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GLOBAL | winter 2007

New Rights, Old Wrongs
Colombia has eased some abortion restrictions—but displaced women still suffer

Last August, Columbia's first legal abortion took place—on a pregnant 11-year-old girl raped by her stepfather— after the Constitutional Court overturned the outright ban on abortion (see Ms., Summer 2006). Despite protests from the Catholic Church, Colombia decriminalized the procedure in cases of rape, incest, when a woman’s life or health is in danger, or when a fetus is expected to die.

Now, the court’s decision has been placed in a wider context by the advocacy group Profamilia Colombia (www.profamilia.org.co), which has documented how Colombian women are displaced by violence.

For more than 40 years, Colombians have been devastated by armed conflict, with women caught in the crossfire. Women comprise over 55 percent of Colombia’s internally displaced population (IDP). According to the Profamilia study, conducted from 2000 to 2001, one displaced woman in five is a victim of sexual violence; many suffer unwanted pregnancies. Colombia’s IDP, second only to Sudan’s, accounts for 3 million of Latin America’s 3.7 million internally displaced people— and the numbers are growing, as displaced women tend to live in the countryside, where the average fertility rate, 3.8 children, is higher than the urban average, 2.3. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of displaced Colombians is continuing to increase by thousands each year.

These displaced girls and women often become mothers at a young age, or are victims of unsafe abortions. Without information or access to contraceptives, they are prey to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Nearly all the surveyed displaced women between age 13 and 49 said they had heard of AIDS, but one in five didn’t know how to avoid contracting the virus and 28 percent couldn’t identify STD symptoms. Thirty percent of displaced teens are pregnant with their first child or are already mothers— nearly twice the adolescent average in Colombia’s general population.

Mónica Roa, the 30-year-old attorney who pled the abortion case and program director of Women’s Link Worldwide, says, “It is poor women who are dying, suffering from health problems because of [illegal] abortion.” But in Colombia—where 29 of every 100 women who have abortions suffer fatal complications and 18 wind up in emergency rooms with serious complications—any liberalization is a step forward. (For more information: www.ligademujeres.org.)