Horror, outrage, and action

A pregnant 10-year-old girl is being denied an abortion by the Paraguayan government. What can we do to save her?

Amnesty International’s Tarah Demant weighs in on the power of advocacy

Women take part in a demostration against anti-abortion laws at the congress in San Salvador April 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

It’s a sickening story, one that defies comprehension and belief. A 10-year-old girl in Paraguay, whose name has not been released, was raped by her stepfather and became pregnant with his baby. Compounding the tragedy is the refusal by Paraguayan authorities to grant the child an abortion, on the basis that she has not yet developed complications that pose a risk to her life.

Humanitarian organizations have argued that the girl—who stands at only 4”6 and weighs just 75 pounds—faces high mortality risks as a result of her pregnancy. The girl’s mother, who has since been arrested on the grounds of failing to protect a child, has requested that her daughter be allowed to receive an abortion. But the Paraguayan government is refusing to budge, and the child remains in a hospital ward for pregnant adolescents, without any family by her side, on the cusp of her third trimester.

News of the case has sparked an international wave of horror and fury. Unprecedented numbers of protestors have taken to the streets of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, and a march on May 30 is expected to draw hundreds of demonstrators. The campaign organization Avaaz presented the Paraguayan government with a petition, signed by almost 600,000 people. Amnesty International has also launched a petition to pressure Paraguayan authorities into allowing the child access to a safe abortion.

Are outrage and activism enough to instigate change for this little girl and, potentially, to save her life? Women in the World spoke to Tarah Demant, Senior Director of Amnesty’s Identity and Discrimination Unit, about the risks of adolescent pregnancy, reproductive rights in Latin America, and the power of the popular movement.

Women in the World: The child in question is now approximately 26 weeks pregnant. Presumably, the likelihood of her being granted an abortion decreases with each passing week. How acute is the urgency of resolving her case?

Tarah Demant: There’s a number of concerns around urgency. The first is that every passing day of her pregnancy represents a significant risk to her life and her health, including her mental health. The U.N. has recognized that continuing to force women and girls to bear pregnancies that are a result of rape or incest, or that damage the health and life of the mother, is tantamount to torture.

The second concern is that this delay tactic is fairly common in countries with extreme restrictions or bans on abortion, in which the health of the mother is the only exception. One of the ways to not grant an abortion under that legal exemption is to just drag it out. A much later term abortion is much less likely to take place. So we’re concerned on multiple fronts.

WITW: Can you describe some of the health risks that you are worried about?

TD: The World Health Organization has identified pregnancy in girls, and particularly teenagers under the age of 15, as being incredibly high risk of maternal morbidity—dying from pregnancy, or from birth, or immediately after birth. There are real, substantial health risks that come with being 10 years old and pregnant … From pregnancy, some of the main risks are fistulas and ruptures. There are a number of things that can go wrong because the body of a 10-year-old girl is not ready to give birth.

The other thing is that we’re really worried about is her mental health. That is covered under the U.N.’s understanding of “life and health” of a woman or girl who has been raped and forced to give birth. [The girl in question] is carrying the fetus of her stepfather, who raped her, and [she] now is being forced to carry it to term. She is visibly pregnant, and we’re really concerned about that.

WITW: According to Paraguayan law, a woman can legally be granted an abortion if the pregnancy poses a risk to her life. It seems inarguable that this child’s life is in danger. So why has she not been granted an abortion?

TD: One of the problems is that the burden of proving the risk can be insurmountable… There is a technical caveat if [pregnancy is] a risk to your life, but to establish that it’s a risk to your life is really difficult … In Paraguay, you need this interdisciplinary panel to sign on [to the abortion], so who are you proving this [risk] to? A gynecologist? A doctor? Or is it the ethics person at the hospital, who may or may not have a sense of what the risk is to an individual girl’s life?

WITW: What is the goal of your petition?

TD: The goal of our petition has always been to allow this child, this 10-year-old child access to all of her options, including her right to a safe and legal abortion because she is a victim of rape and incest … Now that we know the panel has met, the panel needs to allow her access [to the abortion].

WITW: News of this girl’s plight sparked an outcry in Paraguay and beyond, but there has been very little progress in her case. Are you optimistic about the potential for advocacy to make change here?

TD: What I’ll say is that it’s increasingly difficult for Paraguay to ignore the needs of women and girls [in the face of] this international spotlight … Having the spotlight on them is very meaningful. It pushes them to action. I’m concerned that we haven’t heard anything on this ruling and the girl is 25 weeks in. The Paraguayan government seems to be dragging its feet in this case. That said, the government can only drag its feet so long when the world is calling for it to take action.

I am optimistic that if we continue to keep pressure on Paraguay—if we continue to write, to visit embassies, and make calls, and send letters—the government can’t just wait for this to “blow over.” What Paraguay is seeing is that this case will not blow over, because it’s not just this one case. It’s the case of any girl, woman, or child who has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, and whose health or life is at risk … The pressure is not going to go away.

WITW: How does this case fit into the broader landscape of women’s rights in Latin America?

TD: This case is not that uncommon, and that I think is really important [to note]. Across Latin America, there are severe restrictions to accessing people’s basic sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to access a safe and legal abortion in cases of rape and incest when the life or health of the mother is at risk. For example, in El Salvador, there’s a total abortion ban with no exceptions. And that is also true in Chile.

Regionally, we see a total denial of women’s access to their own rights. But [we also see a denial of] sexual and reproductive rights for all people, including men and boys. [Sexual and reproductive rights] means the right to education—accurate, science-based education—about sex and sexuality. It means access to free and post-natal care. It means access to abortion in cases of rape and incest.

WITW: If this case is not particularly uncommon, why do you think it has attracted a singular level of international attention—and outrage?

TD: Because the child is so young, it makes it clear to people what it means to have an abortion ban, and who is punished [by that ban]. The person being punished here is a child who was raped by her stepfather. This 10-year-old … is forced to give birth because Paraguay does not have human-rights-standard compliant laws. I think that’s what makes this so outrageous for people. It’s very easy to [say], “Oh, abortion laws? Maybe a woman shouldn’t have had sex.” It’s very difficult to moralize here.

WITW: As an advocate, is your hope that by making enough noise on behalf of this child, you can affect change in the entire region?

TD: It is. This is, unfortunately, not just a problem in Paraguay. This is a regional issue, and frankly, it’s a global issue. Access to safe abortion is a global issue. Our hope is that, in this case, this individual child gets the care she needs and deserves under international law. But [our hope is] also that by continuing to draw attention to this, countries will see that they are out of step with human rights, that they are out of step with the needs of their own citizens and people within their borders …. When we deny people their sexual and reproductive rights, it has a negative impact far past the individual.

People can make a difference here. People do not have to sit helplessly and watch this case. They can take action. They can go to our online petition. They can call their embassy. They can write a letter directly to the president. Those things matter.

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