A health clinic in Ecuador treated the same 13-year-old girl for complications related to unsafe abortion three times in a single year, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. Certainly a victim of statutory rape and likely a victim of further abuse, the young woman’s case raised red flags for health-care providers on each visit. The hospital staff reportedly could not tell how much the girl’s father, who accompanied her each time, knew or cared to know about how his daughter had become pregnant. Sadly, we know this is not an isolated incident. Teen pregnancy among 10- to 14-year-olds in Ecuador has risen 74 percent over the past ten years, and one in four Ecuadorian women has been the victim of sexual violence.
Ecuador’s archaic and outdated abortion ban—which criminalizes both women seeking abortion as well as health-care providers who perform them—prevented the young woman from seeking not only safe abortion services, but also needed counseling and legal services for sexual violence. Instead, she resorted to clandestine abortion and wasn’t referred to other important counseling or legal services to help stop the situation.
Back in April, I wrote about the struggle for abortion rights in Ecuador, where abortion is allowed only for victims of rape who are mentally disabled. In my piece, I spoke with hope about the important work led by a coalition of women’s and LGBTI rights groups to call international attention to their plight, and about some promising signs, including international court rulings and United Nations committee recommendations criticizing governments for failing to expand abortion allowances.
Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution showed positive advances for human rights and women’s health, but it’s now time to call on leaders to update the country’s penal codes, which will come under review in the next few months. Ecuador’s antiquated abortion law still restricts access to safe and legal services for women, with a disproportionately negative impact on young, indigenous, rural, economically burdened, and otherwise marginalized people.
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The report issued by Human Rights Watch draws new attention to this urgent issue. According to the 26-page report, Rape Victims As Criminals: Illegal Abortion after Rape in Ecuador, Ecuador’s criminal code limits the reproductive rights of women and girls by prohibiting abortion with few exceptions, with detrimental effects for Ecuadorian women and girls. Researchers found that the policy contributes to maternal mortality and morbidity, hinders the detection and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, creates obstacles for women and girls needing potentially life-saving medical care, and perpetuates negative stereotypes and inequality of women and girls with disabilities, among other things.
The policy also prevents survivors of sexual assault from reporting the crime for fear that legal proceedings might draw attention to pregnancies resulting from rape. When faced with reporting a rape and being forced to carry a pregnancy to term or not reporting a rape and seeking a clandestine abortion, many survivors chose the latter. The report includes the case of an 11-year-old girl who reported her rape then had to wait to give birth and have the child’s paternity tested before legal action could be taken.
Now and always, rape survivors and all women in Ecuador and around the world deserve access to comprehensive health services, including abortion if requested. Ecuadorians agree; in a recent national survey carried out by the Center of Studies and Data (CEDATOS), 76 percent of respondents said they do not believe that a women should go to jail for having an abortion and 64 percent believe that abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest.
It’s entirely unacceptable for a woman or girl who has suffered the trauma of rape to face the prospect of going to jail if she chooses to get an abortion. As the report details, the current policy puts the health and lives of rape victims in danger, and represents an unacceptable departure from international court rulings.
I urge you to lend your voice to ask that Ecuadorian leaders make safe abortion legal and accessible for women who have been victims of rape.