Today, on International Women’s Day, people from all over the world will take to the streets to call for justice and change. While we’ll see protesters draw attention to a variety of issues, we’ll especially see many demand equal abortion access.
Abortions occur as frequently in the most restrictive countries – that is those that ban them altogether or only allow them to save a woman’s life – as in countries that have more lenient laws. This means that in many parts of the world, women are left with no choice but to terminate pregnancy through unsafe methods, which can lead to health problems or death. This is particularly alarming across Latin America and the Caribbean, where out of 33 countries, only Guyana, Cuba, and Uruguay allow elective abortions. With an estimated 6.5 million abortions taking place in the area each year, this puts the lives of many women in danger.
Ahead of the marches taking place today, Remezcla spoke to six activists from three Latin American countries with the most restrictive abortion laws. Read on to learn what they’re up against and why they fight.
In December 2009 – five months into her pregnancy – Alba Lorena Rodríguez fainted after feeling sharp pains in her stomach. When she came to, she realized she had miscarried. But in the middle of her mourning, the government accused her of having an abortion and sentenced her to 30 years in prison. In a country that has made abortion absolutely illegal in the late 1990s, miscarriages and stillbirths have become punishable offenses, with some women imprisoned on homicide charges.
It’s also forced many others to seek illegal abortions. According to the Salvadoran Health Ministry, between 2005 and 2008, there were 19,290 secret abortions. Those privileged enough could terminate the pregnancy at private clinics or in other countries, but for those who weren’t, it meant turning to unsafe options.
In 2018, activists felt hopeful that the laws in the country would change after two proposals – one that sought to allow abortion for rape victims or if the fetus was unviable and the other that would only permit it if the life of a woman were in danger or in the case of a rape of a minor. But neither proposal went up for a vote, and with the mostly conservative party in the national assembly, it seems the law is unlikely to change.
Along with the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, Morena Herrera has fought against El Salvador’s military-led (and US-backed) government. And though she didn’t think she’d have to be fighting inequality in her 60s, she has become a prominent voice in the women’s movement. Herrera, who founded Las Dignas, is recognized as one of the leader of the country’s feminist movement. Today, she serves as the president of Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion.
On International Women’s Day, she’ll join the fight. “On March 8, I march for the freedom of all women, for our autonomy and for girls and adolescents to stop being victims of imposed pregnancies,” she tells Remezcla.
Human rights defender Keyla Cáceres is a 24-year-old student at the University of El Salvador. She currently serves as a coordinator for the Salvadoran Platform for Youth in Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights in El Salvador. Because she’s fighting for a more fair future, many of the platforms she belongs to are youth-focused. Young people are one reason she’ll join March 8’s march.
“I march to vindicate the history and struggles of feminists, including the decriminalization of abortion that only punishes poor girls and young women in El Salvador,” she says.
Abortion isn’t entirely banned in Argentina. The procedure is allowed in cases of rape or when a person’s health is in danger. Yet, even under those circumstances, it can be difficult to get an abortion. Just in the last week, an 11-year-old girl, who was raped by her grandmother’s partner, underwent an emergency C-section, weeks after she and her mother requested an abortion. And she’s not the only one denied an abortion.
Last year, Argentina’s Senate did not vote in favor of a law that would expanded abortion access, making them legal up to the 14-week mark. But the push from activists gained attention across the country and internationally as well.
Mercedes Burga and Emi Marchio
Mother-daughter team Mercedes Burga and Emi Marchio have participated in several protests across the country. Emi, who recently finished high school, uses social media to help mobilize others. Meanwhile, Mercedes provides green pieces of cloth – which read campaña nacional por el derecho al aborto legal, seguro, y gratuito – to fellow demonstrators.
Just as they’ve done in the past, on March 8, they will spread awareness on the need for abortion access. “I march because I am convinced that the streets are an ideal stage to shine a light on the struggle against machismo and the patriarchy, seeking equality and freedom over our bodies,” Emi says. “Thousands of us will come out to march, demonstrating that we won’t stay quiet any longer.”
For Mercedes, it’s also important to note how the role women play in society is often undervalued. “I fight for the rights of women because we have a long way to go for equality,” Mercedes says. “[We need to] stop romanticizing the care and domestic tasks that take up so many hours of our time. Let us make decisions about our bodies. Safe abortions are a fundamental right. If we don’t shine a light on these struggles on the streets, they will not be seen.”
Renee Gallo is a lesbian feminist and a political science student. She’s also a member of the youth parliament of Mercosur – the economic and political trade bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
She’ll join the marches because she wants to support the most disenfranchised. “This 8M, lesbians will also come out to march. We are brought together by anger and fatigue because it’s women, lesbians, cross-dressers, and trans people that are most affected by poverty, killed for living freely and those who are excluded for not following the norm,” Gallo says. “We will find each other on the street because there, collectively, we turn the pain into organization. Our cry expresses that we are tried and the paro internacional that we present is an ultimatum: It’s time for profound changes, we say it to society and to our governments, but also to our families, friends and colleagues.”
Not only is abortion completely illegal in the Dominican Republic, it also comes with punishment from medical professionals. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report collected stories of women affected by this law. For example, a woman who had a self-induced abortion sought help as she started losing blood. Medical professionals made her wait as “punishment.” There was also a mentally disabled girl who became pregnant at 12, but she didn’t receive any care.
Abortion is also punishable by jail time in the DR, but it doesn’t stop women from attempting to terminate abortions every year. The Human Rights Watch report says that “there are an estimated 25,000 hospitalizations for abortion and miscarriage in the public health system every year, many of which are women needing care after a clandestine abortion.” Additionally, 8 percent of maternal deaths are because of illegal abortions and miscarriages.
Much like in other countries, perceptions on abortion access have shifted, with more believing abortions should be decriminalized. The President, the ministry of health, and more have spoken out about supporting abortion in a few instances, including to save a woman’s life, in cases of rape, and when the fetus is not viable.
Feminist and activist Natalia Mármol is a member of Foro Feminista and La Coalición por la Vida y los Derechos de las Mujeres. She’s concerned social justice in a variety of areas. On March 8, she’ll join many others fighting for a better future.
“On March 8, I will head out to the streets with thousands of women who are fighting for their rights because only together can we continue to knock down the barriers of inequality,” she said. “In the DR, we’ll raise our voice this March 8 to call for the end of gender violence, the decriminalization of abortion in three specific cases, and for our political and laboral rights.”