By Sania Faizi, Staff Writer
The news of a 10-year old girl allegedly raped by her stepfather in Paraguay has been ubiquitous on various forms of media and reporting outlets over the past few months. There has been significant public outcry, both nationally and internationally, over the incident itself and more importantly over the state’s denial of the right to abortion for the young rape victim, Mainumby. However, despite the solidarity of activists, international bodies, campaigning organisations, and NGOs, and their incessant demands to allow an abortion for her, authorities have not conceded.
Paraguay, a majority catholic country, has strict laws against the practice of abortion which is only legally permitted in circumstances where the life of the mother is at immediate risk. Religiously, a central argument supporting the outlawing of abortion is that of the ‘right to life’. Ironically, the ‘right to life’ argument also lends support to the case of granting abortion rights to young Mainumby. Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organisation of American States, released a report warning that Mainumby is four times more likely to die from childbirth than an adult woman. This finding has been supported by doctors, medical experts, and women’s rights activists who argue that giving birth can be life threatening for very young girls and the hazards are sizeable. Among the hazards Mainumby is already reported to be faced with are malnutrition and anaemia. Moreover, if she goes through childbirth she is believed to be at increased risk of post-natal bleeding, eclampsia (seizures), infections, and damage to her reproductive system. Needless to say, the psychological trauma of becoming a mother to a baby conceived this way could manifest in unimaginable ways. These complications can have a bearing on her health and quality of life for years to come.
Although abortion in Paraguay is criminalised except when there is an immediate risk to life, this does not amount to a blanket ban on abortion that some other countries have, including South American nations Dominican Republic and Chile, two of the six states in the world with such a ban. Such total bans on abortion are highly oppressive and have resulted in instances where women have been criminally prosecuted for practicing ‘abortion’ when in fact they had suffered a miscarriage or had tried to access health services after a miscarriage or unsafe illegal abortion. Total bans and restrictive abortion laws also disproportionately impact women and girls from lower economic backgrounds as they are unable to afford going to private clinics for illegal abortions or travel abroad to access legal abortion services. On the other end of the spectrum are countries like Uruguay that have liberalised abortion fully from allowing it to save a mother’s life through to abortion on request.
Despite the taboo surrounding abortion in many parts of the world, states need to ensure that abortion is made available under a greater number of conditions to allow just handling of tragic and outrageous cases like that of Mainumby. Organisations such as Amnesty International demand the decriminalisation of abortion, at a minimum, in cases where pregnancy poses a risk to the life or to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman or girl, in cases of severe and fatal fetal impairment, and in cases where pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The denial to terminate Mainumby’s pregnancy has been equated to ‘denying her essential care’. This is not only a violation of Mainumby’s basic human rights; her right to life, health, physical and mental integrity, but also her rights as a child. Given that Mainumby is already five months into her pregnancy, any potential termination now could itself be life threatening for her. Nonetheless, the discussion sparked by her case has the potential to open doors for legal reform in Paraguay to support the rights of women and girls. It is also important however, to ensure that the fight for abortion rights is not the only battle we fight. It is equally important to fight against oppressive acts such as rape which place girls like Mainumby in such situations in the first place.