Rafael Correa, the popular and newly re-elected leftist president of Ecuador, is driving a “citizens’ revolution” committed to progressive principles and economic growth. This week he voiced unconditional support for contraception, including emergency contraception. This unprecedented support for access to sexual and reproductive health care is particularly welcome, as women’s rights advocates were beginning to wonder what the president’s revolution would mean for them.
On paper, the most recent revision to Ecuador’s constitution included guarantees of gender equality in education, health care, property rights, equal rights in the workplace, protections for female senior citizens, priority services for pregnant women, remuneration for homemaker, and explicit reproductive freedoms such as the right to decide when and how many children to bear. But despite these recent advances and increases in social services spending, widespread disparities and inequalities in access to health care remain, and access to safe or legal abortion services is nonexistent.
Rates of adolescent pregnancy have skyrocketed in recent years—Ecuador has the highest rate in the Andean region—and poor, rural and indigenous young women are the most likely to become pregnant before becoming adults. Seventeen percent of teens between the ages of 15 and 19 are already moms, many because of sexual abuse. Complicating the issue even further, Ecuador’s current criminal code only allows abortion for victims of rape who are mentally disabled, significantly excluding millions of women in a country where one in four women has been the victim of sexual violence.
Despite significant advocacy by women all over Ecuador, a wealth of evidence illustrating the benefits of decriminalization, and a worldwide trend towards liberalizing abortion laws, the government of Ecuador has not responded with a commonsense policy.
In response, a coalition of indigenous women’s, women’s and LGBTI rights groups have joined forces to call international attention to their plight. The coalition recently submitted an alternative report on the state of the sexual and reproductive rights in Ecuador to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).
The committee clearly paid attention to this input. It recommended that Ecuador amend its laws by allowing all women to access abortion services when pregnancy is a result of rape, and by introducing legislation and best practices that safeguard sexual and reproductive health and rights. The committee also recommended that Ecuador improve access to contraceptives, including emergency contraception.
These recommendations follow a global trend of activists resorting to international mechanisms when governments fail to respect human rights and to implement the international human rights agreements that they have ratified. Other international court rulings and committee recommendations have called out governments for failing to expand abortion allowances and failing to guarantee access to legal procedures. Most recently, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture called on states to eliminate bureaucracy in women’s health care, specifically to ensure that abortion and post-abortion care services are available without adverse consequences to women or health professionals. A previous report authored by the United Nations special rapporteur for the right to health went a step further to establish that laws criminalizing abortion violate the right to health and should be eliminated.
These unprecedented reports and support from international human rights bodies are important, but effective activism requires a diverse toolbox. We in the reproductive rights movement must continue to keep up the pressure in international forums. But we cannot over-rely on these mechanisms as a panacea to unresponsive policymakers. This work must be coupled with sustained domestic pressure on governments. Ecuadoran women’s rights activists, those of us in the international sexual and reproductive health and rights movement, our allies in the government, funders and others must organize, mobilize and collaborate.
While the Ecuadoran government has made dramatic increases in health-care spending, large-scale improvements to eliminate health disparities and unequal access to services are still needed—and the restrictive abortion law has got to go.
The United Nations committee recommendations to the Ecuadoran government are an important step forward for champions of women’s health and rights. Both globally and within Ecuador, we must keep up the fight and make it unacceptable for this or any government to continue to ignore the rights of women.
After winning the recent election with an unprecedented 58 percent of the vote, Correa openly stated that he is done making changes and will do nothing new, particularly regarding access to safe and legal abortion. But new is exactly what poor and indigenous women and young people need.