One of the most significant stories of the last decade in Latin America was the flourishing of a grassroots feminist movement that put gender politics at the center of public debate. The mobilization emerged first in response to staggering rates of femicide and other forms of gender violence, and then mounted challenges to the region’s abortion laws, which are among the world’s most restrictive. Beginning in Argentina and spreading to Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and elsewhere, the movement washed the region in green – green for the bandanas that activists wore. One Argentine described them as a “badge of dissent.”
The story of the “green wave” does not end with the decade. Despite some concrete victories – including, in September, the partial decriminalization of abortion in the Mexican state of Oaxaca – many of its legislative goals remain unrealized, and feminist activists across the region are now facing a right-wing political backlash.
In Ecuador, a protracted political battle over the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape is ongoing. Since 2015, prosecutors have initiated more than 370 abortion-related cases, sending numerous women to prison. In addition to imprisonment and deaths related to unsafe illegal procedures, Ecuador’s abortion ban, combined with endemic sexual violence, has effectively forced thousands of adolescent girls to become mothers. On average, seven girls under the age of 14 (Ecuador’s age of consent) give birth there every day.
Until recently the impact of Ecuador’s abortion ban received relatively little international scrutiny in comparison to countries where abortion is even more restricted, such as El Salvador. But in December, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women issued a report describing “alarmingly common” and “deeply rooted” violence against women and children in Ecuador, and arguing that the country’s restrictions on abortion “place young girls… at extreme risk.”
In May, seven organizations and the UN Human Rights Committee sued Ecuador, Nicaragua and Guatemala on behalf of four girls under age 14 who were raped and forced to carry pregnancies to term. While the UNHRC’s decisions are not binding, they can provoke policy change.
While growing feminist coalitions and heightened attention from international organizations are putting pressure on governments, the rise of right-wing religious and political leaders in the region presents a powerful counter-current. Leaders opposed to abortion rights are now in power in Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia. As the Argentine writer Claudia Piñeiro put it, this political climate not only makes the work of expanding rights more challenging: It also discourages women from exercising rights that already exist, at least on paper.
“We are not sure that the situation is going to end in favor of women,” says Virginia Gómez, president of Fundación Desafío, an Ecuadorian reproductive health group. “Anything we have achieved has been because of the struggle, the constancy and the pressure.”