need to collect 60,000 valid signatures to petition Congress to consider the bill.

This is no small challenge. The requirement for valid signatures means that people must be willing to provide their government ID numbers to verify their identities. This may be intimidating to many people in a country where the Catholic Church exerts a great deal of influence in the government and within communities. Consider also that many people in rural and indigenous communities—especially poor women who are disproportionately impacted by the abortion ban—do not have government IDs. Even if the campaign succeeds in obtaining 60,000 valid signatures, there is no guarantee that Congress members will risk controversy or the ire of the Catholic Church and support a change in the law.

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The groups see the Dejala Decidir campaign as an opportunity to build a powerful and active movement on two important but neglected issues: abortion and rape. Every signature represents at least one more person informed about the harsh realities faced by rape victims in Peru, and mobilized to change the current abortion law.

George Liendo, Director of PROMSEX, says the time is ripe for a national dialogue. “It’s not always easy to build a coalition in Peru, but there is real energy for this campaign. People across the country want to put this on the political agenda.”

Peru is not the only country in the region rethinking its draconian approach to abortion. In October 2012, the Uruguayan congress voted to decriminalize abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

Activists in Peru have until October 2013 to collect enough signatures to ask their own Congress to act. In the meantime, we can expect a rich and lively dialogue on rape and abortion. It’s about time.

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

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The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

News Abortion

Lindsey Graham Pushes for 20-Week Abortion Ban in Senate—Again

Emily Crockett

“I can promise you a debate in 2015, and a vote,” Graham said at a press conference Thursday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Thursday reintroduced his legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy nationwide, possibly pressuring the U.S. Senate to take a symbolic vote on the bill.

“I can promise you a debate in 2015, and a vote,” Graham said at a press conference Thursday, adding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has a “favorable” view of the bill and will make time for it in the schedule.

This isn’t a new fight for Graham, and it’s a fight the Republican-dominated Congress spent considerable time on this session. A version of the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, based on the discredited theory that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, already passed the House last month.

Graham’s bill is nearly identical to that legislation. Neither of the bills allow exceptions for a woman’s health or for fetal anomalies, many of which cannot be detected before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

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After a heated debate over rape and incest exceptions temporarily killed the bill’s prospects this year, Republicans settled on requiring victims to wait 48 hours for an abortion rather than report their crime to police.

“The Senate Republicans’ abortion ban is an attack on rape and incest survivors, on pregnant women facing a health crisis and on women everywhere,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said in a statement. “The bill offers no health exception—no help to women facing cancer, kidney failure or other tragic complications during their pregnancies. It also re-victimizes survivors of rape and incest by assuming they are lying and creating unconscionable barriers to care.”

Pro-choice legislators and advocates also oppose the legislation because it would present a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and threaten women’s constitutional right to choose abortion care.

Roe determined that women have the right to an abortion before a fetus is viable, which is typically around 24 weeks’ gestation. A very small number of babies survive after being born earlier than that, but most have serious health issues.

The medically inaccurate language that Republican legislators use in 20-week ban bills further complicates the issue of gestational age.

Graham has made it clear that he hopes his bill will challenge the standards of Roe.

Roe v. Wade acknowledges that there is a compelling state interest in protecting the unborn child at the point of medical viability,” Graham said. “I would argue that since 1973 to now, that standard has probably changed. But we’re coming up with a new standard, which I think is very compelling.”

The standard is the discredited notion of “fetal pain,” and the anti-choice strategy is to use it to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The only way you can have a hearing at the highest level of the land is to get this bill through the Congress,” Graham said.

That will be an uphill battle, but it’s one Graham and his anti-choice allies are prepared to fight long term, hoping to convince the public that a 20-week ban is a reasonable compromise rather than a wholesale anti-choice attack on Roe v. Wade.

Graham’s spokesperson, Kevin Bishop, told Rewire that the bill is “unlikely” to get the 60 votes it needs to pass the Senate today, and that even if it did, Obama would veto it.

“Graham has made it clear he doesn’t expect the bill to be passed into law,” Bishop said.

But a Senate vote to gauge support is the first step, he said. “Then over a few years, continue to build support for the day when it can be sent to a future president for a signature into law.”

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