8th December, 2023
Report by Arundhati Nath
On December 8, 2023, the Young Activist Network for Abortion Advocacy (YANAA), organised a global meeting for young abortion activists, which saw the participation of experts from South Asia, Latin America, Egypt of the MENA region, and Europe. The meeting was aimed at cross-learning about different legal and social contexts and the strategies being used, and at reiterating the need of youth-led activism while understanding the needs of young activists. The panelists and participants, who have made staggering contributions to abortion activism in their regional settings and are part of the legal, medical and/or social work fraternity, engaged in invigorating discussions; sharing their experiences with abortion activism, their monumental success stories as well as the challenges they continue to face, and the ways in which they mobilise for the cause of abortion in the face of varied legal restraints and socio-cultural realities. Their narrative construction of their realities and the youth activism they participate in – which are, at the same time, uniquely individual as well as largely inspired by shared histories of feminist movements – resulted in a nuanced portrayal of what abortion activism looks like across the globe, and what it strives to be.
The meeting had two panel discussions: the first was titled, ‘Centering youth-led activism’ where the speakers highlighted the importance of youth activism from their own regional contexts, and provided suggestions on ways to advocate for youth-led movement building. The second panel discussion was titled, ‘Deep dive into the legal context in each of the regions and ways in which the laws and policies on abortion impact young people’.
The speakers in the first panel discussion were as follows:
- Satang Nabaneh, Human Rights Center, Gambia
- Tamara Abracinskas, Youth Network for the Right to Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, Uruguay
- Deepshikha Ghosh, The YP Foundation, India
- Omnia Ahmed, Egyptians Without Borders Foundation, Egypt
- Daphne Visser, Choice for Youth and Sexuality, Netherlands
First and foremost, acknowledging the state of the world currently which is rife with human right violations, all the speakers emphasised on the need of youth-led activism globally to encourage solidarity across borders. Satang and Omnia both highlighted the power of the youth in ensuring that the knowledge about abortion laws and policies reaches other young people in need. Omnia, the representative from the Egyptian region who is a medical doctor herself, shared about the work done by the International Federation of Medical Students Association to build the capacity of future doctors currently in medical school to provide post-abortion care. Their attempts exemplify the ways in which young activists work around the system to contribute where they best can, which in this case is the medical side as the possibility of legal reform seems quite far-fetched at the moment. Taking up the Palestinian cause, Omnia Swedan, the panelist representing the Egyptian region, called attention to how the issue of Palestine is also a reproductive health rights issue, as many people in Palestine are subjected to reproductive violence because of the lack of resources and infrastructure for abortion and related healthcare under the Israeli occupation.
Tamara from Uruguay highlighted the importance of knowing our feminist histories, especially in the youth network that she is part of. Feminism has historically fought for intersectionality and rights, and this is what youth networks are also fighting for. But before fighting outside, intersectionality needs to be recognised even within us, how it impacts young people.
Deepshikha, the representatives from the South Asian region, highlighted the need for youth-led activism as a safe space for young people across different identity-markers to come together and have these discussions and continue planning for the future, even in the context of countries where laws are very restrictive. She also cautioned about the rights-based language that is getting co-opted by the opposition groups, and recommended having a more nuanced discussion on the language that progressive movements use.
Daphne Fisher, who was representing the European region, brought into our notice the concerning rise of the so-called ‘men’s right activists’ in Europe following the popularity of public figures like Andrew Tate. Expressing concern over the increasing conservative bent of a large section of the youth and the space that they have started occupying in politics and in international organisations, Daphne argues that mobilising young activists for abortion becomes even more vital now to ensure that the rights that we currently have are not taken away – a concern shared by abortion right activists worldwide especially after the overturning of the Roe v. Wade in the US.
The speakers also stressed on the need for intersectional organising as the primary strategy to strengthen youth-led networking. They spoke about the need to join hands with movements for the rights for comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and rights of LGBTQ+ persons which are currently challenged in the world, thereby highlighting that the issue of abortion is interconnected with CSE, as it is with LGBTQIA+ rights or with movements for decriminalising sex work.
The speakers in the second panel discussion were as follows:
- Lina Al Hassany, Young Feminist Europe, Netherlands
- Dana Repka, Youth Network for the Right to Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Shelani Palihawadana, Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka
The second panel discussion involved a deep dive into such legal restraints in various national and regional contexts, and the panelists – by sharing the wins as well as setbacks of abortion advocacy in the legal sphere – presented a very interesting picture of the abortion rights movement globally and young people’s participation in it. Starting with the European region, Lina Al Hassany shared a comprehensive presentation on the issues relating to abortion rights in Europe, which, by and large, is considered a liberal and progressive region in regards to laws on abortion. However, complete decriminalisation of abortion has still not been achieved in the region, as Malta, Poland and Andorra still penalise abortion. Lina brings forth the problems of access that the criminalisation in these three states causes, such as the dangers of travelling across states to access abortion as well as the problem of access to medical abortion pills in certain parts of Europe, as countries like Slovakia and Hungary do not even allow it. The laws in the UK are also becoming increasingly restrictive while the voices of the anti-abortion or ‘pro-life” groups become louder in the region, which is why Lina asserts that meaningful youth participation has become all the more important now. She cites the removal of the five days waiting time rule from the law in the Netherlands as an example of what youth mobilisation can achieve, and calls for it further. [Lina’s presentation can be accessed here.]
Representing the Youth Network for the Right to Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, Dana Repka brings into light the tremendous wins of the abortion rights movement in the region in the past decade. Speaking about what has now gained global attention as the ‘Green Wave’ of decriminalisation of abortion across Latin America and the Caribbean, Dana shares that it can be attributed to two reasons. The first is the paradigm shift from viewing abortion as a crime to understanding it through 1) a human rights approach that aligns it with international human rights protection standards, and 2) a health approach that recognises abortion as an essential health service that, when legalised, helps reduce maternal morbidity and mortality as proved by empirical studies. The second force facilitating the Green Wave is the topic of abortion consistently being on the public agenda and being defended in the public sphere. The public embracing the green bandana as a symbol for the right to abortion managed to create a symbolic cultural impact that started in Argentina and then was adopted by various other countries in the region with their own cultural messaging. It is important to remember that youth activists led this cultural movement – Dana shares how young lawyers including herself made legal interventions like submitting an amicus curia, aimed at informing the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that criminalizing abortion violates the right to equality due to its disproportionate impact on young people. Latin America and the Caribbean region, therefore, serves as inspiration for the rest of the world. [Dana’s presentation can be accessed here.]
Finally, Shelani Palihawadana, a lawyer working with the Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka, presented comprehensive information on the legal contexts in the Asia region. By virtue of being the largest region and being equally diverse in terms of socio-cultural and legal realities, Asia presents different sets of challenges and restraints. Shelani touches upon the legal context of most of Asian countries – the relatively progressive abortion law in Nepal; somewhat liberal laws in India and China where exist significant problems of implementation of the laws on ground; countries with restrictive abortion laws but good family planning policies that allow abortion to happen within that framework, such as Bangladesh; the staggeringly high rate of unsafe abortions in Sri Lanka where post-abortion care guidelines provide some respite; and the absolute prohibition of abortion in the Philippines, Iraq, and Lao PDR. Shelani presents interesting observations which are crucial to understanding abortions in the Asian context; such as the intertwinement of abortion rights with societal conventions on marriage and taboos around premarital sex. For instance, in Iran, abortion is specifically allowed only for married women, and even in countries like India where the law doesn’t limit abortion to married women, the biases and value systems of the people working on ground make abortion access difficult for unmarried people. Shelani also calls attention to religious and cultural factors that affect the autonomy and decision-making power of women in all cases and the subsequent impact of that on their access to abortion. She effectively highlights a lot of such structural barriers, including the heavily provider-centric laws in the region. Another important point that was raised was the early gestational limits for seeking abortion; Shelani questions if the family planning policies in these countries is effective enough for a pregnant person to be able to detect a pregnancy so early. Considering these gestational time limits that are legally binding and the pregnant person needs to approach doctors and the medical board within that time, Shelani urges for the doctors to be sensitized on the legal aspects of abortion, and vice versa, and for both doctors and lawyers to be trained in a rights-based approach, i.e., to center the needs of the pregnant person. This would require measures like change in medical curriculums and the use of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) to raise those issues in the court wherever possible.
The focussed discussion on the regions also brought out interesting insights from the participants, such as the challenges in the South Asian region due to the conflation of abortion and sex selection. The historical context is such that the feminist movement continues to be divided around this, and that remains a challenge. The participants also raised the issue of colonial laws that continue to criminalise abortion in Asian countries.
The meeting hence concluded with the understanding that there needs to be a robust, globally connected youth advocacy network. Our movement for free abortion means abortion that is free of cost, as well as freedom of making our own reproductive decisions.
Transcript of the Discussion
Introduction by Shruti: The first panel is ‘Centering Youth-led organizing’ and I would welcome all the five speakers. Here’s a short introduction of all the speakers.
- Our first speaker is Dr. Satang Nabaneh. She’s a legal scholar and human rights practitioner. Dr. Nabaneh is currently the Director of Programs at Human Rights Center and a research professor at School of Law at the University of Dayton. She is the founder and director of Law Hub Gambia and is representing as the co-convener of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Network in the Gambia. A prize-winning scholar, she is the co-editor of ‘The Gambia in Transition Towards a New Constitutional Order’ and ‘Sexual Harassment Law and Human Rights in Africa’. Her latest book is ‘Choice and Conscience: Lessons from South Africa for a Global Debate’.
- Our next speaker is Tamara. Tamara is 23 years old, from Uruguay. She is a member of the organization Women and Health in Uruguay. She is the person in charge of the youth area and is a member of LAS LILAS, a network of feminist accompaniment in abortion in Uruguay. She is part of the coordinating group of the Youth Network for the Right to Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean.
- We also have Deepshikha. Deepshikha is a feminist practitioner with seven years of experience of working with social grassroot movements and collectives. In her engagement with several civil society organizations and networks, she has actively worked to foreground the right to choice, agency and decision making, especially of young people in their intersectional identities across various discourses around gender-based violence and its redressal mechanisms. She is part of the civil society movement on Child, Early and Forced Marriages and Unions at the regional and global level. She is one of the co-creators of the Global Feminist Accountability Framework for Generation Equality Forum, and a member of the Stakeholder Advisory group of Ab Meri Baari [which translates to ‘Now it’s My Turn’] Youth Solutions Project in India.
- We also have Omnia. Omnia is a trainer on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Since her graduation from medical school, she has worked with Love Matters Arabic as sexual health consultant. Recently, she joined Egyptians Without Borders Foundation for Development as an advocacy officer.
- We also have Daphne Visser. She is a program coordinator at Choice for Youth and Sexuality. In her work, she focuses on meaningful and inclusive youth participation and creation of meaningful spaces where young people can come together, learn from one another, and connect. She coordinates the Youth ambassador on sexual and reproductive health and rights, Gender equality and Bodily autonomy program. In this program, she supports a young person from the Netherlands who works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a year to advocate on meaningful and inclusive youth participation, and SRHR. She has furthermore engaged in youth led advocacy at the United Nations in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Thank you, everyone for joining the panel discussion.
First round of questions:
Why youth led organizing is important in your region, and how does your organization advocate for youth led movement building?
Satang: To start with, obviously my remarks and reflection is not reflective of the whole African continent, but also, in relation to the sort of work that I do that is more now behind the scene in which I actually support in relation to research, but also in relation to using that research for advocacy and strategic litigation with some of the work that I’ve been doing with several organizations within the African continent. So I feel like I’m the older person here, but, you know, it’s always good.
Anyway, I think regard to that question, I think especially within the African context, it’s also acknowledging that Africa’s population is growing and it is also the youngest. I was convening this international conference on Decolonization and Development for Africa and People of African descent, and when I was doing part of my preparation for the setting of the scene, I came across this New York Times article that stated that in 2050, 1 in 4 people in the world will be African. So that’s mind blowing, right? I think acknowledging the fact that Africa has the youngest population in the world leaves no question as to why there is importance of youth-led organizing this work. And I think this is particularly important when you bring it to the issue of abortion within the continent. What we’ve seen, obviously, we’ve seen quite a lot of progressive developments in the past couple of years. So, we also know that the Maputo Protocol, for example, has a provision on the right to safe abortion, which is very progressive, at the continental level. And in various countries, we’ve also seen quite a lot of law reform in relation to the expansive grounds for abortion.
So, I mean, especially when you compare it to what is currently happening in the US, it’s a bit tricky being here, you know, we are making progress within the continent, right? The grounds for accessing abortion have been expanded. But the reality is – and then I’m part of this group of people that are currently working on an edited vole looking at the barriers on safe abortion – so whilst we obviously have the progressive laws, we continuously then have all those barriers that prevents access to safe abortion. I will qualify here with saying the sub-Saharan African region, considering the fact that other parts of Africa as well have had progressive provisions, including Tunisia and other countries. But we know that in sub-Saharan Africa, it carries the highest number of unsafe abortions, regardless of the fact that in several countries, including South Africa, there is a progressive law, but obviously access then becomes a problem. So, it’s not just about the law, but it is also about the fact that barriers exist – whether that is conscientious objection, as I covered in my recent book, but also in relation to other areas like lack of knowledge. And for me, I think that’s really where youth-led organising then becomes very vital. One is obviously young people having the knowledge of what laws exist in the first place, because I think that’s one of the biggest barriers in terms of lack of knowledge as it relates to how or what the laws are, but also even when the laws exist, how are people are supposed to access the abortion services? So, I think being able to bring the information down to the relevant young people that actually need the information as it relates to the legal system is an important job youth-led organising does. Another thing is in relation to ownership as well. And I’m sure colleagues here will be speaking about that as well in relation to young people having ownership of the issue. I think that goes a long way in relation to why it is important.
Tamara: My name is Tamara. I am from Uruguay. As Shruti said, this is a tiny country in Latin America towards the South. I represent the network for young people, for the right for abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean. And to briefly answer the question of why it’s important to have organizations, and especially networks that connect us as young people, I think that one of the most important things for us is how young people are joining the cause of the right to abortion with this explosion. There’s always been, of course, young people organizing and participating, fighting towards the right for abortion, but we also recognize that in the last years there’s been sort of this expansion or explosion in participation. And in our region especially, we can talk about the Green Wave, and we recognize that there’s been a big attention to it and that is very personal. Sometimes we think that it is important to go beyond the individual, the personal, of participating, joining because it’s fundamental, of course, or we wouldn’t have members in our networks. We have to motivate young people to organize, to belong to organizations and therefore participate and lead to collective actions. We were formed as a network for young people for the right to safe abortion towards the end of 2021, and we are now present in 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. And we have a membership that is about 110 young people affiliated to our network, of different ages, have different ways to carry out activism, are from different professions or careers or experiences, and are also coming from different organizations. So, we think this is fundamental.
On the other hand, we understand that it is important also because as Shruti was saying, we are facing difficult times. We could mention Palestine, but also many other contexts as well. We have to increase international solidarity. We call this ‘solidarity amongst the people’; I was trying to look for an adequate translation in English, perhaps solidarity amongst nations, to have collective actions that go beyond these borders. Especially in the recent context of nationalism, believe that as young people, young activists, it’s fundamental to have this attitude. We also want to have collective reflection in our territories, in our countries and in our regions, and in this way recognize other realities and recognize other contexts. We have to go beyond our national realities, it’s important to learn about other strategies. And to finish, my last idea is to create joint plans or joint strategies. We as a network have an action plan. We say what we want to do, how we want to do it, with whom we’re going to work with, and we think it’s fundamental to have a common strategy, it is a fundamental part of the fight in a region that more than 15 years ago, had the 15th encounter for feminists in Latin America and the Caribbean. So, we have a motivation towards creating networks to meet, to have collective debates. And this is what motivates us to connect and that is the importance of organizing ourselves as young people in this context.
Deepshikha: I am from India, and I work with an organization called the YP Foundation which is a youth led organization; and this question becomes very pertinent to just the very existence of our own organization. We talk about why youth led organizing is important, and what should it look like? How do we hold ourselves accountable? How do we really make the most of it in a space that often doesn’t recognize the fact that we’re experts. Also, how our issues are cross-cutting across everything that’s happening, right? This is something that we constantly have conversations on in our own organization and are constantly struggling to find an answer which is wrapped properly and is palatable to everybody. And I think that’s where I’ll start – why youth led organizing is important in the context of my country or in the context of the work that we are doing is because it’s very confusing as to what it means to be a young person and how that gets presented. So, for instance, in certain cases in our homes and our families as well as conversations that leaders have when you talk about a young person, you talk about a young person as somebody who needs to be taught. But in certain other cases, you talk about a young person as someone who needs to be held responsible or should have a lot of responsibilities. And that, in my opinion, becomes even more complex when you talk about reproductive rights, when you talk about abortion, when you talk about caregiving, when you talk about choosing to have children and all of those things. It’s just it’s so confusing. I think the common conversation around this is very confusing, but what I’ve come to realize through conversations with other young people not just in my own country, but across other spaces, is that it’s not confusing. It’s convenient.
There is an entire sort of way in which other form of organizing is happening where this idea of being youth led is also being co-opted to fulfil a certain kind of agenda. And I think it’s really important for all of us to come together in a space where we’re okay to be able to have conflicting arguments. We’re okay to hold conflicting opinions, and not be really worried whether disqualifies us as experts, which is often what happens in other rooms. To be able to be in such spaces amongst other youth leaders and be able to hold conflicting arguments because we have very different truths. We’ve always said young people are not a homogeneous entity as well. We need to find strategies together where our agenda doesn’t become corruptible. So many of my friends here and my colleagues who are actually leading the work on abortion rights in the context of my own organization have spoken about how, say, the opposition also tends to use a lot of rights-based language and use a lot of the kind of messaging that we do. So, we need a space so that all of our lived experience doesn’t get co-opted for an agenda that’s absolutely opposite of what we want.
For me and for our organization, I think youth led organizing is really important because we need a place where we want to feel safe enough to be able to grieve, to be able to show our anger, to be able to strategize, keeping in mind the current situation. But we know how to read trends as well, right? So, to be able to continue planning for five years, ten years, or fifteen years in the context of our own regions and the context of our own countries, in the context of our own social location and how the consequences of doing something also differs for each and every individual depending on our social location.
So yeah, I think these are some of the reasons why we feel it’s extremely important, in addition to all the things that the previous speakers have already said about just the fact that we have a very unique standpoint. And one as soon as we will graduate out to stop calling ourselves young people, very soon, those that will be calling themselves young people will have a very unique standpoint. Therefore, this change really needs to go on. So, it’s also built into our own fabric that this sort of transition is something that is planned. It’s something that is sort of sustained. And we feel very comfortable graduating soon after whenever we have to.
Omnia: My name is Omnia Swedan, and I’m from Egypt, and speaking from the Egyptian context. Over here, abortion is not legalized up till now, so many women try to seek any opportunity to perform an abortion for unwanted pregnancy, even if it’s not safe. I used to work as a doctor, and I took my residency during Covid, and this was very disastrous to see. Many women are coming to the hospital for seeking treatment for post-operative complications, and many doctors and health care givers refuse to help just because of the social stigma related to performing abortion. And of course, some of them used to have empathy for those women, but are not willing to help because of the legal consequences that might affect their career. I used to work for the International Federation of Medical Students Association, to take steps for this problem because we cannot solve this problem or even call for legalization of safe abortion right now, because of the social context and the backlashes. That is why we decided to build the capacity of future medical students to be able to provide palliative post-operative care without being affected with social stigma. So, we started to perform workshops and campaigns, and tried to give opportunities for some of those young people to participate in international conferences with international organizations. That affected the behaviour and attitude of those people when they left the medical school and become medical residents.
The second question was, how does your organization advocate for youth movement building? I’m currently working for Love Matters Arabic, a digital media project, specialized to advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. One of the offline events that we held was to give ToTs for young leaders in other NGOs on what are sexual rights, on what are reproductive rights, what is the right to choice, what is bodily autonomy, and that’s why we are taking steps to build the youth led movement and follow up with those people who took the training with us to transfer the knowledge to other people. That’s what we are willing to do, it’s something like peer-to-peer education. If attended the ToT, you have to perform a workshop or a session with your local community.
Moving to the question what the principles and the values that youth led movements uphold, I think I will start from solidarity, because I feel like all rights-based causes are very connected. So, we have to work on intersectionality between those topics we are working on, and we have to uphold the sense of international solidarity, even if we are not very aware of the context. For example, let’s take the Palestinian cause – many women from Palestine were subjected to reproductive violence while they sought abortion because of the lack of infrastructure after the Israeli occupation because they bombed the main hospitals in Gaza. So I feel like it’s our duty as advocates to work on these topics and uphold the value of compassion and solidarity.
Daphne: My name is Daphne Visser, and I’m part of Choice for Youth and Sexuality. As Choice works mostly in the international context, I will be talking around that, especially about United Nations processes, and then I will dive a little bit more into the country that we’re based in, which is the Netherlands. We work mainly in international processes, and what we try to do is to create a more meaningful space within those processes which is quite difficult because those who are familiar with the United Nations will know that it’s not a very accessible space. There’s a lot of jargon, it’s not very friendly, and what Choice tries to do in that regard, especially if we’re talking about sexual and reproductive health rights, is on one hand, to make certain that we’re always the voice that is being raised; we’re seeing, especially in international spaces, a lot of youth movements who are unfortunately getting the stage, and getting to talk around more conservative values, and then are seen as the youth voice. However, as all of us in this group know, there are also definitely many more voices that are actually progressive but have difficulties accessing the space due to the fact that the United Nations, is on one hand in New York and on one hand in Geneva, which means that there are visa requirements, if we are not even talking about the status that certain organizations need to have to get access.
But why is youth led organizing important? I think it is because, on the one hand, youth led organizing allows us as young people to have a space in which we are safe and in which we can actually discuss the things that are important to us. It’s not always possible to discuss sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially if we’re talking about abortion. Also, if we’re talking around being part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s very important that we have the same spaces to come together and to organize, and youth-led organizing allows us that space. Furthermore, I think, it’s so important that young people are participating in the decisions that are being made around our bodies, because as it is said, that these decisions are for us, but very often they do not include us and allowing us to organize as as a youth led organization or a youth led movement actually allows us to address decisions that are being made about us.
Then over to my region, which is the European region, I think youth led organizing is tremendously important right now, as we are in a weird time that on the one hand, there’s a group of young people who are quite progressive, really intersectional, are open towards many of the issues that we find important – abortion, for example, but also talking about the LGBTQ+ community. However, we also are really seeing the influence of men’s rights activists, especially if we’re talking about Andrew Tate, that a lot of young people are listening to everything, actually, in that regard, very conservative stream coming up, especially also from the from the United States. We’re seeing that unfortunately, specifically in the Netherlands, if we’re talking around abortion, that young people are actually becoming more conservative than in comparison to their parents. So this just really goes to show how important it is that we have those moments of organizing to make certain that the rights that we have acquired – because in the Netherlands, abortion is allowed; with certain conditions, but still quite generally allowed – so that we don’t lose the rights that we are having at this moment, as when we are organizing the people that want to make certain that we don’t have these rights are organizing as well. And we’re really seeing that especially in the Netherlands, they are becoming more and more vocal.
In that regard, organising is tremendously important because it allows us, on the one hand, to showcase that young people are not just that – that they’re that are different young people, that we come with different ideas, and also it allows us to learn skills to actually make our voice heard. It also gives us a safe space to come together and to experiment with different ideas and perspectives and broaden our understanding.
Final comments on the discussion by the speakers:
Satang: One of the things that I didn’t mention was the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Network, the work that we do in the Gambia. Some of you might know we were under a dictatorship, now we’re in transition. We have a restrictive abortion law, and I’m happy to share that I wrote about that, but the international campaign, for example, supported the building of that coalition, which is actually housed in a youth-led organization, Think Young Woman. In the context of the Gambia, obviously there has never been a public discourse or a national study on abortion., Even though quite a number of organizations obviously work on sexual and reproductive health and rights. So, I think partly when thinking about strategies, intersectional organizing is important, thinking of beyond our own siloed frameworks and the ways that we work.
I have also been doing work in terms of mapping anti-rights movement within the US as well as in various African country especially in relation to strategies and other things that they adapt, and I think part of what we should also be thinking about is that the anti-rights movement does not just attack abortion rights specifically. It attacks the variety of sexual and reproductive health rights, whether that’s LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, sex work decriminalization as well as other things. So, solidarity and intersectional organizing is really important. Also, tapping into what other people and other regions are doing, and actually adapting that.
Tamara: I’ll try to talk about three things that I wanted to say. On one side, I think that it is important that as a network, we bring feminism into this story. I think it’s important to make this explicit, as it is the movement that has historically brought this agenda to the table and that has fought for the rights. On the other hand, I also think, as it was already mentioned, it’s important to recognize intersectionality that affects us all as young people. This is also part of our principles and values. To recognize that and to recognize the intercultural dialogue that we promote, that we live in different realities, and therefore we have different ways of doing things in our countries and in our territories. And in that sense, when we when we talk about the right to abortion, we talk about the right to universal access, and with dignity. When we say ‘free’, we want to talk about free meaning no cost as well as free meaning anytime one wants to access it, it shouldn’t present barriers. And of course, safe and legal.
We are a region that is talking about decriminalization. We in Latin America are the ones who proposed the celebration of the 28th of September, and it became global. And the last thing that I wanted to say is the importance of recognizing all the different identities, not just women. And I think this is part of what Daphne was saying; I also think it’s important to highlight that this is part of our principles and values. To build spaces for collective discussions and having agreements and planning strategies and not conforming to what we are but to grow and to address the challenges that we have in terms of context of the social, economic and political realities – the global South has had a very strong impact of these movements. I also think it’s important to mention the difficulty in accessing resources. But to close, I like to celebrate this meeting because I think it’s fundamental to have spaces such as this one.
Deepshikha: I second everything that was said before me; I don’t have anything additional to add, so I will repeat what I was saying, which is the biggest concern I have right now, which is hoping that this space where we can really have difficult discussions with each other but feel safe having those discussions does not get played by the system. All the work that has that has happened for so many years, we are seeing it in front of our eyes getting undone. So, I wish we we’re strategic about putting our point of view collectively so that the system doesn’t play us, that our agenda doesn’t get co-opted.
Omnia: Working on such a critical topic, so multi-layered, requires a multi-layered strategy that reaches the different levels – on the level of policy making, on the level of community building, on the level of general awareness. That is the approach we have to think about – what are the new tactics we can take to step closer to achieving our goal, and this wouldn’t be possible if we are working in isolation. So, I do believe in the collective working, and I feel like in working on this topic requires community compassion, and if we are working together and if we are sharing information together, if we are sharing experiences together, that will create a safe space to reflect and to evaluate our work within our contexts, and to share our experience with the others and to modify this based on the feedback we are giving to and getting from the others. And this creates a safe space to share our personal connection to the stories and to the cases we are working with, and that is very important because we also identify as women or people having vaginas or whatever it is that we identify as. We are having our own issues that will make us relate to everybody who has had to pass through this situation. I feel like well-being is an important component too, while you’re working in advocacy, specifically with vulnerable groups.
Daphne: I wanted to highlight three things; the speakers have already highlighted this a little bit. As Tamara was saying, around resources and how important it is that we have youth-friendly resources. Youth-organising shows itself in different ways; which means some organizations have been around for a very long time as youth leaders when others are just starting out, so I think, it is therefore very important that the funding that young people are getting is also youth friendly. Also, I think it’s important to keep advocating for inclusive youth participation or youth engagement; however too often we’re still seeing that we’re invited in a very tokenistic manner. That is why it is amazing that I’m here, and am allowed to speak, and that I have the feeling that people are actually resonating with what I’m saying. I think all of us have been in situations where it was the exact opposite, and then even when we are lucky enough to be the people that can participate, to not forget the others that are there.
The last point that I wanted to make is how important is to keep organizing. I think that really shows in the Netherlands that the public has kind of thought like, “oh, we have solved all of the feminist issues”, which is, of course, not true. And also, to create solidarity across borders where possible, use the resources of organizations that have a more privileged position and might be closer to donors and international organisations.
Summary by Shruti:
One, I think decolonization as a standpoint and analytical framework when we work with social movements, and bringing feminist histories into our story and as young people just knowing our feminist histories is very important. One of the important points also was co-optation and how a lot of our language is being co-opted. So how are we actually in our social movements different – when we say rights- based language, what does it mean, as the opposition, especially abortion opposition, is also adopting similar kinds of language and narratives? How do we move forward from there? And of course, having a safe space for young people to talk about issues where you are not judged for saying something which could be controversial, or where people with conflicting opinions can just come together in a safe space to have conversations about abortion access in spaces where laws are very restrictive. Also, how do we work in those contexts? Some of those discussions will also happen in the next panel, but I think it’s very important to look at particular strategies that countries with restrictive abortion laws might be adopting.
There were also important points about youth advocacy – how can young people access that, especially in contexts where abortion is illegal? Do those advocacy spaces actually work and how far can it go? What we can and cannot expect from some of those engagements? And just ending with having free abortions for everyone, and like Tamara said, that free abortions is free of cost but also freedom for our reproductive choices.
Q/A session on the first panel discussion:
Dana: Thanks to all the panelists for their insights. It was so interesting to listen to all of you and to find some common points among the different regions. I would like to ask a question about what do you think that are the key challenges that we as young activists encounter or face when we when participating not only as youth-led organizations, but also in intergenerational ones? In these organizations, we often could find wonderful mentoring relationships, but we could also face a scepticism about our abilities or expertise and we might be pushed to the backseat, or we might lack the institutional support to be truly heard. I’m curious to know if you agree with this analysis, and what challenges do you think we face, and if you have thought about any strategies to address these issues.
Deepshikha: I think I relate to what you just said, and I also oftentimes feel very strongly that you have to occupy the ‘youth seat’ or the ‘youth organization’ seat, and that it should look different, like you’re expected to perform differently. There are so many notions associated to how a young person should show up in that place. I think that is a very serious thing that needs to be challenged because it kind of means that it creates a sense of competition between young people themselves and youth-led organizations themselves because, they could think in terms of which is that youth organization that that will be invited because they will perform differently or will play into this. I don’t know how we are going about mitigating this challenge, but I found that it’s always nice to have more than like one young person in the room. It’s always good not just be the only young person or be the only youth led organization representing all, so basically finding ways and strategies to be more than one. It is also good for like providing each other validation and confidence, but also to challenge that notion that there’s this one seat and therefore creates that sense of competition between us as well.
Mark: In what ways can we address intersectionality of issues surrounding abortion within the youth population?
Satang: I think one of the issues that we’ve been seeing obviously affects the youth population has to do with comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). I know that this is true whether it’s in Africa or in Latin America or in Europe, there is a huge push against CSE. So I think especially as we think around what intersectional organizing looks like, I think we can’t get away from the fact that there is a close connection between abortion and CSE.
Daphne: I would really like to add to that, because it really resonates with a lot of what we’re seeing as well. And then one of the arguments that is often used is that a comprehensive sexuality education opens the door for influencing young people around the LGBTQ+ agenda, as if we have an agenda. And I think that in that regard also, it’s not just women that are heterosexual relationship that are in need of abortion, it’s not just women who have been assigned female at birth who will be using abortions in the different contexts that we are in. The LGBTQ+ community is one of the groups that is in a marginalized situation, who are on the one hand used and on the other hand, often forgotten. So, I think that’s also an important group that we should not forget when we’re when we’re organizing around abortion rights and also around abortion care.
Maria: I just wanted to ask, especially for our continent – I am from Argentina. And I agree with what Tamara said about how we are being sort of attacked by the Right at the moment. I want to know which are the methods you’re using to try to reunite the youth to protect human rights, and I want to know which are the methods or the techniques you’re trying to use to get people together and to understand the importance of human rights in general and abortion in particular.
Tamara: We have identified something that brings a lot of risk, and this what we’re doing right now online is a challenge because we get to know each other in this way for a little time, and how, in terms of financing, there’s a lot of internationalism in terms of the ultra-right and particularly for young people that are selected, for example, in Latin America and the Caribbean and different countries in Uruguay, Peru and Mexico, there are young people who take intensive courses, get to travel to Europe, and they visit Poland, Hungary, Spain, and they visit ultra-right parties to form narratives and strategies to fight us. And it’s very significant because you organize yourself in terms of proposals, improving the situation to have more people access more rights, to improve living conditions with the little fewer resources that we are able to access to. And of course, there’s this giant that we are facing many times, and it can be overwhelming sometimes.
So, in that sense, I think that the strategies, what I would call them resistance strategies are these instances that even if it’s a few of us here, it’s trying to get to more people and to think about the narratives and discourses and how we can get to people. I think that tying this to the intergenerational issue that can be a challenge; many-a-times we end up in separatism. There is also separatism, for example, of just being a woman to organize yourself in feminism, whether you can talk about the LGBTQ+ and other identities that maybe question the norms. Sometimes, we young people also have separatist practices and it is a challenge to address this, to break down barriers in every way – state borders, but also identity borders, organizational borders. And in that sense, I think that the challenge that we have is to have exchange spaces and spaces that shouldn’t just be regional. And that is why I think it is important to have these exchanges amongst regions.
Introduction by Hasini:
Hello everyone; welcome to the second panel of today’s meeting. I am Hasini Rupasinghe and I’m representing Asia Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW) as a member of the YANAA Global committee. Today I will be moderating the second session, which is on the regional contexts and laws and policies on abortion and the impact on young people. We have with us here today three panellists, some of who will make their own presentations and some will respond to the questions that I will pose to them. These panelists represent eight different regions in the world.
We start off with Lina Al Hassany. She is only here for a short time because of her work commitments. She is representing the European region. To give a brief introduction about Lina: she is a 26-year-old medical doctor, with a specialization in child and youth psychiatry. She has a passion for sexual and reproductive health and rights within different organizations. She is also passionate about poetry.
Lina: Thank you so much for your introduction. I’m happy to see people from different countries. Very nice to also learn about abortion in your networks, in your country. I will talk a bit briefly about Europe, but please feel free to interrupt me if you have any questions or want me to clarify anything. We have just a short time, so it will be very general, also because we include a lot of countries, but hopefully you can take something with you. I will be talking about our work in youth participation for abortion. I’m part of the steering committee from Europe, and I’m also working as a medical doctor, so I have learned more about the medical side of abortion but I think law is very an important aspect of it. I live in the Netherlands and there has been also a bit of, discussion about abortion also within the Netherlands.
So, reality check: I think, Europe has been like continuing global trend towards liberalization of abortion laws and the legalization of women’s access to safe and legal abortion. I think most of the European countries are okay with abortion in Europe and allow abortion on request, especially in the first 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy, but it’s still not everywhere and I think we should also be aware of that. And the laws within a country can also vary. So, most countries agree, but there are countries like Malta, Andorra and Poland where abortion is still not legal. There’s like a big case of a woman in Poland who has also been put into jail because of abortion. I think hence it’s good to recognize that it’s not in every country that it’s possible to practice safe abortion. And also, there’s a big difference in what has happened in law and in practice. There is a lot of illegal abortion practices also in Netherlands, in Europe. In the UK, there has also been highly restrictive laws with the current policy at this moment. So, I think it’s also a call to action to make sure that everywhere in Europe we have legal and service-related changes and improvements.
Like I said, 39 countries have legalized abortion, and there are still a lot of countries who have broad social grounds and who do not legalize it, including Poland. Women still have to travel sometimes within or between countries to get abortion, for example, there are women traveling from Poland to the Netherlands, and that’s also a very dangerous road – if, for example, the police in Poland knows that you’re seeking abortion. The pandemic has made abortion a big discussion, an example of it is the access to abortion, to travel to abortion clinics, which was a huge debate within Europe. Because of the measures for Covid, people couldn’t go physically to abortion places. I think one very important aspect was also the waiting time – if you talk about the Netherlands, there was a law in the Netherlands on a legal abortion time, that was obligated to every patient if they say they want to have an abortion. The law said that you had to wait for five working days before you can get access to abortion. You can understand, there is a strict timeline when a woman can have safe abortion and has been legalized to get abortion in, for example, in the Netherlands, and this waiting time was actually something which was an old tradition. It wasn’t a medical or evidence-based law. Actually, women who thought about having an abortion, they already knew that they wanted to and they didn’t need it five days, but it could have the problem that you extended the time beyond the legalised time of getting the abortion and therefore not getting the access to abortion. So that was a big discussion within the Netherlands and within the Parliament, and eventually they said it’s okay to have flexible waiting time, so they actually now don’t have the five days rule now, but it’s something new which has happened this year or last year, so it’s good to remember that.
Moreover, medical abortion pills were also scarce in some countries during the pandemic, but also still are; some countries don’t even allow abortion pills, like Slovakia and Hungary. Some countries do approve the use of telemedicine and self-managed abortions with pills, but only until the first trimester. And also, that’s different practice per country, per region, per law, so there’s no big consensus about it. It has now become a permanent option in countries such as France and the UK, and also Ireland, but it’s still not in every country, so there’s still some variation in it. That is also why we still keep on having call to action about having safe and legal abortion everywhere.
Some pillars of it are complete decriminalization of abortion in all countries, and both as a harm reduction strategy to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity, but also to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights, bodily autonomy and voluntary motherhood. Also included are universal access to safe and legal abortion as early as possible, and as long as needed, and safe and self-managed abortion pills upto 12 weeks to be also allowed in all countries. There is also a huge variety of training which healthcare providers need, and also pharmacists who can provide these services, or midwives and nurses and doctors.
There are also a lot of protests around abortion clinics in Europe where people protest or demonstrate against abortion and ‘pro-life’ outside the clinic. You can imagine that a woman who is traveling to the clinic, which is already a big thing to do, and also mentally taking a big step, and then you see all these women talking to you, maybe throwing things at you or yelling at you that you are killing someone. I think there’s still a lack of training and education in how to deal with these situations. So, you can imagine it’s also a physical threat and mentally it’s a hard way to get abortion, even though it’s legalized in a country.
I think meaningful youth participation has a huge deal with this, but unfortunately, the voice of youth is not very heard. And there’s also a trend now in Europe that young people can get more conservative. We also see it now, unfortunately, within the political debates in general, for example, in the Netherlands, our biggest right party and also discriminating racist party, which also is against inclusive care and also against abortion has won the elections this year, and this is a trend also we see in other countries in Europe that right parties get the overhand, because young people vote for them. That is why I think we should continue this meaningful youth participation. They can hear our voice, but I think it’s a collective thing we need to do and what I think a good thing choice is, for example, was writing a statement about this waiting abortion time, which was also actually taken into account when writing the letters to the political parties. But I think in a lot of countries, youth are still not heard. I really hope that we can also always brainstorm about ideas, there are a lot of big abortion networks in Europe where we can also take part of as young people. So, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to let me know.
Hasini: Thank you, Lina. Our next panellist is Dana who is representing the Latin American region today. She will be talking about the regional context as well as the laws and policies on access and the right to safe abortion, which impacts young people in the Latin American region. Dana is a fellow member of the legal fraternity; she is an Argentinian lawyer, and she is dedicated to research and legal advocacy concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly in relation to issues on abortion. She works as a coordination assistant for the CLACAI Legal Network, the Latin American Consortium Against Unsafe Abortions, and she is also part of the coordinating committee of the Youth Network for Abortion Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Dana also has a presentation that she wishes to share with you.
Dana: Thank you, Hasini, and thank you all for joining us today. It’s a pleasure and an honour to be here and to get the chance to meet you all. My name is Dana. I am an Argentina lawyer, and I’m also part of the coordinating committee of the Youth Network for Abortion Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is the reason why I’m also part of the Coordinating Committee of YANAA, and that’s why I’m here.
Since this panel aims to dive into regional contexts and how law impacts on young people, I have organized my presentation into two main parts: in the first part, I will like to focus on a general overview of the regulatory framework on abortion across Latin American countries in particular, highlighting a few specific ones, as well as some major trends. This is particularly aimed at those who may be listening and are not familiar with the many changes the Latin American region experienced in the past decade. In the second part, I would like to discuss the impact of criminalizing abortion laws on young people, especially regarding an amicus brief, we as the Youth Network for Abortion Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean have submitted in the Beatrice versus El Salvador case, before the Latin-American Court of Human Rights.
So, let me move quickly to the first point. I believe our starting point should be as follows: traditionally, the movement toward liberalizing abortion laws began in the Global North. This trend started in Europe, and we can say that it started with the ground-breaking British law in 1979. And around that time, key rulings in the United States and Canada, such as Roe v. Wade and also R v. Morgentaler, also signalled a shift towards liberalization. So this green wave of progress in abortion laws and court decisions predominantly swept through the Europe and North America during the 70s, the 80s, the 90s. All these laws and all these court decisions share a common theme in that they move away from the model of complete criminalization of abortion or partial decriminalization with a specific ground to recognizing abortion on request, with variations in gestational limits. This can be quickly be seen by looking at this map developed by the center for Reproductive Rights [in PPT] in which you can see that most of the countries in the Global North are predominantly marked in green, indicating that they have allowed abortion on request since then.
But the truth is that, during all this process, during the 70s, the 80s and 90s, Latin America remained quite silent and inactive, for many years. It wasn’t until 2012 that Uruguay became the first country in the region to legalize abortion on request at the national level after two failed attempts to doing so in 2008 and 2011. Thus, Uruguay became, in 2012, the first country in the whole region to turn green. From that point on, the region has become very active in the active in the field of abortion. It has experienced a boom in law and regulations liberalizing abortion over the last decade. And look at this chart I quickly put together for this presentation; what you’re seeing here is the Latin America green wave of abortion liberalization laws. As I previously mentioned, it began in Uruguay with its abortion law in 2012. Then was followed by Chile in 2017, which decriminalized abortion on three grounds. Then Costa Rica decriminalized abortion in cases of sexual violence in 2019, and then we have Argentina in 2020 legalizing abortion up to the 14th week, following an earlier attempt in 2018. And finally, Ecuador joined in 2022 decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape. This green wave has been also been supported by judicial crucial judicial decisions. In 2014, Bolivia pluri-national constitutional court affirmed the constitutionality of abortion under certain circumstances and urging the state to effectively guarantee this legal abortion. There was also a serious decision by Mexico Supreme Court in 2021, recognizing abortion as a human right. And additionally, it’s worth mentioning the 2022 constitutional Colombian court decision, which decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. This actually represents the most extensive recessional limit for in our region. And finally, this year, the Federal Supreme Court of Brazil is currently considering the decriminalization of abortion up to the 12th week, and the president of the court has already expressed support for this decriminalized option.
So, as you can see, we are discussing significant normative changes in a dozen Latin American countries over the past decade, highlighting the dynamic evolution of abortion rights in this region. But I believe that rather than merely describing the current state of the general framework on abortion in Latin American countries, it will be more insightful to explore why this is happening. What is the driving force forces behind this green wave across Latin America and the Caribbean? In my opinion, I will say that the process of abortion legalization in Latin America can be attributed to two reasons. The reasons are intrinsically connected, but yet they are also distinguishable from each other. So the first reason is the paradigm shift in the regulation of abortion, which was reflected in an evolution from primarily considering abortion as a crime to recognizing it as a human right and as an essential health service.
I think that in Latin America what happened that is so particular and that characteristics Latin American region is that abortion became a topic consistently present on the public agenda, and it was defended in the public sphere. So, in other words, the issue of abortion emerged entirely from the closet, gaining democratic legitimacy despite the inevitable backlash that such pressure often generates.
The first reason why I think that Latin America experienced these dynamic changes in their abortion law regulations is that there has been a substantial shift in the way many Latin American countries have been moving away from the criminal paradigm of abortion. This criminal paradigm primarily treats abortion as a crime where only certain exceptions or instances are exempt from punishment are considered. This paradigm has been replaced by an understanding that abortion must be approached from two different perspectives. On the one hand, there is the human rights approach, which recognizes abortion as a human right and aligns it with international human rights protection standards and integrates a gender perspective, considerations of disability and intersectionality. I will elaborate on the aspect of intersectionality shortly when I discuss the case studies. The other is the health approach, which aims to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services within this framework, abortion is considered an essential health service that, when legalized, helps to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality.
To provide an example from Argentina, my home country, to illustrate this point, I would like to say that abortion as an essential health service was one of the most effective strategies in convincing legislators to pass abortion law here in Argentina. And this aligns with empirical evidence when we examine maternal deaths statistics focusing only on abortion related deaths, there was a remarkable decrease after abortion was legalized. The absolute number of maternal deaths from abortion has, in the second year following the decriminalization of abortion, dropped from 23 in 2020 to 13 in 2021. This example is backed by recent and specific data published by a national organization, the State and Society Studies Center, and it demonstrates how addressing abortion from a health perspective, rather than a criminal one can indeed save lives. This compelling evidence strongly advocates for the legalization of abortion in other countries in the region.
Let me move to the second major reason, about the impact of the public agenda. I would like to mention only the symbolic impact: in Latin America, the use of the green bandana, is a symbol of the right for abortion and in my opinion, has spread to all countries in the region. As an Argentinian, I must proudly say that the use of this bandana originated in Argentina back in 2006, during the national campaign for the abortion under the slogan “We want sexual education besids contraceptives to prevent abortion” and “Legal abortion to avoid dying”. Especially in the last five years, it has become a public symbol of the fight. It’s a very regional symbol, but it has been adapted to different local contexts by incorporating national slogans. And I think that illustrates this idea of the diversity of national slogans, and how a symbol can be adapted in different manners across countries. It started with the case of Colombia in the context of the ruling that I mentioned which decriminalised abortion up to the 25th week. Their green bandana represented the message “elimination of the crime of abortion” whose aim was to advocate for a framework that will decriminalize abortion entirely, like the model that and some states of Australia have now. While on the other hand, in El Salvador, which had absolute criminalisation of abortion, the bandana said “Beatrice wants to live and be happy. The restraint is the right to decide.” I will tell you more about this case in a moment. But as you can see, the point here is more control, that is to say, it seeks justice for a specific case of denial of abortion services to save a woman’s life. Finally, there’s Chile; following the enactment of the law that decriminalized abortion on free grounds, Chile starts using a bandana that said “Free grounds are not enough” and there was a need to move towards the models that recognize abortion on demand, such as Argentina, and Uruguay have done.
While all the things that I’m saying are true for most of the countries in Latin America and Caribbean, and this paradigm shift in abortion regulations and the legitimacy gained by the fight in public agenda help explain why many countries in the region progressed towards abortion legalization in the past few years., but it is also true that there is one region that falls behind and that is Central America, which is comprised of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. In this region, there are three countries – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Nicaragua that still completely criminalizes abortion altogether, whereas the others only allow it in case of very limited reasons related to health and life risk.
Then, there is a particularly important case that will allow me to illustrate the second point I wanted to discuss in my presentation, i.e., the impact of criminalizing abortion laws on young people in Latin American and Caribbean, which is the Beatrice versus El Salvador case. So let me give you some context for those who may not be familiar with this case. Beatrice, a young Salvadorian woman living in extreme poverty, in February 2013 was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and with fatal anencephaly with extrauterine immobility of the foetus. The medical committee recommended terminating the pregnancy to safeguard the health and life of Beatrice, however, due to the absolute prohibition of abortion in El Salvador, Beatrice was denied an abortion. pregnancy. After three months of struggle, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the state to take necessary measures to protect her life, health and personal integrity, and she underwent a C-section. After being forced to maintain her pregnancy throughout the all this period, Beatrice’s physical and emotional health was severely compromised.
So, based on this case, we, the Youth Network for Abortion Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, found it important to submit an amicus curia. This decision was grounded in our understanding of the rights violations, viewed through the lens of her being a young person living in a socially vulnerable situation. Our intervention also aimed to inform the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that criminalizing abortion violates the right to equality due to its disproportionate impact on young people. this is a point that the court had never addressed in an abortion case, and we said that we believe it is crucial for them to acknowledge it. It is worth mentioning that this was a process completely led by young people. It was written by the young female lawyers, myself and another Colombian lawyer, Maria Camila Cortez and was revealed by young members of the network and making it a beautiful example of our it of youth empowerment in action.
In short, the amicus curiae consisted of consists of two main parts. The first part emphasized normative standards that refers to this disproportionate impact on young people, and the second part focused on empirical studies examining the profiles of people facing criminalization of abortion services and how the faces of these people being criminalized are always those of young women. One of the documents we referenced in the amicus is the 2018 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I can share this docent with you later if you’re interested. But what it basically states is that within the framework of the concept of discrimination, that “Age is a characteristic that often intersects with discrimination on other grounds, adding a multiplying effect. Coupled with the structural and institutional barriers that youth also face, these multiple forms of discrimination prevent many young people from enjoying equal opportunities and substantive equality.” In this regard, specifically on the topic of abortion, the latest guidelines on the World Health Organization have highlighted that “when criminal prosecutions for abortion are carried out, they can disproportionately affect young unmarried women, as well as those facing financial difficulties and limited access to education.” As you can see, there’s a specific reference to young women as a group particularly affected by prosecution for abortion.
Delving deeper into this topic, it’s crucial to mention the case of Manuela vs. El Salvador. This case involved the criminalization of an obstetric event, which ultimately led to a conviction for aggravated homicide. Here in this case, the court describes Manuela as “a young women in a situation of poverty” and it concludes that “the convergence of age and poverty conditions effectively created a situation of greater vulnerability to the victim of particular discrimination for which the state of El Salvador was responsible.” In this context, we argued in the amicus that that the International Court of Human Rights has clearly already understood from intersectional approach that in matters of pregnancy and age, along with other factors such as the economic situation, brings about a situation of particular discrimination, greater vulnerability, and as seen in criminalization cases like that of Manuela. We also conducted a survey of societies, and having done on the profile of the people who were criminalized for abortion related offenses in Latin America, and this is where we came across a highly interesting data that vividly illustrates the impact of criminalization on the lives of young women. For example, in El Salvador, 80% of the total women who are prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide were young women under 30 years old. We’re talking about 109 women under 30 years old who are being prosecuted for abortion. This is also the case of Honduras, in which women being convicted for the abortion between 2006 and 2011 conclude that the victim of criminalization mostly shared a similar profile. They were often young women, unmarried women, students or domestic workers. Again, the research indicates that 81% of the cases of criminalization were those of young women aged between 18 and 29 years old. I can’t say this only happens in country with an absolutely ban of abortion on abortion, it is the same even in countries with partial decriminalization of abortion like Colombia or Argentina. In all of these, the situation is the same – the largest group of women who seek abortion are the young women, especially the ones that are less than 30 years old.
Finally, to conclude, I would like to emphasize that first, I think that it’s essential that the Inter-American court applies the Manuela vs. El Salvador doctrine to this case, specifically in recognizing age as a factor of discrimination. This will require the court to establish that this age was a factor, as opposed to an intersectional discrimination for which the state of Salvador is responsible. Second, there is a need for more quantitative data to profile those criminally prosecuted, particularly focused on age. Most importantly, this research has to show the specific reasons why young women are the most criminally prosecuted demographic. I believe youth network are the most spirited advocate for these studies.
Hasini: Thanks for the extremely comprehensive presentation. That is actually a deep dive into what’s happening in Latin America because we hear a lot about the continuous wins of the Green Movement, and the recent Mexico Supreme Court judgment from which I think judiciary all over the world can sort of draw a lot of learnings from in terms of the judicial attitude.
Shruti: I just wanted to say; Dana, you were asking if the context is different or similar in other regions; I think one of the major challenges that I would say we’ve had in India is around sex selection. A lot of literature exists which says that there is a conflation of abortion and sex selective abortion, and that’s also one of the reasons why the feminist movement is not as strong in India as it is in Latin America. I think it’s a huge barrier as well, because people think that all abortions are illegal which is not the case. The law is actually quite provider-centric, but it gives access to abortion within certain circumstances. But I think the historical context is such that even if a lot of young activists who are now talking about abortion as a right and that it should be in the control of the pregnant person, given the historical context, there are also some implications of that, even for young actors.
Pushpa: Adding to what Shruti just shared, the same thing applies here in Nepal as well. The feminists are divided into two groups when it comes to sex selection and abortion caused by sex selection. But we are yet to dive deeper into the structural causes of sex selection and why it is taking place. NGOs and other government stakeholders are more focused into, you know, banning sex selection rather than working on the structural issues of gender inequality. And another thing is people are also divided when it comes to abortion after second trimester or third trimester; people seem to agree on abortion rights if it’s only up to up to the first trimester. We are struggling with advocacy on this issue when it comes to abortion in Nepal. We are collectively doing lots of programs with health service providers and other stakeholders, so we are hopeful that one day everyone will realize that abortion is a human right, no matter when you do it.
Dana: Thank you, Pushpa; you mentioned quite an interesting thing that I would like to address. The thing that you mentioned about the late abortions – the abortions in the second and third trimester – are also a very critical topic in Latin America. It is important to mention this because even though in Latin America, the regulations and the laws are saluting human rights or including public health and understand that abortion is a human right and an essential service, they seem to apply that only to certain age, and after that, abortion is still a crime. We do have this criminal paradigm for second trimester or third trimester abortion. There’s a lot of stigma associated to those abortions, and I would say maybe it is something that connects our regions. We’re creating a series of documents about how to address late terms abortion; there was a document in Spanish that is going to be in English soon, and I can share it with you. That tells you about the profile of the women that have abortions in second and third trimesters. These are the cases that are less common; there are statistics that only 2 or 3 percent of abortions reach the late terms. We have to consider that when we talk about the people who talk about anti-rights, because they want to show us this image of the foetus, the five/six-month-old foetus. But when you do get to that instance, these are women that generally find themselves in huge disadvantage. They’re the ones that have less access to hospital, they’re poorer, that are marginalized, experiencing. And I think having that information is important to be able to guarantee late abortions.
I can’t talk about sex-selective abortion because this is not something that I have seen in Latin America, but I may be biased because of my country. Maybe I could hear from other colleagues in Latin America if they see that this is a problem in their countries.
Hasini: Thank you for taking the time to respond. I think we can move on to Shelani; she is our third and final speaker. Shelani is the Director of Programs at Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka. She is also a lawyer, and she’s someone who actually collaborates with various vulnerable and marginalized communities and youth to empower them. Among these communities, she has frequently worked with the deaf community, the apparel sector employees, and young persons in the grassroot levels of Sri Lanka. She has contributed as a technical advisory committee member on adolescent and youth health at the Family Health Bureau of the Ministry of Justice of Sri Lanka. She has represented Sri Lanka and Youth Advocacy Network at several regional and global platforms, including ICPD+20 summit, and she is also now preparing for the upcoming ICPD+30 summit. It’s lovely to have you here, Shelani.
I have a few questions that are particularly on the Asian context. I understand that the laws and policies are very different moving from one Asian country to another because we have the heavily colonized area of Asia on one hand and an entirely different political setting in another part of Asia. So, first let us go a little bit deeply into the restrictive laws on the access to abortion in the Asian region. Just a brief overview, but addressing on what laws and policies are there in the different countries in Asia that are restricting in terms of accessing to abortion?
Shelani: Yes. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here, to be speaking about safe abortion rights, so I think before I go into the laws, I would also like to contextualize it a little bit. According to the latest statistics, there are about 53.8 million unintended pregnancies that happens annually in Asia (we have to remember it is the most populous region in the world), and 65% of those – around 34-35 million – end in abortion. So that’s one thing that we have to keep in mind when we look at abortion in the region. So, if you look at in thousands, it is about 36 abortions per thousand married women. And if you take unmarried women, it’s 24 per thousand unmarried women.
Speaking of India does have a liberal abortion law, which might not really translate into the ground and into the practice, there are other socioeconomic practices that interferes with effective application the law, but the law exists. China also has a liberal abortion law. So if you look at the population, because these are the two most populous countries in the world, majority of women live in countries where abortion laws are liberal. However, when you really look at the reality that is not the case. For example, within the region, we have Philippines, Iraq and Lao PDR having absolute prohibitions on abortion. Philippines had the reproductive health law that was passed, a lot of very dynamic and youth centric governance and policies, however, in terms of abortion, Philippines just still remains as a very backward country. The state seems to be very, I would say, stubborn to change. We don’t have very many countries with abortion available on request, and the countries where it is available conditionally again has gestational limits and also when you translate it to the practice, it is often provider centric or provider dependent policy, like the law in India.
I would start from Sri Lanka, which is one of the most restrictive laws, I think, in the region where an abortion can be performed only if the life of the mother is in danger. There is no gestational limit as such. From data gathered from way back, we know that around 600-700 unsafe abortions or back-alley abortions happen per day in Sri Lanka. There again, I would like to highlight the problem of data, which is something very important for us to make informed decisions, policy to draft frameworks and to know what exactly happens in the ground level. When abortions are illegal, you cannot really gather data. I am pretty sure that is a problem with any country; although we know that women access abortions, like in Philippines, we know again that despite the restriction, misoprostol is prescribe for gastric ulcers and that is how women access misoprostol. So that’s where again, there is no proper healthcare supervision, which is something that they deserve as a right.
Then there are some other countries with restrictive abortion laws, but have good family planning policies and cultural setting that allows abortion to happen within that framework, like say, Bangladesh criminalizes abortion. but since the war of liberation that happened in 1972, menstrual regulation has been incorporated into their family planning program, and therefore, you can get an abortion as a way of menstrual regulation. There could be no prosecution, and that is a very interesting way to legally access abortion. But largely in the Asian region, abortion comes as something that is not available on request and has conditions. So, if you take again India, it’s penalized in the penal code, but there is an exception due to the socioeconomic reasons and all the other the population policies, India has a liberal abortion law that allows women to terminate pregnancies on conditions. If they want to terminate pregnancy below 12 weeks, they need one medical opinion and then from 12-20 weeks, they need medical opinions of two doctors which they will give in ‘good faith’. That is where the provider-dependency comes in, because the access to abortion is heavily dependent on the opinion of the doctors. I think I can I will come to that a little later when I discuss how that impedes the access to abortion severely when the value system of service providers does not necessarily align with the intention of women.
So, again, Indonesia used to be a country with very restrictive abortion law. They have legalised abortion till up to six weeks for medical emergency. If you do perform an abortion after that time period, that medical emergency should be known from the start of the pregnancy and to save the life of the mother, and the foetus has some sort of sickness that would not facilitate living after being born. So, one would think, how many women get to know that they are pregnant just at the six-week mark, in the context of availability of pregnancy testing? So, another thing that we have detected is when you look at the right to abortion, we have to also look at the other factors that allow women to detect the pregnancy, and the other socio-cultural factors. Like in countries like Iran, abortion is legal performance only for married women. So, if you are an unmarried woman in Iran, you can’t get an abortion. So again, this is one other very important thing that is that can be considered in the Asian context to access abortion or access family planning in particular. I know in Sri Lanka, even though on paper we have a policy where everyone – any woman who accesses or seeks family planning gets it – the biases and the value systems of the people who are working in the ground level have not been changed. It is difficult for unmarried women to access family planning, which leads to unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion.
I’m not going to discuss about Nepal in detail as Nepal is a country with, I would say, a progressive abortion law, but I think there are other structural barriers that are there. But I think it’s still a good model for us to look at when we approach abortion. I think that covers some of the restrictive laws and how sometimes, even if the law is not that restrictive, the socioeconomic factors restrict access.
Hasini: Thank you; that is very informative. I think you managed to go into a lot of Asian countries and show the diversity and disparity also in their laws and their approaches to access to safe abortion and contexts that are sometimes maybe peculiar or particular to the Asian context, such as marital status which also plays a role in these laws and policy and basic domains. Now that we’ve covered the restrictive aspect of the laws and policies, maybe you can tap into how some countries have been more forward and progressive than others in amending and making the laws less restrictive and more accessible? I would like to add on the question to you: since you talked about the medical-legal aspects, how possible it is, at least in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries, to sensitize the medical-legal fraternity, because like you said, in India, the opinion of the medical practitioner matters a lot, and there’s still debate about whether there is life or rights to a foetus, especially in light of the recent Indian Supreme Court decision where plea for abortion of a woman who was 24 weeks pregnant was declined merely based on a very literal interpretation of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act. It was overriding the woman’s mental health condition and giving a lot of importance to the viability of the foetus and the fear of affecting the rights of the foetus. So, how possible is it to sensitize the medical legal fraternity?
Shelani: I think I’ll probably start with the first part of the question to look at the progressive bits. So I was when I was originally organizing the content, I was going to put Indonesia as a progressive move – even though the change in the law does not really fit our ideal standard, it’s still an amendment that works towards a progressive path, and again, looking at the cultural and the religious context and the setting of Indonesia and the other changes that happened in the past year or so, and the tendency that we see generally in the region in cutting-off civic freedoms, that is a progressive sort-of law, but that happened in 2009.
Nepalese law was amended for the better in 2002. I’ll just lay it down: under 12 weeks, any woman can access abortion on request. Between 12 to 18 weeks, you can get abortion in case of rape or incest. So those are the legal grounds on which you can access abortion. So, consent of others is not a heavy thing if you are above 16, but again, the thing is, like Pushpa was also mentioning, the religious and the cultural barriers and the factors that affect the decision-making power of women, the autonomy of women all weigh in on their decision to access abortion. So even though the law in paper is great, there are other structural barriers for them to go through. So that has been a challenge. And I think in terms of judicial precedence, Nepal has been successful because I think the Lakshmi Dipta case established safe abortion as a fundamental right of Nepalese citizens. So, I think we all win from that. There was another petition calling for decriminalization of abortion as a whole and looking at abortion from a rights-based approach in 2022, but I couldn’t find a conclusion to that petition.
If you look at Sri Lanka, there have been progressive policies – not laws but policies – because again, Sri Lanka is a country with a heavy religious influence. All the decisions are being put before religious leaders before they get the seal of approval. And surprisingly, in many issues, the Buddhist clergy is who the main hurdle, but in issue of abortion, it has been the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka that is the main hurdle. Moreover, because of the very high rate of unsafe abortions in Sri Lanka and the simultaneous W.H.O. guidelines on post abortion care, Sri Lanka also introduced post abortion care in 2015, and it was updated in 2017. So technically a person who accessed an unsafe abortion and has complications can go to any government hospital and get post-abortion care without having any questions asked. That’s again, the policy. But when I checked very recently with two of my colleagues who are working in hospitals, there is now a practice again with certain hospitals where they report the patient to the judicial medical officer, which is not a requirement by law, but simply a practice that has come through within the medical community probably because of that moral panic they have when they see a patient coming with post-abortion complications and they kind of have that sense of need to have it recorded somewhere for later.
Hence, there are progressive amendments, but there are a lot of structural barriers that we have to look into more deeply as a precondition when we look at changing abortion laws. In Sri Lanka we have had several proposals, commission reports that proposed abortion law to be liberalized, which have been falling on deaf ears so countless times. Despite all of that, post-abortion care guidelines have been definitely improving the quality of life of women
In India as well, the amendments to the act also had some progressive changes. The last amendment did away with the requirement of the woman being married, and now anyone can. But again, like I was mentioning, the judicial stance on abortion sometimes can have a bigger impact, like how the entirety of the world went like it was a standstill when Roe v. Wade was overturned and it was, for some people, the wakeup call while for some it just became depressing, especially for people who are working on abortion, especially for countries like us who where we looked up to the US at the standard and wanted to work towards that. So, when the Supreme Court of the country gives a decision, it gives a signal towards the entire population.
Now, this judgment that I was mentioning where the woman who discovered that she was pregnant a large amount of time, I think 24 or 26 weeks, because she was postpartum, and had lacto-amenorrhoea where when the woman is lactating, she doesn’t menstruate. So, because of that, she didn’t discover that she was pregnant. So, by that time she was depressed that she had postpartum depression and she was struggling with it, and that is that is why she went to the Supreme Court to request for an abortion. But what was interesting to me was like, again, tying in with what Hasini said, she was going with right to her life and liberty, which is a fundamental right insured in the Indian Constitution. However, although she went for her life and her liberty, what was ultimately looked at first was the life of the foetus and the liberties of an unknown person. And the other thing is, the initial bench of two judges had decided in favour of the abortion, but I believe another doctor who was performing the abortion went to the court again, questioning the court’s decision, which made the case to be reopened before the Chief Justice in India, who then overturned the decision of the previous judges took.
The case went back and forth for quite a while, and we have to also remember that during this time, the pregnancy continued and which made it even more complicated for a termination. And also, when you look at time limits, like in India, how much time does it take for you to get the opinion of one doctor? And if that fails, if you go and get opinions of two doctors, and if it’s more, I think you have to go to the state level. How accessible, how efficient are these systems? And because it’s like a time bomb, the more you stay, the riskier it becomes for you. So again, these things you have to think about as well, and that is also where the legal professionals and the medical professionals need to be educated in a rights-based approach.
I would like to again refer back to a conversation that we have been having with Dr. Suchitra Dalvi, who is also a safe abortion rights activist and a practicing gynaecologist in Sri Lanka. One of the things that she was saying is the textbooks for the medical students, how ingrained patriarchal values are in the medical textbooks. And when you learn things in that value system, the product that comes out also has that value, and it’s really difficult for you to grasp the concept of bodily autonomy of women and that the right to take reproductive decisions is hers and hers alone. So again, education system, the curriculum has to change, and doctors need to be taught the law properly. The lawyers need to also be taught the clinical aspects of it properly, and how to really advocate for a person seeking abortion should the case go to the judiciary. And also in India, Public Interest Litigations (PIL) have changed the trajectory of a lot of decisions, but we don’t see that tendency a lot in countries like Sri Lanka, as it is criminalised. But in the in countries such as India where there is room to go, I think there needs to be more robust and more focused PILs. The lawyers have to make the case in front of the judges and make them understand all the aspects of the conversation so that there is another sort of discussion going on.
But my take and my main position or contribution to this discussion is that the medical professionals need to be sensitized in a rights-based and inclusive approach, and also on the law and vice versa, with the legal professionals.
Hasini: Thank you Shelani, I think that’s that marks a very crucial note to the discussion. Like you said, the various players that are involved in this whole agenda to realize the right to safe abortion as a human right, not just as something very restrictively allowed as and when the whims and fancies of the state aligns in favour of pregnant women other pregnant persons.
Q/A session on the second panel discussion:
Mel: I’m very happy to be able to hear about the different realities. I’m from Peru, I’m a psychologist, and I work with Planned Parenthood Global, and with the problems that we have in the country, I see that there are a lot of coinciding problems. And here in Peru, due to the movement for sexual rights, there’s a basis there of the awareness raising. Here in Peru, we have crossed 100 years since therapeutic abortion was approved, and there’s 11 causes, the last one is health. This leads us to the understanding of health as something comprehensive, but it’s difficult to apply. But when the movement supports landmark cases or public cases, this allows us allows healthcare professionals to not deny the decision from the medical board to carry out the abortion. So, I see this may not be happening in other countries. I also wanted to mention that Planned Parenthood Global is working on a model called ‘Look at Me’, and this misoprostol for menstrual delays. And we know that it exists in Bangladesh, so we wanted to ask the participants about whether this is something that you see in your realities. It would be interesting about to talk about how menstrual delays can allow us to access these regulations, and how difficult it can be to talk in a different way. We don’t always have to mention abortion. This is something that we question. We want to say the word abortion because it’s not a bad word, but we also have to work on the intercultural perspective. Abortion is ancestral. It’s a practice that used to happen for a long time without guilt. And this is something that we mentioned in The Green Wave, it’s the colonialism that brings in the guilt. I think colonialism at a global level has affected us in different ways. So that’s what I wanted to share.
Pushpa: I think Shalini had mentioned everything about abortion in Nepal, but I just wanted to correct a little bit about the current laws in Nepal. So, abortion was legalized in 2002. Before 2002, it was completely criminalized. And the law which Shelani mentioned was from the 11th amendment of the country code in 2002. And in 2018, we, we had a new act called Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Rights Act. And as per the current abortion law in Nepal, the pregnant person can have a person any time up to 12 weeks; they don’t have to specify any reason for that. And up to 28 weeks in case of in case of risk to physical and mental health because of the pregnancy, or if they are HIV positive, and if they have any chronic and serious health conditions, in case of rape and incest, and if there is any foetal abnormalities and so on. So, one-step progressive than the previous law but it’s also one step regressive and the previous because in previous law did not have any limitations when it comes to the health risk of the person when it comes to abortion, but now it has been limited up to 28 weeks.
Another thing I also wanted to add that we have been advocating for the self-managed abortion, but the medical service providers are very much against it because they do not want to lose their power to control women’s body and control abortion.
Hasini: Thank you for that. And I think there is a case that’s ongoing which seeks to kind of bridge the disparity between the Safe Motherhood Act and the criminalization of the law. So let’s hope that there’s a positive outcome from that decision.
Micaela: Hi, everyone, I am Micaela and I’m from Ecuador. I’m an attorney, but I’m also a feminist young woman. And as my colleague, I work in Planned Parenthood Global in Ecuador, and we have also had many achievements here regarding the right to abortion. And I’d like to share this with you, because I see that there are some things that are very similar. Here in Ecuador, abortion is legal to preserve life and health, meaning when the life or the health of the woman is at risk, since 1830. But this is information that is not disseminated, that is known and in Ecuador, women are criminalized for abortion, starting in 2014 with a new penal code. But before there was a more social thing that they weren’t putting women in jail for abortions, but in 2014, a health care professional started calling the police for abortion. So, what the law says is “risk to the life and health of the woman”, we could interpret comprehensive health as physical, mental and social health. So in that case, abortion would be legal in any case and for any cause, because health and life does not differentiate on the basis of the number of weeks. But given that we have a complemented context in Ecuador, we have the same reality that there is a very strong colonial thinking and a very strong position against abortion because of Catholicism and other very conservative religions that are anti-rights and anti-abortion. We had to fight for decriminalising abortion in case of rape, and that is one of the achievements in 2021. So now we have life and health as grounds, and rape. We tried to include non-binary identities, but the president vetoed this, so what worked in Ecuador is not to appeal to the parliamentary but the constitutional court. The Constitutional Court is the one that has been progressive in guaranteeing rights, I think this is something that happens in Latin America. Argentina is different because went through Parliament, but in other places in Latin America, constitutional courts have worked to protect rights.
The challenge is making health care professionals apply this; we in Ecuador do not have a conscientious objection, but people still object. And another thing to mention in Ecuador is that we still haven’t implemented the Look at Me plan, like in other places, that there is a knowledge of the indigenous communities and the Afro-descendant communities about abortion. Despite not talking about this openly in the community, the wise women know how to carry it out. So, I think it’s important maybe not to talk openly about abortion, but to talk to them about what they used to do ancestrally.
Hasini: Thank you so much. I think it is indeed a deep dive into the policies of different contexts and different regions of the globe, in terms of how they affect young people and a lot of discussion about how to improve the situation in terms of access to safe and abortion.
I will wrap up the session; thank you so much Shruti, for coordinating this meeting, calling for more participation and ensuring that speakers are representing all the regions in the world, truly making this a global platform. Thanks to all the speakers for being well prepared and sharing with us your insights from your experience and expertise. Thanks to the participants for participating and sharing, and bringing your regional and community contexts to the table as well. Thank you!
Carmina Christen [interpreter]
Mark Devon Maitim
Maria Luz Baretta