16 Days: Does Legal Abortion in the Case of Sexual Violence Meet the Needs of Adolescents?

Jessie Clyde, Program Officer, Youth

During the course of my work supporting the expansion and strengthening of abortion services for young women in Latin America and the Caribbean, I have visited many countries where abortion is permitted in only limited circumstances. One such circumstance is when a woman is the victim of sexual assault. In the case of sexual violence, it is necessary to ensure that women are able to receive the services they are legally entitled to, but are often unable to access.

Many of our Member Associations (MAs) struggle with the burden of proof, parental consent obligations, and the lack of information among providers about what is and is not actually required. This bureaucracy often leads to a violation of privacy, unnecessary delays, and added expenses that subjects young victims of sexual violence to additional suffering. In some cases, it might even mean that young women are denied services or seek out unsafe options that result in the high maternal mortality and morbidity figures we see in the region. (According to the Guttmacher Institute, an estimated 95% of abortions in Latin America are performed illegally, often under unsafe and dangerous conditions).

Despite these challenges, MAs such as PROFAMILIA Colombia have spearheaded efforts to ensure that young women can receive legal abortion services in the case of sexual violence in a dignified and youth-friendly manner. As a champion of sexual and reproductive rights, when abortion was decriminalized for women who have experienced sexual violence in 2006, PROFAMILIA was not content to let the exception stay just on the books. Instead, they did research on sexual violence in Colombia, worked with local musicians to launch a awareness-raising campaign, and began offering services in their clinics. While we applaud PROFAMILIA’s dedication to providing abortion services to the full extent of the law, we need to continue fighting to expand access so that no young women is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Fortunately this has been the case in Mexico City since 2007, when the Federal District legalized abortion in the first trimester. Last month I visited three clinics in Mexico City that offer legal abortion services to young women. Mexico City is one of the very few places in Latin America where young women can access legal abortion services until 12 weeks, regardless of their reasons for terminating their pregnancy. Due to the liberalization of the law, providers and program staff that work with youth can focus their energies on ensuring that those services are sensitive to the needs of adolescents, accessible, and confidential. Most importantly, they can support a young women’s capacity to make an autonomous decision about her pregnancy based on what she wants to do, not what the legislations says she is permitted to do.

Thanks to this groundbreaking development in Mexico City, all young women are able to decide if they want to continue their pregnancy, whether that pregnancy was a result of rape or not. While we need to implement the sexual violence exceptions to the full extent of the law in those countries that respect this right, we cannot stop there. Young women need safe, legal abortion services for many reasons – not just in situations of violence.

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