Feminist groups in Bolivia are demonstrating against the Catholic church’s intervention in an already authorised abortion for an 11-year-old girl, who was a victim of sexual abuse.
Screaming “girls, not mothers,” “child pregnancy is torture,” dozens of activists marched in La Paz demanding the minor be allowed to interrupt her pregnancy protected by Bolivian law.
The fate of the girl who became pregnant after being raped by a family member, has unleashed a fierce debate between human rights activists and the Catholic church in Bolivia.
The girl was impregnated after being repeatedly raped and suffering other sexual abuse by the father of her stepfather in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region.
She was living with her sisters and 61-year-old step-grandfather, who is now in jail for the crime, because her parents were in La Paz working.
Her pregnancy was discovered at 21 weeks and her family requested permission for her to have an abortion.
The girl was taken to the Percy Boland Women’s hospital in the city of Santa Cruz where, by law, as an underage rape victim she was due to have the pregnancy terminated. The girl was in hospital preparing for the procedure, when the Catholic Church intervened and persuaded the girl’s mother to cancel it. Initially, the girl had expressed her desire not to complete her pregnancy, and her mother was in agreement with this decision, but after being contacted by a religious organisation, the woman changed her mind and stopped the process leading to an abortion, a move than unleashed heavy debate and criticism.
The girl’s mother, accompanied by a woman claiming to be a lawyer for the church, intervened, saying the girl had changed her mind, García said. The girl was removed from hospital and taken to a centre for adolescent mothers.
Church authorities reportedly promised to help the family, who then decided not to allow the abortion to go ahead.
“The girl didn’t even know what it meant to be pregnant; she told her cousin that she felt something moving inside her tummy. Her cousin told her mother – the girl’s aunt – who reported it to the police,” said Ana Paola García, the executive director of La Casa de la Mujer, a Bolivian women’s rights NGO.
“There is evidently manipulation by the Catholic church which has practically kidnapped the girl and silenced the mother,” García said. “They are violating her human rights.”
“She is being obliged to continue with a pregnancy which puts her life at risk,” she added.
Bolivian presidency minister Maria Nela Prada said: “Complying with a constitutional sentence and under our current regulations, the legal interruption of the girl’s pregnancy had already been approved as corresponded with the consent of only those who should have been involved in this case”.
“Enough, ladies and gentlemen. We respect religious beliefs, but they can’t be involved in deciding on a girl who, as in many others, has not agreed to have consensual sexual relations.
“She has been the victim of sexual abuse and whose childhood has been taken away.
“She is a girl, not a mother, and these groups can’t romanticise a rape by going out with posters calling this little girl ‘the child-mother’.”
Bolivian representative of UN Women, Nydia Pesantes, said: “Girls are just girls, and they are not meant to be pregnant, to give birth.
“Their bodies are not even sufficiently trained to guarantee the health and adequate development of the product – the baby.”
Protesters have gathered in one of Bolivia’s capital cities, La Paz, a number of times in the past week calling for the girl to be allowed to have the abortion.
They held signs saying “Girls not mothers – pregnancy in childhood is torture”, “It is not pro-life, it is anti-rights”, and “Today we are out so that childhood and adolescence is not ruined”.
One protester, named Andrea, told the Associated Press: “Obviously, I am pro-abortion for all women, every decision is the right one, but, in particular, for girls who have been raped.
“I do not belong to any organisation but I will fight to have my voice heard for all the girls who can not speak.”
Susana Inch, a spokesperson for the Bolivian Bishops Conference, told local media on Wednesday: “We have the ethical and legal obligation to protect the life of the baby, both lives must be protected.”
In a statement the archdiocese of Santa Cruz said “one crime does not solve another crime”, offering free lodging and attention for the girl and the unborn child.
But Bolivia’s human rights ombudswoman, Nadia Cruz, said her office would be seeking criminal proceedings against the medical staff at the hospital, the archdiocese of Santa Cruz and the mother of the girl for breach of duty of care and human trafficking for the purpose of forced pregnancy.
She added her office had filed for precautionary measures before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in the case.
Bolivia’s health ministry says that – between January and July last year – there were 953 pregnancies in girls under 15 years of age.
The age of consent in Bolivia is 14.
But Diego Pla, assistant secretary-general of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, which oversees the Catholic Church in Bolivia, said: “We urge public authorities to respect and protect the right to life and health of the girl who has been a victim of rape and the baby that is in gestation.
“Both lives deserve and must be protected.”
(Agencies; Picture Courtesy: Reuters, AP)