By Kimberley Brown
QUITO, March 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gabriela doesn't remember when she was raped, because she was passed out when it happened.
The 27-year-old Ecuadorian psychology student had been taking anti-depressants and sleeping pills on a regular basis. One night, when staying at a friend's house, she took the usual combination that "makes me not feel a thing," she said.
Her friend, a former lover who she thought she could trust, decided to take advantage.
It wasn't until three months later when she found out she was pregnant that she realized what had happened.
"I denied it. I didn't want to accept it, because it meant I would have to confront something horrible," said Gabriela, who asked that her real name not be used.
When a doctor friend confirmed her pregnancy and asked what she wanted to do, she told him she wanted an abortion.
Abortions are illegal in Ecuador, except under two circumstances: if the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, or if the pregnancy is the result of the rape of a woman with mental disabilities.
Gabriela knew that if she sought an abortion she wouldn't be able to press charges against her rapist, because the police would find out in their investigation and she could be charged and sent to prison. But she wanted a termination anyway.
"He already used and threw away my body, but I wasn't going to give him the power to hurt the rest of my life," Gabriela said of her abuser.
In January, Ecuador's national assembly began to debate a bill on decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape, incest and forced artificial insemination.
If passed, Ecuador will join other Latin American countries that already allow abortion for cases of rape, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama and Mexico.
Other countries in the region have banned it entirely, including Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
Ecuador's current abortion laws have been in place since 1938. The last time the country debated whether or not to legalize abortion in cases of rape, in 2013, the assembly voted against it.
The then president Rafael Correa said he would never approve the reforms and even threatened to resign if the assembly voted in favor.
The new legislation, if passed, would be a "fundamental step" for women's rights in the country, said Wilma Andrade, a lawmaker with the Democratic Left party, and one of the most prominent supporters of the bill.
"It's not enough, but it's a big step," she said.
RAPE AND PREGNANCY
The reforms have been strongly opposed by the influential Roman Catholic Church and more conservative members of the assembly. Many of their arguments focus on increasing penalties for rapists, instead of easing access to abortion.
In a debate in February, Pedro Curichumbi of the right wing party CREO said if abortion was made legal for cases of rape, "it would turn (rape) into a sport, or a hobby" - encouraging men and boys to continue to violate women.
But supporters of the abortion reforms have focused on Ecuador's twin epidemics of rapes of girls and underage pregnancies.
Over the last three years, there have been almost 14,000 reported cases of rape in the country, 718 of them of girls under 10 years old, said Andrade, speaking in the assembly in January, quoting numbers from the attorney general's office.
Between 2008 and 2018, over 20,000 girls under 14 have given birth, according to statistics from the attorney general's office, according to the same data.
"Here we talk about child pregnancies, but these are rapes. It's not that a child just gets pregnant," said Andrade, the lawmaker. "A lot of times it's done by fathers or other family members, so they never get reported."
For almost five years, Veronica Vera has been working with the women's rights groups Las Comadres (The Godmothers), who offer support to women who have decided on early-term home abortions.
The group advises women on how to access the abortion pill Misoprostol and a "Godmother" will stay with them while they take it, to explain the side effects they can expect as well as their legal rights if they have to go into hospital.
"I have never (supported a woman) in a case of rape that wasn't inside the close social circle," said Vera - meaning the rapist was a friend, family or colleague.
Women's rights groups argue that the outlawing of abortion affects working class women the most. Wealthier women still face sexual assault and seek abortions, said Vera, but they have the resources to pay the $1,500 to $3,000 for a termination under safe conditions or travel to other countries to get an abortion.
Poorer women are forced to seek out backstreet abortions which can lead to complications, infections and death.
Unsafe abortions accounted for 15.6 percent of all deaths in Ecuador in 2014 the fifth biggest cause of mortality for women and the third largest cause of maternal deaths, said the Ministry of Health in a study released in 2017.
When women go to public hospitals to seek help for complications after abortions they risk being reported to the police by doctors.
Between 2013 and 2018 more than 300 women were prosecuted for terminating their pregnancies, according to Surkuna, a non-profit group of lawyers focused on women's rights.
The abortion bill must go through two rounds of debates in the assembly before lawmakers cast their votes.
The legislation must then be approved by President Lenin Moreno, who also had veto power. The process is expected to be complete by June, according to Andrade.
Gabriela says she doesn't expect to see justice for her rape. She now wants to work with other women who have had similar experiences to empower them to share their stories because "there are so many of these cases here".
"The people who I tell this story to say that I'm really strong, but I don't think I'm strong," Gabriela said. "I think I'm a survivor."
(Reporting by Kimberley Brown; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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