(WOMENSENEWS)–Alejandra, a young woman from southern Ecuador, described what happened after she was raped. Her period was late, but she was afraid to take a pregnancy test, she told a group of women who had gathered to discuss the issue.
"I waited and waited like 15 more days until I took a test–and it was positive," said Alejandra, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, at the gathering in Guayaquil, on Ecuador’s coast.
Her choices were limited. She could go to prison for seeking an abortion.
"I did not want to get pregnant [at all], much less have the son of the man who did so much damage to me," she said. She decided to get an illegal abortion.
Many others also face this desperate choice, due to Ecuador’s strict abortion law. Ecuador’s criminal code provides for only three exceptions to a prohibition on abortion: a threat to the life of a pregnant woman, or to her health when the danger can’t be averted by other means, and in the case of a rape or statutory rape of a woman with a mental disability. Other women or girls who are raped may not get a legal abortion.
The result? Unsafe abortion is the second leading cause of injury in women and girls in Ecuador. One in four women in the country have experienced some type of sexual violence, indicates a government study. And while there is no accurate data on how many pregnancies result, some experts attribute an alarming increase in pregnancies among young adolescents in recent years to violent incidents.
In response, this week in Geneva Ecuadoran groups, along with Planned Parenthood Global and Human Rights Watch, are highlighting the issue before a United Nations committee that assesses countries’ actions to eliminate discrimination against women. The committee monitors the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW. The committee has urged many countries to decriminalize abortion.
The CEDAW committee should recommend that Ecuador remove restrictions and criminal sanctions for abortion, particularly for victims of sexual violence, to address the public health crisis created by unsafe abortion. It should also urge Ecuador to ensure that women have access to abortion in cases in which it is already legal.
A woman or girl in Ecuador can be sentenced to up to two years in prison for seeking an abortion based solely on the testimony of a medical professional. Even harsher penalties apply to medical professionals who perform abortions.
However, global studies underscore that the criminalization of abortion does not reduce the number of abortions, but instead drives women and girls to seek clandestine and unsafe abortions that contribute to maternal death rates and injury.
The law also has a chilling effect on medical professionals, limiting their ability to detect sexual violence and prevent the injury or death of their patients. Medical professionals told Human Rights Watch in 2013 that fear of criminal penalties distorts what women and girls will tell them, and so they miss opportunities to refer them to services for victims of violence. They said when women and girls who have had illegal abortions seek care, often they are afraid to say how they induced the abortion, thus compromising the quality of care. Medical staff is even afraid to provide post-abortion care, on the chance that they’re suspected of providing an abortion.
Ecuador’s National Assembly could have fixed these problems when it revised the criminal code in 2013. However, President Rafael Correa is adamantly against decriminalizing abortion, even on narrow grounds, and has threatened to resign rather than allow such a law to pass. When three assemblywomen from President Correa’s political party tried to introduce such a measure, they were sanctioned by their party, suspended for a month and subjected to insults.
The CEDAW committee’s scrutiny can be a game changer. Last year, the Peruvian government issued its long-awaited therapeutic abortion protocol the same week the CEDAW committee reviewed Peru’s abortion situation.
"I do not want to have a child of a rapist." Alejandra said, "to remind me every day of what happened to me…I think every woman should decide whether to have a child under these conditions or not."
This week, the CEDAW committee should say this loud and clear to the government of Ecuador.
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