Mexican officials actively prevent rape victims from gaining access to legal and safe abortion, and they fail to punish rape and sexual violence inside and outside the family, said Human Rights Watch in a report released today.
The 92-page report, “The Second Assault: Obstructing Access to Legal Abortion after Rape in Mexico,” details the disrespect, suspicion and apathy that pregnant rape victims encounter from public prosecutors and health workers. The report also exposes continuing and pervasive impunity for rape and other forms of sexual violence in states throughout Mexico.
“Pregnant rape victims are essentially assaulted twice,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “First by the perpetrators who raped them, and then by officials who ignore them, insult them and deny them a legal abortion.”
In Mexico, abortion in general is illegal, but rape victims have the legal right to a safe abortion under all state criminal codes. However, women and girls who approach the authorities to exercise this right face multiple obstacles, Human Rights Watch found.
A number of agencies in various Mexican states – particularly the state attorney general’s office, public hospitals and family services – employ aggressive tactics to discourage and delay rape victims’ access to legal abortion. A social worker in Jalisco, for example, showed scientifically inaccurate anti-abortion videos to a 13-year-old girl who had been raped and impregnated by a family member. Some public prosecutors threatened rape victims with jail for procuring a legal abortion, and many doctors told women and girls, without cause, that an abortion would kill them.
As a result, many rape victims seek to resolve their situation by resorting to back-alley abortions that endanger their lives and health. Underage girls raped by their fathers or other family members often find themselves with no other alternative than to carry the imposed pregnancy to term.
“The Mexican government needs to ensure that rape victims do not have to endure dangerous back-alley abortions or imposed pregnancies.” said Roth. “A public official who fails to inform rape victims of how they can obtain a voluntary legal abortion is contributing to a human rights violation and should be disciplined.”
When abortion is criminalized, a number of human rights are threatened, including the rights to equality, nondiscrimination, life, health and physical integrity. Since 1994, U.N. human rights bodies have expressed particular concern with countries where access to abortion is restricted for pregnant victims of rape or incest. Human Rights Watch upholds the right of all women to decide independently about matters related to abortion without interference from the state or others.
According to Mexican government estimates, more than 120,000 women and girls are raped in Mexico each year. But government surveys also show that nearly 10 percent of Mexican women are victims of physical assaults each year. Worldwide, physical assaults against women include rape in 30 to 40 percent of the cases. This suggests that actual annual rape figures in Mexico could be more than 1 million a year.
Mexico’s legal framework does not adequately protect women and girls against sexual violence. Until recently, the Mexican Supreme Court held that rape between spouses was not a criminal offense if it serves some sort of reproductive purpose. This ruling was overturned by the court only in November. A number of states still do not criminalize domestic violence specifically, or only do so in cases of repeated violence.
Girls are even less protected than adult women under law. Most state penal codes in Mexico define incest as sex between parents and children or between siblings that is consensual, and they penalize the underage victim at the same level as the adult perpetrator.
Therefore, abortion is illegal in cases of pregnancy through incest, as defined by Mexican law, since the law defines incest as consensual sex, not rape. In most of Mexico, the age of consent for sexual activity is 12, and only in Mexico state is it over 14. This means that the crime of statutory rape in much of Mexico only applies to girls who in many cases are too young to become pregnant.
In theory, non-consensual sex between family members is penalized as rape. However, prosecutors do not always charge perpetrators of incest with rape, even where consent was clearly lacking or the victim was under the age of consent. In Guanajuato, for example, Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman who had been sexually abused by her father at least since the age of six – and who also faced criminal charges for “incest.” She had two children as the result of these rapes.
“State laws on domestic and sexual violence fall significantly short of Mexico’s international human rights obligations,” said Roth. “The definition of incest as voluntary sex is an insult to the thousands of girls who suffer abuse daily. No one, and least of all girls raped and impregnated by their fathers or brothers, should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term.”
“Graciela Hernández” (victims’ names changed for protection), a 16-year-old girl in Guanajuato, was raped weekly for more than a year by her father. The official legal record from her complaint against her father in 2002 reads:
Then my father took me to a hostel.... He penetrated me, and it hurt a lot when he penetrated me. I cried and I said to my father that it hurt a lot.... I want to declare that I don’t want to have the child that I am expecting, because I will not be able to love it. Because it is my father’s, I will not be able to love it. (The authorities did not authorize a legal abortion.)
“Lidia Muñoz,” a 25-year-old rape victim, was intimidated by medical personnel in a public hospital in Mexico City in 2005. An NGO representative who was present gave the following account:
When she got the authorization and went to the hospital to have the [abortion] done, the doctor in charge of her care said to her: ‘We are going to have many problems, because we are going to have to do a death certificate [for the aborted fetus]. You are going to have to bring a hearse, [and] to buy a coffin to take away the body, because we can’t have the body here.’
“Marta Espinosa,” a 12-year-old pregnant rape victim in Yucatán was passed from one state agency to another when she tried to obtain a legal abortion. A social worker who physically accompanied her said:
It was a 12-year-old girl, she came from the rural part of the state.... The first doctor had seen her [when she was only] one month pregnant.... The next clinic at eight weeks.... When she came to Mérida [the capital of Yucatán], she was 12 weeks pregnant.... I went to social security, I went to [the public hospital]. I went to the offices of those in charge.... Everyone turned their back. They said: ‘It is not possible.’ I brought the article [of the state penal code] where it says that [abortion after rape] is within the provisions.... In the Family Services agency [where I worked] they wanted her to have the child by any means.... They said to me that she was many months pregnant now, and I said: ‘That’s because many months have gone by while you tell me no.’ (The authorities did not authorize a legal abortion.)