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 Coalition—PROMSEX, 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.