The pandemic hinders abortion rights in Colombia
Photo: Paola Figueroa/FOKUS

Publisert: 15.02.2021    Redigert: 15.02.2021

In Colombia, abortion was illegal until 2006. Then, an amendment was approved by the Colombian Constitutional Court to legalize it under three conditions. 1) If the life or health of the mother was at risk; 2) if the fetus had a malformation which would make life outside the uterus impossible; or 3) if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

However, women and girls who fall into these categories still face difficulties accessing their rights. When the economic, social and ecological emergency was declared by the Colombian government in March, a resolution addressing the priorities and restrictions in the country’s health services was declared, but access to abortion services was considered an essential health service.

Recent reports from FOKUS’ partners in Colombia La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres and Oriéntame identifies many obstacles in accessing abortion services which arose following the pandemic.

Abortion challenges augmented by the pandemic

The reports show that pre-existing challenges to abortion, especially administrative errors, increased following the pandemic. Many women and girls were redirected to other hospitals or medical centers further away from their home as their medical center was unable to ensure transportation. This made it challenging to attend their appointments.

La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres highlights that a key obstacle prior to the pandemic was lack of knowledge of the abortion framework by health personnel and the justice sector, as well as restrictive interpretations of the framework. Consequently, upon contacting their medical centers, women and girls were informed that it’s impossible to access this service due to measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.

In addition, application requests were not answered within adequate time due to the “new” digital system in the health sector – a system introduced to the Colombian health sector in 2010, which during the pandemic became the main approach despite not being fully operationalized.  

Challenges due to the pandemic

Economic difficulties and increased unemployment, as well as inadequate amount of information about ways to access health services, were among the challenges that followed the pandemic, and components which impacted access to abortion services.  

Though abortion services remain a priority for the Colombian Ministry of Health and Social Protection, they did not establish new guidelines to adapt the services to the new environment – resulting in reduced access. Oriéntame registered 830 less requests for abortion support from women and girls in 2020, in comparison to 2019.

The pandemic has resulted in increased unemployment and poverty in many countries worldwide, including Colombia. Oriéntame reports that they provided more economic benefits for women and girls in need of abortion services in 2020 than the year before. In 2019, 141 women and girls received benefits, in comparison to 214 women and girls in 2020. However, the number of women continuing with the procedure did not increase. This, according to Oriéntame, suggests that many were unable to cover the rest of the payments in relation to the procedure, due to being unemployed.

As a result of pandemic measures, digital appointments largely replaced physical appointments. However, many Colombian women and girls do not have access to internet or face poor internet connection. This, in turn, decreased women’s and girls’ access to health services, including important appointments and prescriptions. Furthermore, physical appointments became a challenge as public transportation decreased and ticket fares increased. Many women also fear being fined in public areas due to lock-down measures.

Civil society sparks optimism

Though the legal framework grants women and girls access to abortion under some circumstances, the obstacles are often many and complex. Moreover, for most women and girls, access to legal abortion is still a far-off reality.

Both La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres and Oriéntame pinpoint the urgent need for specific measures guaranteeing access to abortion services during the pandemic, clear information about how to access abortion services, and more effective and accessible communications tools.

Their call is backed up by activists and women’s groups across the country, who furthermore continue to demand access to abortion for all. In September 2020, the Colombian social movement “Causa Justa”, consisting of about 230 organizations and activists, jointly sent a demand to the Colombian Constitutional Court to decriminalize abortion. This demand has been approved by the Court for further discussion.

This sparks optimism for a future where Colombian women and girls can, freely and legally, decide over their own bodies and lives.

 

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