Ending Forced Childbirth in Latin America and the Caribbean

by Shelby Quast | ShelbyRQuast | Equality Now
Thursday, 7 April 2016 14:42 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mainumby was just ten when she became pregnant after being raped by her stepfather in Paraguay. She was isolated from her family and friends, institutionalized and forced to give birth despite the extreme medical risk involved. In August, doctors performed a C-section on her and, fortunately, she survived. Both she and her baby are in the process of trying to recover.

While Equality Now and our partner CLADEM are relieved that Mainumby survived the pregnancy, her childhood was stolen and her ordeals far from over. She struggles daily with the physical and mental scars of sexual abuse and forced motherhood at the tender age of 11. She has still has not seen justice against her rapist. She cannot return to school without childcare and her mother lost her job as a result of this case. She is also worried about how to support Mainumby and the baby and provide a stable home.

Forced pregnancy and subsequent childbirth is a huge issue in Paraguay. The country’s Ministry of Health reported that 684 girls between the ages ten and fourteen gave birth in 2014. Reports suggest that numbers are likely to have increased since. And early pregnancy is not only dangerous for the mother. In Paraguay, infants born to mothers 15 – 19 are nearly 80% more likely to die the first year than infants born to 20 – 29 year olds.

Earlier this week, Equality Now and CLADEM were petitioners in a thematic hearing at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Various ministers from the Paraguayan government also attended. We highlighted Mainumby’s case and recent findings by the UN Special Rapporteur on the high rate of maternal mortality in the country – most of which is due to early pregnancies caused by sexual abuse. We discussed our concern around the high rates of child sexual abuse and how forcing girls to continue high-risk pregnancies resulting from that abuse has a profound impact on their physical and mental health. 

The Commissioners questioned the country’s lack of protocols on sexual abuse and forced pregnancy and motherhood. They recommended that Paraguay review its domestic violence legislation and explore ways of reducing the potential for further violence by removing alleged abusers from the home more rapidly. They criticized the fact that Mainumby’s rights as a child were not adequately protected and were not prioritized. Paraguay did not respond specifically on sexual abuse of children and adolescents, but chose to focus its response instead on the unrelated issues of trafficking and sex tourism.

Paraguay is not alone in Latin America and the Caribbean with its inadequate protection of girls who are abused and forced to give birth. Niñas Madres, a new regional report by CLADEM on the issue showed that the number of births to girls under 14 years, in 12 countries in the region, was 60,690 in 2012. Most pregnancies are because of sexual abuse from family members – and impunity for perpetrators is likely to be at least 90%.

There is a severe lack of statistics on the various facets of this issue, which makes implementation of appropriate policies nearly impossible. Where laws protecting girls from sexual violence including child pregnancy and forced childbirth do exist, they are rarely implemented.

Instead of being able to access support after being being raped and made pregnant, girls such as 11-year-old Mainumby are frequently re-victimized by being sent to an institution and forced to give birth, despite the high physical and psychological risks involved. Incredibly, governments can and do perpetuate violence against girls, rather than protect them from harm and ensure they are empowered to live safe, healthy and prosperous lives. 

Girls in Latin America, the Caribbean – and around the world – continue to fall through the cracks of justice systems, which fail to protect them from harm – and often exacerbate the level of violence they endure. According to UNFPA, around the world, two million births take place each year to girls under 15 years. If the current trend continues, this figure will reach three million by 2030.

There needs to be a global solution to this global problem. It is imperative that all penal codes clearly categorize sexual abuse and forced pregnancies as illegal and hold perpetrators of violence accountable. Governments must be held accountable for implementing their laws. Measures should be taken to ensure that all girls are fully safeguarded from harm in the first place, but also to ensure that they are provided with the support they need to live full and healthy lives – a scenario which would benefit not only the girl herself, but all of society.