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Dispatches: Legal Abortion Still Out of Reach for Many in Colombia

Marleny was just ten years old when members of an armed group gang-raped her in 2011. She fell pregnant from the rape, but was able to terminate her pregnancy safely and legally. Marleny, not her real name, lives in Colombia, where women and girls have the right to seek an abortion after rape – a right that rape victims in many countries in the region still don’t have. Had she lived in neighboring Ecuador, for example, Marleny, still a child herself, would have faced the devastating choice of having a baby from rape or seeking a life-threatening, clandestine abortion.

Today marks ten years since Colombia’s constitutional court abolished criminal penalties for women and girls seeking abortions, not only for rape victims, but also if their life or health is at risk, or in cases where fetal abnormality incompatible with life is detected. Human Rights Watch supported this historic ruling, initiated by women’s rights advocates at Women’s Link Worldwide, by filing amicus brief on this issue. We called for the court to bring Colombia’s laws in line with international law, which recognizes that restricting women’s access to abortion can harm their human rights.

In the ten years since the ruling, women and girls like Marleny have – on paper – officially been able to access a safe and legal procedure. But in practice, many other barriers make it very hard to do so. These include a requirement that rape victims file a criminal complaint and, sometimes, discouragement by government or health officials. For the constitutional court’s ruling to be fully effective, these barriers must be removed.

Currently, there is a bill in Colombia’s congress to fully decriminalize abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, introduced by the country’s former Attorney General. Congresswoman Angelica Lozano intends to introduce a similar bill in the coming months, with slight modifications. Both would eliminate some of the institutional barriers that limit access because women and girls would no longer have to prove that their pregnancies meet the current legal exceptions, and go a long way to ensuring abortion services can be accessed safely when needed.

Today, we should reflect on the many women’s and girls’ lives saved in the ten years since the ruling. But more can and should be done to protect their rights.

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