By Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Director Americas Program Amnesty International.
Every now and then there comes along a case that seems too tragic to comprehend — where cruelty from one individual to another is compounded and amplified by a callous governmental response. That is how I feel about the case of a 10-year-old pregnant girl, who was raped by her step-father, only to find the Paraguayan authorities are denying her the option of an abortion.
It is a story that has attracted attention from all over the world, with many shocked that a young child could be treated in such a way by her own government, which is supposed to protect her.
According to the World Health Organization child pregnancies are extremely dangerous for the health of young girls as they can lead to complications and death in some cases, especially as their bodies are “not fully developed to carry a pregnancy.” This 10 year old girl is facing a great risk to her life and physical and psychological health, both in the short, medium and long term.
We know that the girl’s mother asked, in the best interest of her daughter, for the pregnancy to be terminated, three weeks ago, back at the end of April. In Paraguay, access to abortion is restricted, but it is legal when the woman or girl’s life is at risk. Some medics have said that the girl will probably live through the pregnancy. The devastation it could reap on her body and mind do not seem to factor into this analysis.
So, instead of providing the abortion and the physical and psychological support that this 10 year old girl so desperately needs, she has been sent to a centre for “young mothers” and separated from her own mother, who, in another tragic step, is being detained for failing to protect the girl from the sexual abuse that resulted in the pregnancy. Forcibly parted from her mother and forced to continue with a pregnancy resulting from rape, the authorities are shamefully failing to protect this young girl.
I am not the only person to be outraged by this heart-breaking story.
Hundreds of thousands of people have written to President Horacio Cartes during the last week, urging him to ensure this 10-year-old girl is given the option of terminating the pregnancy. Amnesty International UK supporters have already sent more than 110,000 signatures to the President, a public reaction that is one of the biggest individual actions the UK office has ever seen. Tens of thousands more people have sent pledges from all over the world.
UN experts have expressed their concern as well, stating that the government of Paraguay has failed in its responsibility to protect the child and provide her with critical and timely treatments, including a “safe and therapeutic abortion”.
But this girl’s is not an isolated case. Sexual abuse and child pregnancy is all too common in Latin America which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world
What is more, the limited access to abortions regularly pushes desperate women and girls to unsafe, clandestine abortions, which often end in death. The World Health Organization has reported that 13% of maternal deaths in South America are due to such procedures.
The truth is Paraguay’s abortion laws are sorely out of touch with its international human rights obligations. In March 2015 the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called on Paraguay to review and modify its abortion legislation to ensure its compatibility with other rights such as health and life.
So why don’t the Paraguayan authorities act? I think that unfortunately the reason is mainly one of discrimination, both against women and girls and against the poor; which is so rampant in my region. The sad truth is that Paraguayan law and wider society sees women’s primary role as being child bearers and mothers, as soon as they fall pregnant their choices become severely limited.
It is also the case that if this girl and her family had the economic means, if she belonged to a different social class, she would have had access to private health facilities, where she could have undergone an abortion, or been able to travel out of the country to access an abortion abroad. The state would have very likely stayed away from that private decision and wouldn’t have intervened.
Last year her mother complained to law enforcement authorities that the stepfather had been abusing her daughter, but they decided there was no evidence of any risk and didn’t investigate further. Well, she was obviously at risk. Under international human rights law the state has the responsibility to protect this girl from violence and to act with due diligence to guarantee her mental and physical health. Her best interests should be the priority now for all those that failed her in the past and have power over her future.
On Monday 11 May, a panel of experts met in Paraguay to assess her case. They now have three days to decide what options the girl should be granted based on an evaluation of her physical and psychological state. Will they put the girl’s human rights and best interest at the forefront of their recommendations? Or will they be guided by their own fears and prejudices? We will have to wait and see. But I hope they won’t fail her. For this young girl, time is running out.