human rights, Politics, Women's Rights

Unsafe abortions cost lives: understanding abortion as a human right and maternal health pandemic

Every day across the world, women are arrested, harassed, and prosecuted for having abortions. Whatever your position on the pro-choice/pro-life debate, we need to raise awareness of how aggressive and inhumane the punishments on women can be, when they reach the point where they feel that abortion is their only option.

In most of the ‘developed’ world, abortion is legalised, which means that though there are often social and financial barriers which remain set against women, they should still be able to receive a medically controlled abortion that is safe, and responsible post-abortion care, without fear of imprisonment or persecution. However, in the majority of the world, abortion is almost totally illegal. Exceptions are made in some countries in the case of rape, or if the life of the mother is at risk, however in parts of Latin America there is a total ban in all circumstances. This leads to tragic consequences for women, such as the case below.[1]

…A 28-year-old woman in the city of Santa Cruz became pregnant as the result of rape. She attempted to self-induce an abortion and ended up in the hospital with severe complications. While in the hospital, she was reported to the police authorities by her doctor, was apprehended and handcuffed on charges of illegal abortion. She spent her 10-day hospital stay under police custody and was then transferred to a prison where she subsequently spent eight months in preventive detention (IPAS, 2015).

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This map shows the status of abortion laws worldwide. (Source: WHO, 2008)

Whatever their reasons, those who actively enforce policies to criminalise abortion do so in the hope that it will discourage women from seeking them, for fear of arrest or imprisonment. These laws operate in major contradiction to global human rights laws. They also intimidate trained medical professionals to not only deny women access to the decent medical services that is their human right, but incite them to turn these women in: branding patients as criminals. By doing so, vulnerable women are forced to seek expensive and dangerous illegal abortions, either through backstreet surgeons who may be untrained, or through medications that come from unregulated sources. By forcing them to behave like criminals, the upholders of laws against abortion put women in serious, even life threatening danger- every single day. The numbers of women who have to go through this are staggering- millions suffer major health complications, and it is estimated that 47,000 die every year as a consequence (IPAS, 2014). This is the ironic, and tragic result of a worldwide campaign that is allegedly ‘pro life’.

Another inevitable tragedy of this situation is the fact that it disproportionately discriminates against those who are already in a vulnerable social position: often very young, very poor, and likely uneducated women. Though it is by no means easy for middle class women, for them there are financial means to travel to somewhere where abortions can be done legally, and to see a better private surgeon or doctor- though of course, they are still subject to blackmail, abuse, and the emotional and physical trauma of the procedure itself.

For the very poorest, however, it may be impossible to scrape together money for the procedure. The options available to them are likely to be crude, brutal, and they are unlikely to receive advice or support either pre or post-abortion. They may have to borrow, and get themselves in debt, through unregulated lending- to prevent further poverty in the longer term. Many are coerced to have sexual relations with the provider in exchange for the procedure- an outrage against human decency, but sadly widely reported (Casas and Vivaldi, 2014).

Those who identify as ‘pro life’ on the grounds of their own convictions, be they based in religious, cultural, or personal moral feeling, are perfectly within their rights to hold these views. However, whatever viewpoint you might take, there is one key consideration to bear in mind when trying to justify the escalation these personal feelings to the establishment of a global political regime in which denial of abortions is part of an enforced legal framework: the criminalisation of abortion is not shown to be effective whatsoever in reducing the rates of abortion procedures taking place each year. Statistics from the World Health Organisation demonstrate this:  ‘The abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds. (WHO, 2012)’ [2]

Inevitably, there are other factors associated with this that might skew the results (i.e. more widespread access to reliable contraceptives in ‘developed’ countries). However, all of these issues are relational, and a hard line conservative stance cannot be shown to have any benefit where, firstly, abortion rates will stay the same regardless of what the law dictates but secondly, because by enforcing an aggressively anti-abortion stance, ‘legal’ authorities actually put human lives at risk.  In 2003, and again in 2008, WHO undertook studies which found that, in both years, ‘complications from unsafe abortion accounted for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide’. The criminalisation of abortions therefore inherently cannot be considered pro life, when evidence proves that it necessarily endangers life.

While laws preventing abortions may have been created with the intention of preserving life, there is no compassion in forcing a woman to carry and deliver an unwanted baby- for her, or for the child. It is for this reason that, for example, Brazil has such a problem with huge numbers of homeless street children; whose chances of a decent life are stacked against them from the start. There is no compassion in forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy when she has suffered from rape, and will never be given the chance to recover from the trauma. There is no compassion in forcing an underage girl to carry a baby she is not physically capable of delivering safely, or without extreme damage to herself or threat to her life.

On the wider scale, it is because women are forced to have unwanted children and remain trapped in an ideology of ‘natural’ womanhood that is part of a gender binary that is damaging to both sexes, that they are restricted from securing intellectual, economic, and sexual equality with men. This inequality has a very real human cost:  because women are denied the right to make decisions over their own bodies and futures, too many die each day in inhumane, poverty struck circumstances- circumstances that could have been avoided had they had access to adequate healthcare and the freedom to make informed decisions.

It is for this reason that one of the key focuses in world health in our time must be to address inhumane denial of adequate reproductive health to women.  Because 47,000 deaths of women a year equates to 129 women dying every day- and around one woman dying every ten minutes.  Probably the time that it took you to read this blog.

 

 

There are various ways to get involved and understand more about the campaign for global abortion rights. See the list of relevant organisations below for further information.

[1] http://www.ipas.org/en/Resources/Ipas%20Publications/When-Abortion-is-a-Crime-The-threat-to-vulnerable-women-in-Latin-America.aspx

[2] WHO (2012) Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide

List of organisations to support, and to find more information:

Abortion Rights http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/

Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalizacióndel Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico
(ACDATEE – The Citizens Coalitionfor the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion) http://agrupacionciudadana.org/en/

Center for Reproductive Rights http://www.reproductiverights.org/

IPAS http://www.ipas.org/

Marie Stopes International https://mariestopes.org/

Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/ 

Women on Waves http://www.womenonwaves.org/

I’d like to keep adding to this list so if you support, work for, or know of more pro-choice organisations please let me know and I will include them.

 

Central America, Politics, South America

Sexual harassment as a solo female traveller: my experiences in Latin America

Many people warned me that sexual harassment would be bad while travelling as a single girl in Latin America. Pffft, I said. They can’t be worse than the average bloke out on a Saturday night in the UK.

I was wrong. I want to say at the outset of this post that nothing that has happened to me while travelling in Latin America in the last few months is something that has never happened in the UK. However, it is the sheer frequency and ubiquitousness of sexual harassment on this continent that makes it hard to deal with, even if you’re pretty down to earth and used to dealing with shit.

If you’re another solo female traveller you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are another woman thinking about travelling solo in Latin America, you absolutely should do it and not be put off by this. The fact that you are considering travelling alone means I know you are tough enough to deal with it. However, here is some of the stuff I have experienced while travelling in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  Costa Rica, and Nicaragua:

  • Constant catcalling. This is worse where I am living at the moment in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, than it has been anywhere else on my trip. I have not once left the house without being catcalled. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is- it’s happened on the way to work (at 8am), going to buy groceries at 11am, at lunch time, afternoon, early evening- and to be honest I just don’t go out at night alone here. It can happen up to thirty times a day. One time in Colombia, as I mentioned in my blog about that otherwise wonderful country, in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times. It makes no difference what you’re wearing, either- whether it’s a dress, or jeans and a long shirt, it will happen. Usually I tune out and try to ignore it, occasionally I flip out and yell at them to fuck off, but it’s not advisable because they can get aggressive. During a city tour I saw one girl break down when a group of guys started on us and started screaming and swearing and crying at them to leave us the fuck alone. I can’t say I blame her. All the girls in that group had had the same experiences.
  • Following. This one is a bit more sketchy and one to be weary of. As much as, in theory, the idea of being apparently so irresistible (even while wearing a dress covered in three-day-old food stains, and being very hungover), that men feel the need to chase you down the street shouting mi Reina, mi Reina! (my queen) is pretty flattering, in reality it is pretty frightening. Men have followed me on foot, on bicycles, motorbikes, and in cars. Always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t walk around wearing headphones (though it can be tempting to drown out the catcalling).
  • Touching. This thankfully happens less frequently but it does happen, especially if you go out at night (though this is kind of the same as in the UK to be honest). Men, just because a girl likes to party does not mean she wants, or deserves, to be grabbed at. She does not necessarily want you just because she also happens to be there and you find her attractive.
  • Hair pulling. This is a weird new one that actually hasn’t happened at home but has happened a couple of times here. Apparently it’s part of the fascination with blondes. I’ve also had hair sniffing a couple of times. They’re really obsessed with blondes. I think the fact that the only images of white women- and especially blonde women- that you see here tend to be pornographic really doesn’t help.
  • Flashing. Men are so very proud to have willies. God, it’s pathetic, and when you’re with friends, it’s laughable, but when you’re on your own it can be a bit scary- I usually pretend I hadn’t noticed, and have noticed something in a window across the street and walk in the other direction.
  • The police will not help you. I once crossed a street to get away from some blokes that were harassing me, thinking that the police on the other side would keep things a bit safer. More fool me, they yelled out the same comment. Border officials are another one- I have yet to have my passport checked without the guy (it’s always a guy) making some unnecessary comment about by appearance.
  • Taxi drivers. People always advise solo women to take taxis rather than the bus, especially at night or in big cities. They’re usually right. But the taxi driver will very often hit on you too. Sit in the backseat if you can (otherwise they’ve tried to put an arm around me or a hand on my leg). If you’re in a ‘collective’ style taxi (that picks up other people) try to pick one with at least one other woman in it- a girl I know recently had to escape an attempted mugging/assault with three other men in the car she was in.
  • They don’t take no for an answer. To start, I was honest about my single status when asked. I didn’t see why I should have to pretend to be ‘taken’ by another man to be safe. With time it just became easier to pretend I had a boyfriend/husband to put them off, or they’d assume you were up for it. Sometimes, though, they just see it as a further challenge ‘but you know men in Peru/Colombia/Nicaragua have bigger dicks right? Yeah, right.

These are the more typical things. There have been other incidents that have been more frightening- a bus conductor who trapped me in the toilet on a night bus and tried it on until I was forced to fight past him and escape (and didn’t dare go to sleep for the rest of the night). An Ecuadorean guy who I thought was my friend, but when adding me on Facebook stole all my photos and fabricated a relationship between us.

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A guy on a bus just today asked why my husband hadn’t ‘beaten my ass’ for travelling on my own (he was not joking), said that travel and working in other countries was ‘not for the woman to do’ and when I said I wasn’t interested in husbands or anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, said ‘oh, so you’re easy then’, told me girls wouldn’t travel alone unless they were up for it, etc., etc…

It wears you down. You deal with it and you cope, because that’s what women have always done. Some days you laugh. Some days you flip out. Some days you cry.  It’s not just Latino men- like I’ve said, everything (except the toilet and weird facebook stalking thing) is something that has happened at home, too. But at home, although it’s not infrequent, it’s unusual to be harassed more than once in a day, and it’d be something I’d actually remark upon. In Latin America, if I had a pound for every time I was harassed, I’d be able to come home and buy a nice sized house outright in central London. And I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Women the world over have a very long fight ahead of us to get to a point where we’re actually treated as equals, and as human beings, as a given.  That is all the feminist movement is asking for: to be able to exist as a person, and not be harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, killed, because you happened to be born female. Women in Latin America, where sexism is insipid thanks to the extremely machista, patriarchal culture, have a considerably more difficult time than we do in Europe. I will always stand in solidarity with them: it is why I came to this continent, to volunteer with an organisation which works on violence against women. However, we also need to work with men. To talk about masculinity and what it means, and what it has the potential to mean. So that men don’t think they need to assert their dominance over women to prove their sexual prowess; their worth as a man. So that the men who know already that it is not okay to assume you have ownership over, harass, or threaten women, actually will stand up and support us when they see things happening, rather than staying silent and staying part of the problem. So that men who don’t realise their behaviour is harassment understand how it feels to be treated in that way. How it makes you feel like you’re not even a person.

Women are tough. Female travellers in particular have to be badasses. But it’s not easy. So to my fellow travelling ladies- keep doing what you do. You rock. But we all know we can’t take our safety for granted, and that travelling as a solo girl is very different from travelling as a solo guy. So let’s all just be wary,  while living life to the full. Let’s support each other. Let us change what it means to be a woman in the world. Let us also help men challenge what it means to be men- for the better.