(WOMENSENEWS)–The story of Carmen, a migrant woman who was sexually assaulted while in transit to the United States, has become all too common. While travelling with a sister and her daughter on a train from Guatemala, they were accosted by a group of men who cornered them in one of the box cars. They screamed and fought back with everything they had and the scuffle attracted the attention of a stranger who chased away their attackers. They were saved for the time being but the journey was long and the perils real.
Carmen was part of a sample of 129 immigrant women Anna Ochoa O’Leary interviewed in 2007 as part of a research project on the border. She met her at a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, after Carmen was deported by Border Patrol.
The current controversy over Planned Parenthood supplying fetal tissue for research has clouded the work this organization does to improve the quality of life for the impoverished women they assist in both the United States and 10 other countries.
Many women like Carmen struggle with dire and even life-threatening situations.
Female border crossers are sometimes sexually violated as part of that journey, which can result in an unwanted pregnancy as well as transmission of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In fact 41 percent of all Planned Parenthood services are dedicated to STD testing and treatment.
Lack of legal status and the fear of being deported make migrant women particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. Accurate figures on the number of women who are sexually assaulted while migrating are elusive.
With little legal protection, few denounce their accusers. As such, many stories of sexual assault go unheard, and therefore remain undercounted.
However, research does show that many immigrant women anticipate sexual assault in the course of migrating to the United States. They take precautions against unwanted pregnancy by buying contraceptives in Mexican pharmacies where no prescription is needed. However, in so doing, many do not receive professional advice from doctors, making this population at risk of health problems when secondary side effects go unmonitored or untreated. Around 11percent of Planned Parenthood services are for pregnancy testing and prenatal services
Sex Assaults Continue
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security detained and removed approximately 662,000 migrants attempting to enter the United States, most (64 percent) who were from Mexico. Guatemala was the next highest country of origin among those who were detained, accounting for 11 percent of the total.
Approximately half of all migrants are women.
Research also shows that one of the most common forms of contraception (62 percent) among Mexican women in 2011 was tubal occlusion. This parallels the findings of another study done in 2009 that found sterilization was the preferred method of contraception for 40 percent of a sample of women who had recently migrated to the United States.
This data supports the idea that women, like their male counterparts, migrate out of the need to work. This helps explain the dramatic decrease in the fertility of immigrant women in the United States.
Even those with firm right-to-life convictions would agree that limiting the number and the timing of children makes sound economic sense.
However, the right to reproductive health care in the U.S. is only as good as the ability to access that health care. Appropriate, legal and accessible health care is available to all women, regardless of immigration status, at Planned Parenthood. The reason is simple; a woman’s need for medical treatment is a basic human right. Equity should determine a woman’s need for health care; not borders or immigration policy.
Our society needs to become more aware of the vulnerable plight of immigrant women. We need policymakers who, when looking at Planned Parenthood, see it as a primary way for women with no other options to improve their health and quality of life.
Edna Meza Aguirre, J.D., is a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. She is regional associate development director with Planned Parenthood Arizona. Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Ph.D., is associate professor and head of the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the editor of a two-volume encyclopedia on the experiences of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Both are public voices fellows with The OpEd Project.
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