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Colombia Women’s Small Step Forward

July 28, 2006

A recent ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court overturning an outright ban on abortion, even for victims of rape and incest, garnered headlines around the world. A story not so widely reported has been documented by an advocacy group, Profamilia Colombia: the chaos faced by Colombian women displaced by violence, which puts the court’s decision to allow abortion in limited circumstances in a wider context. For more than 40 years, Colombians have been devastated by armed conflict, and women have been caught in the crossfire.  According to the Profamilia study, conducted from 2000 to 2001, women account for over 55% of the country’s internally displaced population (IDP), and one of five of these women is a victim of sexual violence; many of the women suffer unwanted pregnancies. Colombia’s IDP, second only to that of war-torn Sudan, accounts for 3 million of Latin America’s 3.7 million internally displaced people, and the number is growing. The average fertility rate of women in rural areas—3.8 children—is significantly higher than the average of 2.3 for women in cities. According to figures released in January 2006 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of displaced Colombian women is expected to increase exponentially within the next five years. These displaced girls and women too often become mothers prematurely or victims of botched abortions. Without information or access to contraceptives to protect themselves, they are also prey to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Nearly all the displaced women surveyed by Profamilia, between the ages of 13 and 49, said they had heard of AIDS, but one of five did not know how to keep from contracting the virus; 28% could not identify any STD symptoms. Thirty percent of displaced teens are mothers or pregnant with their first child, nearly twice the average for adolescents in Colombia’s general population. Mónica Roa, the 30-year-old attorney who brought the abortion case before the Constitutional Court, says, “It is the poor women who are dying, who are suffering from health problems because of abortion.” Roa, director of the Gender Justice Program at the international NGO Women’s Link Worldwide, petitioned the court to decriminalize abortion when a woman’s life or health was in danger, in cases of rape or incest, or when a diagnosis showed that an abnormal fetus could not sustain life outside the womb. After an initial unfavorable ruling, Roa won her case last May. A destitute, displaced woman living miles from a decent medical facility will not benefit from the court’s verdict any time soon. However, in a country where, for every 100 women who have abortions, 29 suffer fatal complications and 18 end up in hospital emergency rooms with serious complications, any liberalization that can bring the practice of abortion above ground has to be good news.