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Thousands of pro-choice activists wave their iconic green handkerchiefs and demonstrate in favor of decriminalizing abortion outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 19, 2020. © 2020 Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo

While access to safe abortion is threatened from the United States to China, the “Marea Verde,” or Green Wave, women’s movement has helped deliver groundbreaking reforms and progress on reproductive health and rights in Latin America.

Abortions were legalized up to 14 weeks of pregnancy in Uruguay in 2012, in Argentina in 2020 and in several states in Mexico since 2007 — and in Baja California as recently as Oct. 29. In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in the state of Coahuila and limited the circumstances in which medical professionals can refuse to provide care on the grounds of religious or personal belief.

Previously, legal exceptions permitting abortion were narrowly interpreted, and anyone seeking to end a pregnancy could face stigmatization, mistreatment by health professionals and criminal prosecution.

It has not been an easy road, and many governments in the region — like many around the globe — still oppose the struggle for reproductive rights. In Honduras, the Congress changed the country’s Constitution to make it all but impossible to legalize abortion. The Dominican Republic rejected a proposal to decriminalize abortion when a pregnancy is life-threatening to the mother, unviable or the result of rape or incest. And in September, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador ruled out any change to abortion laws as part of the country’s constitutional reform. Women there have been sentenced to up to 40 years in prison on charges of violating the law, many after miscarriages or stillbirths.

The Green Wave achieved victories over such obstacles and could find success elsewhere, with aggressive campaigns and mass popular protests organized around legal action and legislative demands that center broadly on women’s autonomy and rights, especially protecting women against violence.

The movement arose from the #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less) movement, which started in Argentina in 2015 to demand an end to the sickeningly high rate of murdered women. It got its name in 2018, after more than a million activists, many wearing green scarves, occupied the streets of Argentina to support the legalization of abortion.

These scarves became a resistance symbol, inspired by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who wore white scarves to call attention to the government’s abduction and murder of their loved ones during that country’s last dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. The use of green scarves in women’s rights mobilizations soon spread in Latin America and elsewhere. In January 2021, many activists in Poland rallying against new abortion restrictions wore green scarves.

The Green Wave’s strategies were decades in the making. The first successful legal action occurred in 2006, after Women’s Link Worldwide filed a petition with the Colombian Constitutional Court arguing that the criminal law that classified abortion as a crime under any circumstances should be found unconstitutional. In response, the court decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, nonviable pregnancy and when the life or health of the pregnant woman is in danger.

The court said that state efforts to protect fetal life also had to recognize women’s rights not to be treated as “a reproductive instrument for the human race.”

Equally important as legal action has been the movement’s efforts to break the stigma against abortion and help people understand the realities women and girls face when they’re forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. In 2016, Planned Parenthood Global and others began the Niñas, No Madres (Girls, Not Mothers) campaign to inform and engage the public about the consequences of sexual violence and forced motherhood for young girls. In Bolivia, the recent case of an 11-year-old raped by her 61-year-old step-grandfather and forced to carry the pregnancy to term has reopened this debate.

For years, stories of mostly poor women and girls facing criminal charges and putting their health and lives at risk because of the lack of access to safe abortion services went unheard. Research by Human Rights Watch and other groups has shown that criminalizing abortion does not eliminate it, but rather drives people to resort to unsafe procedures that endanger their lives. It also exacerbates inequality and discrimination. Many, particularly those who live in poverty or in rural areas, resort to unsafe self-induced abortions or seek assistance from untrained providers. The abortion rate is higher in countries that restrict abortion access than in those that do not.

Along with grass-roots mobilizations to apply pressure from the bottom up, the movement has enlisted notable women to promote its cause. In 2018, more than 250 Argentine actors and writers signed a letter calling on Congress to decriminalize abortion. The issue took hold as a campaign topic when Alberto Fernández, who was then a presidential candidate, promised to submit a bill to Congress decriminalizing abortion. Under concerted pressure from the Green Wave movement, a bill to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy was passed in December 2020.

The solidarity of the Green Wave has helped break down stigma and raise awareness around women’s and girls’ rights, and has influenced policymakers to place reproductive autonomy and gender justice at the core of this political and legal debate. In moves that might have been unthinkable a decade ago, Chile’s Congress is debating the decriminalization of abortion up to 14 weeks, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court is hearing a case that could effectively decriminalize abortion by removing it from the country’s penal code.

Big challenges remain in Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, as well as in other Latin American countries where abortion is not yet legal. But the sisterhood of the Green Wave is and will be the movement’s strength. It has taught us that organization and collaboration are what fuels successful demands for women’s rights.

Ximena Casas is the women’s rights researcher for the Americas region at Human Rights Watch. She previously worked to advance the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights of Latin American women at Planned Parenthood Global and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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