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Rhona Scullion – WNN Features

Peruvian mother and child in the Andes

A mother walks the high paths in the Sacred Valley of the Andes mountains of Peru. On her back is her young child. In spite of limited more recent legal advances her option to receive full reproductive rights with the choice of abortion remains tightly controlled and defined among healthcare providers inside the Peruvian region. Image: Thomas Quine

(WNN) Lima, PERU, SOUTH AMERICA: The noise in Lima, Peru’s grey capital city, is overwhelming as countless vehicles tear around each other using car horns indiscriminately despite large signs proclaiming, “Silencio” on every street.

They take no notice of the demands. A similar attitude prevails towards women’s rights in this Latin American country.

Despite having an abundance of laws outlining the need to protect women from violence, discrimination and prejudice, Peru remains one of the most difficult places to live for women. Street harassment is unavoidable, spousal abuse rates are high, femicide is a problem, but one of the biggest barriers to female autonomy remains the issue of reproductive rights.

According to the constitution, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, an abortion is only legal in Peru if the mother’s life is in serious danger or if she stands to suffer permanent health damage. The ambiguity of these rules means they are often widely interpreted. Despite the clear mental and physical health risks posed to one 17-year-old, she was forced to carry and deliver an encephalitic fetus and then breastfeed the child for the four days if it survived.

In another high profile case a 13-year-old rape victim, who’s identity has been protected by using the name “L.C.”, threw herself from a building to avoid the unwanted pregnancy that followed. She survived with severe spinal damage with surgery that was required immediately to avoid paralysis.

But doctors refused to operate on L.C. on the grounds that it might harm the unborn child. She later miscarried and the surgery took place three months later than recommended. Due to her delay in medical care L.C is now paralyzed from the neck down.

Last year after sustained international pressure the Peruvian government finally released a more comprehensive guideline to augment the regional rules of abortion as outlined in the constitution. While many greeted this as a cause for celebration and progress the reality is somewhat different.

Talking to Dr. Marta B. Rondon, the President of the International Association for Women’s Mental Health, the ‘clarity’ associated with these guidelines is actually making it harder to authorize therapeutic abortions. Before the new guidelines were issued the most common method of obtaining a legal abortion was for a psychiatrist to state that their patient’s mental health was at risk.

Now the process is much more complex involving the authority of several medical practitioners, which also results in a significant decrease in patient confidentiality and privacy. It also involves a much longer time frame. At best the guidelines are meant as a token gesture in response to the long standing issues Peru has faced regarding abortion.

At worst this ‘new-ish’ guidelines approach is meant as a mere augmentation of the already oppressive restrictions. There are also issues at the other end of the spectrum.

In Peru women need permission from their husbands if they want to have their tubes tied. This is mainly due to the prevailing belief that having children is a woman’s responsibility and their only real function in society. Due to this culture of marginalization, between the years of 1996 and 2000, thousands of women were sterilized against their will under the watch of the Fujimori-led government, purportedly to aid women’s rights.

Women protesters on streets of Lima, Peru

Women protest on the streets of Lima, Peru in March 2014 for their own reproductive rights and the rights of all women in Peru. Image: Dejala Decidir/International Women’s Health Coalition

The case arguing a woman’s rights to know what is happening to her body and to not be sterilized against her will has twice been rejected from Peruvian courts as something that is not “a crime against humanity.”

Despite numerous accounts of women being physically forced, financially coerced, or being unaware sterilizations occurred while a woman was undergoing a different procedure. To date no real compensation has been given to these women.

Ironically it is now almost impossible for a woman to obtain a voluntary sterilization. The impact of these restrictions are complex.

Women’s mental and physical health are clearly the top issues as post-partum depression is much more likely in women with unwanted pregnancies. For those pregnant as a result of rape, the mental health problems are often more severe as evidenced in the case of L.C. The negative impact on the mother also inevitably influences the child.

It has been shown that children of unwanted pregnancies are more likely to be violent, poorly educated and engage in crime later in life. Socioeconomic factors also come into play as women with larger families are more likely to be poor, less educated and have fewer prospects leaving them largely dependen on their male partners. This leaves them more vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Stringent gender roles in Peru underpin much of the violent, sexist culture and amplify this vulnerability.

In Peru men are expected to be machismo, strong, aggressive, masculine and sexually dominant. Conversely women are expected to embrace the image of the Virgin Mary as they become ‘Marianismo’, submissive, dependent and sexually faithful as they endure any suffering. Given these images and the fact that emergency contraceptive is expensive and difficult to obtain for most women, it is unsurprising that, according to the Centre for Reproductive Rights, Peru has the highest number of reported rape cases in South America.

In order to address the underlying issues surrounding the restrictions on women’s reproductive rights re-balancing the traditional gender roles in Peruvian society is essential.

Until women are seen as more than just homemakers the state will continue to dictate when and how a woman may or may not have children.

Women are already changing here acting on their rights and calling for more. Feminist groups inside Peru are more vocal than ever and they are gaining support. Today there are also more people on the road to real gender equality. Until Peruvian men start sitting up and taking note of these signs the end of that road is still “a very long way off.”

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From November 2-5, 2015 the IV Latin American Congress on Reproductive Rights Law will be held in Lima Peru. Here is informational updates.

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As a WNN – Women News Network freelance journalist and writer with experience in both online and in-print publications WNN’s Social Media reporter Rhona Scullion is also well versed in a variety of editorial work as well as reporting the news. She has lived in every country in the UK apart from Northern Ireland and recently returned from a 6 month stint in Hong Kong. Currently Scullion is located and working as a woman’s advocate and writer in Lima, Peru.

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