Archive for government

15 de Junio: Cuando la “promiscuidad” forzada deja indefensos a los más vulnerables

Posted in Bolivia, sexual violence with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by eugeniadealtura

Readers… if you still exist… I apologize for the long hiatus.  Work responsibilities have not allowed me to post to the blog as frequently as I would like, and time limitations will continue to prevent me from commenting in much detail on the posts that I am able to make to the blog.  So, today I write to you humbly with this brief reflection.

Some years ago, when working on a research project on Bolivia’s 1952 national revolution, my interest was piqued by the revolutionary party’s constant complaints of the “promiscuity” of the nation’s rural indigenous populations.  And no, I do not mean sexual promiscuity–although I think the deliberate choice of the word “promiscuous” to describe traditional one-room living quarters was indeed designed to raise concerns about children’s unwitting exposure to their parents’ “marital relations.”  In political pamphlets of the 1950s and early ’60s, journalists and commentators of the nation’s ruling Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party would frequently denounce the deplorable “promiscuous” living conditions of the poor rural majority, in which parents and children lived in one-room homes in which kitchen and bedroom were one and the same.  In part, revolutionary-era authors complaining of promiscuity revealed sincere humanitarian concern over the  poverty of rural dwellers; at the same time, however, MNRistas often used these complaints to highlight the party’s role in “saving” indigenous populations from their poverty, denying the agency of Indians themselves.

Today, the issue of “residential promiscuity” has come back to haunt us.  Readers in the U.S. and Europe may be shocked to discover that in most of Bolivia’s prisons, the state forces prisoners to live in “the most deplorable promiscuity” with one another–and also allows the live-in presence of inmates’ wives & children.  Institutions such as La Paz’s San Pedro prison and Santa Cruz’s Palmasola prison constitute virtual “prison cities,” where wealthier inmates are able to lease comfortable cells & where less fortunate inmates sleep in the halls of the jail.  Inmates, who may have “jobs” inside the jail–making and peddling food or providing other services–circulate with relative freedom inside these prison cities.  Children and their mothers often leave the prison gates in the morning to attend school or go to work, only to return in the afternoon or evening.  Although sixty years ago members of Bolivia’s ruling party denounced the “promiscuity” of non-criminal rural peoples, now the state allows women and children to live in close quarters with convicted criminals.  Sure, some of those guys are innocent, and some of them were convicted of tax fraud.  But some of them were convicted of rape.

Palmasola Prison, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  Courtesy of Infosur Hoy.

Case in point (for readers of Spanish).  This week, Cochabamba’s Los Tiempos newspaper reports on the case of 63-year-old Sabino Paredes Condori, an inmate of Santa Cruz’s Palmasola prison who was lynched last Monday night by his fellow inmates.  Paredes allegedly sparked the fury of a mob of inmates after gloating over photos he’d recorded on his cell phone of two naked female children and of unspecified sexual acts.  The two children were daughters of a fellow inmate.  Paredes was in the process of serving a 25-year sentence for rape.  Once inmates were able to steal his cellphone and examine the images, they subjected Paredes to an hours-long ordeal culminating in his hanging.

Despite his heinous crimes, Paredes’ lynching is, of course, horrible.  What concerns me more, however, is the unchecked “promiscuity” of Bolivia’s prisons, in which adolescent girls and boys and their mothers rub elbows in the “city streets” of Palmasola and San Pedro.  Although Los Tiempos alleges that this case has “reopened the old debate of the voluntary presence of inmates’ wives and children in [Bolivian] prisons,” it’s unclear what, if anything, will change.  And funny, that–I thought that “promiscuity” was high on the state’s list of concerns.

26 de Septiembre: El aborto en México

Posted in abortion, Mexico, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

When the tide begins to turn for women in Latin America, the right wakes up.  An article in the New York Times this week reports on the growing list of abortion restrictions being passed in states in Mexico since the country’s capital legalized elective abortion some three years ago.

22 de Agosto: ‘A pesar de su belleza…’

Posted in Bolivia, Press with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

You may have heard that, in Bolivia, a “beauty queen” has recently been named to a major government position in the “war on drugs.”  Last Sunday, Andrés Schipani and Rory Carroll of The Observer reported on the appointment of British-born, Bolivian-raised Jessica Anne Jordan Burton to post of viceroy of the tropical Beni province, where Jordan’s principal responsibility will ostensibly be “cleaning up the drug-infested” region. Describing Jordan as a “former model and beauty queen” who has never occupied public office, the authors assert that the new viceroy “cuts a[n]…incongruous figure.” Accompanied by a photo of the appointee with her fist raised in “determination,” the article repeatedly juxtaposes Jordan’s beauty with the raw, rugged character of her new position–a position which, the authors imply, inserts her into “a macho, brutal world where grim-faced soldiers [battle] ruthless narco-traffickers.”

Fortunately, the Andean Information Network (AIN) was not long in correcting the multiple mischaracterizations of this article, some focusing on Jordan, and others on Bolivia’s drug policy.  Regular readers know that I am hesitant to endorse Bolivian president Evo Morales’ appointment of women to public office. In general, it seems that Morales elevates just those women who he can easily manipulate, many of whom lack relevant experience, only to satisfy a quota system of his own design.  In this case, however, The Observer’s characterization of Jordan as simply a beauty queen who “has never held previous public office” omits important details, which the AIN corrects in its August 16 brief.

Bolivian indigenous women attend the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, April 20, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado (BOLIVIA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT POLITICS)
Image courtesy of PicApp.

According to the AIN, Evo’s appointment of Jordan to the position of “Beni Director of Border Development” represents a typical practice of Bolivian administrations of “[appointing] leaders who lost in national elections” to positions within the government. Apparently, despite having never held a public office, Jordan lost a recent election for the governorship of the Beni by only 3%.  The AIN also criticizes Schipani and Carroll for misrepresenting Jordan’s new position, which, far from catapulting her to the status of “figurehead in Bolivia’s…campaign against cocaine barons,” actually places her in charge of border control in all of its forms–including monitoring and fighting “illicit trafficking, corruption, poverty and ‘illegal logging and gold mining’.”

These misrepresentations of the UK press are truly disappointing, seeming to draw on and to exploit a variety of stereotypes about women and our roles.  (This, without even delving into The Observer article’s problematic portrayal of Bolivia’s drug policies, described in the AIN piece.)

First, Schipani and Carroll do a disservice to Jordan by disregarding her background in politics and by insinuating that her prior participation in beauty contests and modeling–and, by extension, her beauty itself–makes her ill-prepared for public office.  Second, the authors’ mischaracterization of Jordan’s new position as an anti-drug Indiana Jones who will be battling drug barons left and right in the “jungles” of Bolivia is likely meant to eroticize her by evoking images of a scantily clad Xena-like warrior fighting crime.  Since the article further portrays Jordan’s post as dangerous, her quoted statements on her attitude toward the post–serene, in comparison–make her seem naive, like she could not possibly know what she is getting herself into.

What it comes down to is this: Schipani and Carroll are more interested in crafting a racy story about a beauty-queen-turned-drug-buster than in Jordan’s real qualifications and recent appointment to office.  As it is for so many women, Jordan’s beauty is both a requirement of her acceptance into “real” womanhood, and the reason her abilities are doubted.  I, for one, am interested in the outcome of this most recent appointment of a woman to office in Bolivia.  Press reports on Jordan’s progress, however, will likely be hard to find–once she gets down to the job, fully clothed and more often at a desk than hanging from a jungle vine, journalists like Schipani and Carroll will probably lose interest.

9 de Julio: ¿En quién podemos confiar?

Posted in Bolivia, torture with tags , , , , , , , on July 9, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Over the past several months, I have commented on a variety of violent crimes against women in La Paz and El Alto, including rape, physical and psychological violence, and murder. The reason we likely know about these cases is because these events, unlike many others, were actually reported to police. The branch of police in charge of crime in Bolivia is called the FELCC, for Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen–or roughly, the Special Force Fighting Against Crime. Readers familiar with Latin America may not be surprised to hear that Bolivians generally do not trust the police–any branch of it–because the organization is plagued by corruption, and the rich and connected rarely have to serve time for their crimes.

What may be more surprising, however, is that even in Bolivia–a country which has enjoyed democratic, albeit sometimes tumultuous, rule since 1982–citizens are still occasionally tortured during interrogations by police.

Many remember the brutal tortures, murders, and “disappearances” inflicted by Latin American military governments on their citizens during the 1960s-1980s.  At that time, blossoming social movements demanding justice for indigenous people, workers, women, and other disadvantaged groups sparked a ferocious backlash by military rulers fearing that communist “subversives” would overtake the country.  The United States government often supported these military measures, either indirectly or directly, with funding, training, and ideological support.  Many of the most heinous Latin American military torturers attended the U.S.-based School of the Americas.  Most of us, however–even those of us who regularly study Latin America–were under the impression that police and military torture is mostly, if not wholly, a thing of the past.

Which brings us to this story, published in late June by a La Paz daily, La Razón. The story centers on a woman La Razón calls “Fernanda,” who since May 2009 has been locked up in a jail in the La Paz neighborhood of Obrajes for a crime not identified in this piece.  Her original offense, however, and the one that led to her torture, was her alleged involvement in the kidnapping of a young man.  During the first several days of her interrogation and incarceration, Fernanda was subjected to the whole gamut of what are now considered the “normal” Latin American military torture techniques, including being beaten, insulted, and threatened while her head was covered by a black hood; shocked with electric prods; slowly suffocated, and forced to take her clothes off in front of interrogators.

At the time she was arrested, Fernanda was working as a taxi driver.  One day in May 2009, Fernanda was hired by a customer for a series of rides over a period of hours.  She also sold the man a number of calls from her personal cell phone, which he made while in the taxi cab.  Evidently, once the man was able to pick up the ransom money owed him for a kidnapping he had helped orchestrate, he ran off.  The entire time the rider was in the car, he had a gun pointed at Fernanda.  Realizing that her customer was involved in a crime, Fernanda reports that she voluntarily went to police.  That’s when she says her interrogation and torture began.

According to the police report, Fernanda did not present to police voluntarily, but was randomly discovered in her car at a gas station and taken in for questioning.  However, the FELCC has no record of holding Fernanda for the next few days when she reports being tortured.  This despite the fact that, after the incidents of torture, Fernanda was examined by a forensic doctor and by the Institute for Therapy and Investigation of the Consequences of Torture and State Violence (ITEI), both of which certified that she had been tortured.

Who to believe?  Who to trust?  Considering the stories you hear–some of which are in print–and the country’s history, I am inclined to trust Fernanda. But then, who do we go to when we are harassed, raped, attacked, or accidentally involved in a crime in Bolivia, if not the police?  Basically, we would be wise to find our own allies–because I am not sure we can trust those that the government has chosen for us.

If you currently live in La Paz or El Alto and have been a victim of a crime, or have been victimized by police, one of your allies is CIDEM.  Please contact them for more information.  Si usted actualmente vive en La Paz o en Al Alto y ha sido la víctima de un crimen, o si ha sido victimizada por la policía, uno de sus aliados es CIDEM.  Por favor, comuníquese con ellas para más información.

13 de Junio: Cuando un país también es pobre

Posted in Bolivia, poverty with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week I discovered a few articles that emerged in the Bolivian press over the last several months that reminded me of the stunning variety of personal consequences to national poverty.  So often in this blog, I have identified particular government policies or cultural attitudes that affect Bolivian women, without placing these phenomena within the larger national and regional context.  It is this context that I would like to discuss today.  A context in which we recognize that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America (with the exception of Haiti).  And when an entire country is poor–not just its citizens–its infrastructure and institutions also suffer.  And suffering institutions, of course, means that many people’s basic needs are not being met.  This is what is happening in Bolivia.

Last January, La Paz’s daily La Prensa reported on striking health care workers at one crumbling local hospital that serves both the urban El Alto and surrounding rural populations.  Situated in the more middle-class, Ciudad Satélite neighborhood of El Alto, the Hospital Municipal Boliviano Holandés–often simply called the Holandés–was opened in 1999 to provide more health care options to alteños and to the rural population that often passes through the city.  According to one social worker I spoke with that works at the hospital, up to 80% of the clientele of the Holandés are rural migrants, many of whom speak exclusively the Aymara indigenous language.  (Most of the hospital staff also speaks Aymara.)

One of the reasons I was surprised to read this article is because, as part of my work in Bolivia, I have spent considerable time at the Holandés and the facility seems comparable to other hospitals in La Paz and El Alto.  Clearly, this is evidence not of the health of the Holandés, but of the deteriorated condition of most Bolivian health care centers.  As the La Prensa reporter notes, “In the pharmacy there are no medications, the [hospital] cots are rusted, they lack anesthesia for operations, there’s no food to give the hospitalized patients, the ambulances do not work, and when it rains, thanks to the broken roofs, there is almost as much water inside as out” (all translations mine).

Even more disturbing, one nurse at the Holandés commented that hospitalized patients–despite the existence of universal basic health insurance in Bolivia–must pay a daily fee for their care.  He notes, “‘The Holandés functions currently as a private clinic.  Whoever needs care has to buy their own medications.'”  Before reading this, I was under the erroneous impression that much had changed since the 1990s, when women seeking treatment for incomplete abortions would be left waiting sometimes for days in their hospital beds until they could afford to pay for the dilation and curettage or the manual vacuum aspirator procedure they required.  The deteriorated condition of the Holandés is taking its toll on both patients and staff.  Said one worker, “‘It’s been two months since they have paid our salaries, but this isn’t that important…The most serious [problem] is that…the infrastructure [of the hospital] is very deteriorated.”

Patient medical records stuffed into boxes are kept in this storage room in one local hospital.

Our second story of crumbling Bolivian institutions comes this week from Cochabamba, where one Defensoría de la Niñez lacks the necessary staff to investigate all of the cases it receives.  In Bolivia, the Defensorías are public institutions responsible for seeing cases of mistreatment of minors–including rape, physical and psychological violence, and abandonment.  These agencies are also instrumental in facilitating the adoptions of abandoned and orphaned children, since the Defensorías provide children with the personal documentation and the court order of release necessary to be adopted.  That is to say, when these institutions are not falling apart, they perform these functions.

In La Paz and El Alto, too, the Defensorías are facing difficulties.  As minors are becoming more familiar with their rights, more and more cases of mistreatment–particularly of rape of adolescent girls–are arriving at these institutions, and most lack the resources to deal with the cases effectively. Most of the safehouses where adolescent rape survivors could be placed are already over-burdened, and the foster system in Bolivia is so inefficient as to be almost useless.  Despite working long hours, most Defensoría staff feel unable to meet the needs of community members–and these community members, for their part, often opt not to report cases of abuse when they know they will face long lines and little follow-up.  I will never forget what one Defensoría worker told me when I called her to request an interview; she said: “Sure, come whenever you want–I’m here 24 hours a day.”

In any country affected by crushing poverty, women (and children) are generally hit the hardest.  Often dependent upon their male partners and extended families, and facing machista attitudes and sexist discrimination, women must struggle harder to achieve financial and social independence for themselves and their children.  However, women’s struggles do not occur in a vacuum.  The same phenomena that daily test women also test all Bolivians–patients and hospital workers, children and parents, government officials and social workers.  There are a few wealthy folks that escape, but many are in the same boat.  Because when it’s an entire country that’s poor, most discover that the effects of poverty trickle down to all.

15 de Mayo: Lo que es ilegal, se puede ignorar

Posted in abortion, adoption, Bolivia, child abandonment with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, New York Times blogger Nicholas Kristof opines, “my sense is that the illegality of abortion isn’t as large an element in maternal mortality as some people believe it is.”  On the one hand, Kristof points to a certain truth–just because abortion is illegal does not mean that it is not available.  Thousands of women undergo relatively safe abortions every day in countries where the procedure is illegal.  However, in these same countries, many more thousands of women end up getting unsafe abortions, since the key to accessing a safe pregnancy termination is usually money.  And most women worldwide–let’s face it–are poor.

The problem with abortion’s illegality is that it creates a class-based abortion industry, where women with money can access safe procedures, but women without, cannot.  Since where it is illegal abortion officially does not occur, government and public health officials can ignore the glaring class disparities in abortion care and in the resulting maternal deaths.  Since it is difficult to regulate an industry that officially does not exist, unscrupulous, unsafe abortion clinics exist alongside relatively safe medical centers, and most women do not have the information they need to make careful decisions about which to visit.

Reflecting on Kristof’s comments, I am further struck by how many aspects of unwanted pregnancy operate on the margin of the law in Bolivia.  The illegality of abortion–just one strategy for confronting unwanted pregnancy–is by far the most glaring.  Womankind estimates that 30,000 illegal abortions occur per year in Bolivia.  According to the country’s penal code, the individuals who perform abortions and the women who have them are subject to incarceration for three to six years.  However, as of 2004 only two judicial cases were ever brought against abortion practitioners, and both cases were later dismissed by the Supreme Court.  As far as I know, no woman has ever been incarcerated in Bolivia for having had an abortion.  In other words, the law criminalizing abortion doesn’t work on two fronts–it doesn’t prevent illegal abortions, and it doesn’t penalize abortion practitioners or the woman who undergo the procedures.  Finally, as I have mentioned before, laws allowing for legal abortions in Bolivia–in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the woman’s health–are equally ineffective.  Since 1973, when a stipulation was made in Bolivia’s penal code to allow abortion in the above cases, only a handful of legal abortions have ever been performed.

Other women, when met with unwanted pregnancy, end up abandoning their children rather than having abortions.  This may be because they are so traumatized by the pregnancy, or too poor to afford an abortion, that they are unable or unwilling to terminate the pregnancy before the child is born.  In other cases, women may abandon children that were and are “wanted” due to crushing economic circumstances or domestic abuse.  While some women will abandon infants in orphanages like the one pictured in this post, others will leave their children with neighbors, on street corners, or, notoriously, in garbage bins.  Like laws penalizing women who get abortions, laws targeting parents who abandon their children seem to be equally ineffective–in 2003, the national police registered two cases of child abandonment in the La Paz department, while local anti-abandonment activists argue that 17,000 children are abandoned in the country yearly.

Regardless of where they are left, most abandoned children will end up in orphanages. Orphanages in Bolivia come in several varieties; some depend on the state, some on private institutions and donors, and still others are illegal and even clandestine, with no relationship to local authorities.  One association of young people who grew up in orphanages recently told me that children residing in illegal orphanages have little chance to be adopted–at least not through legal channels.  (Even worse, sexual abuse in all types of orphanages is apparently the pan de cada día, or an everyday occurrence.)  While adoptions do take place, most Bolivian parents hope to adopt children under the age of one, who they can pass off to neighbors as a natural child.  The bureaucratic processes required to adopt children are so lengthy, however, that few children are adopted before they reach their first birthday, and once s/he turns one year old, a child’s chance of being adopted plummets.

Although it is difficult to find trustworthy data, activists in the fields of child abandonment and adoption insist that illegal adoptions are likely more numerous in Bolivia than legal ones.  While some of these adoptive parents have discovered children on their doorsteps or taken in kids from neighbors and friends, others, desperate to adopt, resort to illegal channels to bring kids home from orphanages.  Even adoptive parents who have completed the adoption process legally admit that they were tempted to go the illegal route to avoid the costly and lengthy processes associated with adopting a child.  Because of the increased legal and ethical issues involved with international adoptions, most of these are subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure their legality. Since the rise of President Evo Morales, however, international adoptions face new restrictions and are on the decline.  In the meantime, nearly all of the orphanages in La Paz and El Alto are facing serious over-crowding–even the illegal ones, to which the state, when in a pinch, occasionally sends children.

In sum, abortion is not the only consequence of unwanted pregnancy that is illegal in Bolivia–child abandonment, the housing of abandoned children, and even adoption often operate under the table.  On the one hand, these institutions, even illegal, function–women get abortions, and children are adopted.  But how well do these institutions function?  I must say that I have to disagree with Kristof.  Illegal abortion does lead to devastating rates of maternal death. Illegal child abandonment, and the housing of these children in clandestine orphanages, leads to children who lack the possibility of legal identities and families.  When the state allows problems of this magnitude to languish in dubious legal territory, it reserves the right to ignore their consequences.  But avoidance will not work forever.  Eventually, something has got to change.

1 de Mayo: Siempre equivocada

Posted in Bolivia, health care with tags , , , , on May 1, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, the La Paz daily La Razón reported on a slew of complaints being leveled by patients of the local Hospital de Clínicas  and their families for mistreatment and misinformation. Apparently, the Minister of Transparency and Against Corruption, Nardi Suxo, visited the large public hospital in order to speak with patients in person about their complaints, which are largely that, “‘[they] do not have information about their family members or about the treatment that they must follow, in addition to mistreatment'” (all translations are my own).

Regarding the visit, the director of the hospital, Dr. Eduardo Chávez Lazo, remarked that, “‘it has been seen that the care (at the hospital) is very appropriate, and in any case, the Minister has come to verify this in person.'”  With respect to patients’ complaints, Chávez said, “‘a patient, when s/he is sick, changes her/his character and way of being, and becomes depressed, whiny, and aggressive… When one is sick, the treatment that the patient receives is not what s/he expects, and this results in complaints.”

To avoid the long lines and mistreatment at many public hospitals, many people go to small private clinics like these ones in busy market districts of La Paz.  The care here is not necessarily any better than at the larger facilities.

In my mind, this piece is a non-story.  I have become so accustomed to hearing women state that they are “afraid” to go to medical centers, that sometimes I forget to ask why.  When I do remember, they say that they are afraid of being yelled at and chided for: crying out during childbirth; for not going to prenatal visits; for coming in to the hospital either too soon, or too late, in labor, or for having any request at all during their hospital stay.  Indigenous women are often yelled at for not understanding Spanish, for requesting food and hot beverages during labor, for wanting to give birth in the traditional squatting position, for asking to be bundled in blankets during labor, and for requesting to take the placenta home after the birth. (Consuming hot food and drink and being wrapped in blankets are indigenous birth rituals that heat the body and facilitate cervical and pelvic dilation for birth, while burying the placenta protects the child from illness throughout its life.)

Dr. Chávez’s dismissal of patient complaints is, although infuriating, completely unsurprising. The fact is that, with regards to medical care, the old customer service adage is reversed: if the customer is always right, in Bolivia, the patient is always wrong. In Bolivia, where higher education is less of a universal right than a luxury for the few, poorer, uneducated Bolivians are taught to treat doctors and other professionals as their superiors.  Most Bolivians recognize that they are being mistreated at medical facilities, but rather than confronting well educated doctors and nurses about the abuse, they prefer to simply not go to the doctor.  In addition, many indigenous Bolivians prefer to visit medical providers from their own communities, rather than western medical institutions.  The government, rather than dealing with the mistreatment, instead institutes poorly conceived, incentive-based health care programs like the Bono Juana Azurduy or the tuberculosis testing program to lure patients into hospitals.  They do this rather than deal with the abuse because they are more concerned with Bolivia’s international reputation, which is scarred by high maternal mortality and other health statistics, than with the health of actual Bolivians.

This La Razón article may tell us nothing new, but at least it gets the word out there about the poor state of affairs at many Bolivian medical facilities.  While medical infrastructure and technology in the country have improved considerably over the past several decades, these achievements will not bring patients in the door.  And they will not substitute for comprehensive, sensitive, culturally competent, and non-judgmental care.

29 de Abril: Ojo–la ley no te protegerá

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, sexual violence with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A couple of recent events have revealed the fragility of women’s right to choose in Latin America and in the United States, despite laws guaranteeing abortion access in those countries (or at least, under certain circumstances).

A few weeks ago, in a piece for Womanist Musings, I commented on the case of a nine-year-old-girl in Brazil who, after much difficulty, succeeded in securing a legal abortion when a rape left her pregnant with twins.  In that case, the Brazilian Archbishop ex-communicated the entire medical team that performed the procedure, along with the girl’s mother.  Now, RH Reality Check brings us the story of another young girl, raped and impregnated by her step-father in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  According to the local reproductive rights group, GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), the pregnant girl and her mother “received biased information from authorities about their rights and access to abortion.”

As in Bolivia and in many other areas of Latin America, women in Mexico who become pregnant as a result of rape are legally permitted to have an abortion.  However, in practice, the bureaucratic processes necessary to secure a legal abortion, as well as the tendency of anti-abortion authorities to pressure women against the procedure, make cases of legal abortion fairly rare.  This is not, as many have pointed out, because rape is rare: Marcy Bloom, of GIRE, notes that in 2009 alone, 881 women in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo “became pregnant as a result of rape.”

After some deliberation, this young Mexican girl and her family have decided to continue the pregnancy and keep the child.  Still, anti-choice activists in the country have used the case as an opportunity to attack pro-choice groups like GIRE, arguing that the organization attempted to pressure the girl to get an abortion.  In fact, women who become pregnant as a result of rape in Mexico are much more likely to be pressured by anti-choice elements to give up their legal right to abortion (see the RH article for a number of examples).

In case you are tempted to believe that legal abortion is so difficult to secure in Latin America because of the restrictions surrounding the procedure, think again: this week, abortion access suffered a major blow in the U.S. state of Oklahoma, where Roe v. Wade ostensibly extended abortion rights to women over 30 years ago.  Thanks to the Oklahoma Legislature, women seeking abortion in that state will now have to view ultrasound images and “listen to a detailed description of the fetus.”  Like the 24-hour wait law and other obstacles to abortion access, the Oklahoma measures display the profoundly condescending notion that unless forced, women will not think deeply about their decisions to have an abortion.  That, unless the state imposes its own definitions of “thoughtfulness” and “consideration” onto women’s abortion decisions, then women will approach these decisions with frivolity and disdain.

The photographs in today’s posting were provided by a guest photographer.

When women were granted the vote, we were supposedly recognized by the state as “adults” capable of making independent decisions and of running for office.  Restrictions to abortion access, however, return women to the realm of childhood, where we are deemed wards of the state who cannot be trusted with decisions impacting our own bodies and reproductive lives.  These three stories reveal a painful truth–that we cannot trust the law.  Laws alone will not protect us.  Access to legal abortion–and “permission” to act as capable adults–are still a long way off.

26 de Abril: Un asunto de conciencia

Posted in abortion, maternal mortality, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 26, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Last week, The Lancet published an online study on worldwide maternal mortality that showed significant improvements in maternal death rates since 1980.  Although it continues to sport the highest maternal mortality rate in Latin America, Bolivia emerged of the few countries that is demonstrating “accelerated progress” in this area.  The full article may be accessed here:

The Lancet — Worldwide Maternal Mortality

According to the study, the major factors that have contributed to reducing maternal mortality rates in the last 30 years include dropping total fertility rates, increased income and educational levels among women, and an increase in skilled birth attendants.

Although it is somewhat difficult to measure, I would imagine that in the Bolivian case another factor has contributed to reducing maternal mortality: the Ministry of Health’s program for the treatment of hemorrhages in the first half of pregnancy. Facing high rates of maternal death in part due to complications from abortion, in 1998 the Ministry instituted a program to deal with the public health implications of illegal abortion without touching the legal issue of abortion itself.  The program trains medical providers in the use of the cheap, effective, and safe manual vacuum aspirator (MVA) technology for the solution of incomplete abortion and miscarriage, and in extending non-judgmental care to women who may have attempted to provoke their own miscarriages.

Under the current provisions of the program, a woman experiencing vaginal bleeding in the first twenty weeks of her pregnancy can visit any public health facility to receive an MVA treatment for free under the Seguro Universal Materno Infantil (the universal maternal-child health insurance).  Unlike in the early 1990s–when doctors would sometimes refuse women treatment until they provided the name of the person who had provoked their abortion–medical providers are now prohibited from questioning women about the circumstances of their bleeding. Prior to the introduction of this program, women experiencing bleeding in pregnancy were often too scared to go to a hospital for treatment, which often led to severe infection and even death. Although it is difficult to measure with precision the effects of the hemorrhage treatment program, the Ministry of Health believes that it has greatly reduced maternal deaths due to abortion.

“What a shame that Santa does not give people a conscience…”

Although legalizing abortion and regulating the facilities that provide it is likely the most effective (and most just) means of reducing abortion-related death, the Ministry’s hemorrhage treatment program is perhaps a good stepping stone toward that end.  With the program for the treatment of hemorrhages in the first half of pregnancy, the Ministry is recognizing and elevating the public health aspects of abortion over questions of politics and the supposed protection of (fetal) “life.” Thanks to the dedicated work of individuals of conscience, this program provides an opportunity to keep Bolivia on the right track toward the reduction of maternal deaths.  Hopefully, the next step will be the provision of legal and safe abortion to any woman who decides that she needs it.

20 de Marzo: Progresista, pero no hacia las mujeres

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, Latin America with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A recent article by the IPS via Upside Down World reviews the dire situation of abortion in today’s Latin America.  The article, “Abortion in Latin America — Still Illegal, Still Killing, Despite Growing Awareness,” notes that more abortions are performed in Latin America than in any other world region, and that abortion is the second leading cause of maternal mortality in Latin American countries.  Abortion-related complications are responsible for “4,000 avoidable deaths” per year.

From left: “Condom–take responsibility,” and “Abortion is not only a woman’s issue.”

By now, it should surprise no one that Latin America leads the world in numbers of abortions not despite the fact that the procedure is illegal in almost every country in the region, but likely, because of it.  Statistics have shown time and time again that criminalizing abortion tends to increase, not decrease, numbers of abortions.  While four countries do not allow the procedure under any circumstance–including to save the mother’s life–13 countries allow the procedure in very limited situations, such as in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or when the woman’s health or life is at risk.  Abortion on demand is available in Cuba since 1965, and in Mexico City since 2007.

What may be surprising, however, is that abortion restrictions remain tight in Latin America despite the presence of left-wing leaders in government.  Perhaps because of political tendencies in the U.S. or in Europe–where left-wing leaders often champion progressive legislation on gender equality–many of us tend to see left-wing movements as necessarily woman-positive.  In Latin America, however, this is not so. In fact, two of Latin America’s so-called progressive administrations rolled back access to abortion in the last few years, while two of the region’s “conservative” governments liberalized abortion access.  This tendency in Latin America is not new.  Scholar Mala Htun finds that conservative military governments in Latin America passed progressive legislation on issues of divorce, abortion, and parental rights between the 1960s and 1980s, while democracies often failed to do so.

“I decide.”

Moriana Hernández, a Uruguayan sociologist quoted in this article, notes that sexism is so entrenched in Latin American society that machista attitudes cross the political spectrum.  “‘It’s easy to negotiate over the bodies of women because of that patriarchal influence,'” she says.  Because of this, the issue of abortion–of women’s right to control their own reproductive lives–is often used as a “bargaining chip” in political struggles between leftist leaders and right-wing factions of society.  Rita Segato, an Argentine anthropologist, adds that the Catholic Church opposes abortion simply to demonstrate its continued influence in Latin America, and that the institution does not truly care about defending “life.”  If it did, says Segato, it would recognize what has been proven time and time again: that criminalizing abortion increases both abortion rates and women’s deaths. Don’t believe me?  In Cuba, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1965, “the abortion rate is less than 21 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, 10 points lower than the regional average” (emphasis mine).  

Both the right and the left in Latin America need to open their eyes: decriminalizing abortion will not only guarantee women’s inalienable right to control their own bodies and save women’s lives, it will also dramatically reduce the numbers of abortions being performed, plain and simple.

A graffiti drawn by Bolivian youth from El Alto, reading, “Being a father, being a mother–leave it for tomorrow.”  The first two images in today’s post were provided by a guest photographer.


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