Bolivian Activists Ask: Is it Really a 'March for Life'?

Alan Deivid Figueroa Frías, Associate Director at CIES

On November 7th, the Departmental Council of Youth, the Women's Civic Committee, and the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz, a conservative city in Bolivia, called for a “March for Life” against the decriminalization of abortion in the country. The pro-life coalition used the slogan “from conception to natural death.”

In response, young men and women, students, academics, professionals, and activists have demanded that the Departmental Council of Youth, a public institution, remove itself from the roster of participants in the “March for Life” on the basis that a public institution should not align itself with any religious or political ideologies that interfere with its function as an impartial and equal representative of the people. Activists were alarmed by the Departmental Council of Youth’s decision to participate in the march without consent from any board members. They are demanding that the Departmental Council of Youth represent principles of equality, gender equity, and inclusion -- and reject the Department’s failure to uphold young people's right to autonomy over their own bodies.

Activists who oppose the “March for Life” are advocating for sexual and reproductive rights and services in Bolivia, where maternal mortality rates are second highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, hemorrhage during pregnancy, including abortion-related hemorrhaging, is the primary cause of maternal mortality in Bolivia. Unsafe abortion is the third most common cause. Recent studies indicate that access to birth control services could prevent 75% of maternal deaths and 50% of neonatal deaths mainly by reducing unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

Activists recently held a press conference about the "March for Life" in an effort to mobilize support and inform the public about the need for sexual and reproductive health services. They issued a statement that called for "understanding abortion as an issue of democracy, social justice, and public health” and cited a 2011 report by the Ministry of Health in Santa Cruz that found approximately 37% of registered cases of unwanted pregnancies were among women were were 20 and younger.

CIES, IPPF/WHR's local partner in Bolivia, has successfully developing partnerships with the government and broadened opportunities for public participation. In 2009, when the Bolivian government adopted a new constitution, CIES leveraged this moment to demand government accountability to their commitment to improving health programs and services for all Bolivians, particularly youth.

Youth networks in El Alto, one of the country's most marginalized urban communities, began to work closely with local authorities to guarantee youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services would be included in Bolivia’s laws. But other parts of the country, like Santa Cruz, have not been as successful in gaining support for increased sexual and reproductive health services and addressing the alarming rates of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions among adolescents.

Activists in Santa Cruz have stated that they will continue to push for the promotion and creation of spaces for dialogue with the different sectors of civil society to address the urgent need to transform religious dogmas and social and cultural paradigms that routinely discriminate against and stigmatize women and youth in Bolivia, leaving them with limited access to the resources necessary for healthy sexual and reproductive lives.

Alan Deivid Figueroa Frías is a member of our youth network and the Associate Director at CIES.

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