RH Reality Check: Are Women's Rights on Obama's Agenda in Latin America?

By Luisa Cabal and Lilian Sepúlveda

For all of President Barack Obama’s pledges that he stands for universal human rights, the fundamental rights of women are likely to be left off the table when he visits leaders in Latin America this week. Indeed, Obama’s swing south includes stops to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador – countries whose governments have failed to fully address women's health, equality and empowerment as priority policy issues.  Despite these countries’ political and economic accomplishments, the sad fact is too many women in the region continue to be discriminated against, abused, and victimized by violence, because they are living in societies that fail to fully respect women's human rights.

Brazil is hailed as a leader and symbol of economic development, and yet the country is plagued with stark gender and racial inequalities.  A strong economy has helped Brazil to make great strides in reducing HIV transmission, poverty, and infant deaths, but the government has virtually ignored the disparities in the high numbers of women dying from pregnancy-related causes in the country.  According to the World Bank, Brazil’s maternal mortality ratio is 3 to 10 times higher than countries with comparable economic status. Quality public and private healthcare services are concentrated in wealthier states creating a system that discriminates against poor, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian women.

According to Brazil’s own health ministry, women of African descent are 50 percent more likely to die of obstetric-related causes than white women. That’s in large part because these communities receive less information about pregnancy, delivery and post-natal care of children, including signs of labor, importance of early breastfeeding and importance of prenatal examinations. The Brazilian government has acknowledged that 90 percent of maternal deaths in the country could be prevented, but is still not doing enough. The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently representing an Afro-Brazilian mother whose pregnant daughter died after a state clinic and hospital misdiagnosed her symptoms and denied her timely care.  Her death was entirely preventable, but Brazil has failed to prioritize maternal mortality.

Chile, which has been a poster child for political moderation, democratic progress and good governance since the transition from the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, continues to promote traditional patriarchal views on family life and gender relations that contradict the very notion of women fulfilling their human rights.  For example, in 2004 Chile became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce. Still, women’s reproductive autonomy is extremely limited.  Abortion is illegal under any circumstance in Chile, even in cases of rape or when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger.  And for the past decade, U.N. human rights committees have recommended that Chile loosen its abortion ban in order to comply with its human rights obligations, but the government has refused. 

Similarly, since 1998 El Salvador, the last stop on President Obama’s trip, has criminalized abortion on all grounds.  El Salvador’s restrictive abortion law contributes to its high maternal mortality ratio, more than twice the average in Latin America.  The government vigilantly enforces the ban, prosecuting women who have had abortions as murderers.  Reportedly, women who have miscarried have been prosecuted as well.  An example is the story of Marina, who had a miscarriage and in 2008 was condemned to 30 years in prison.  While in prison she was diagnosed with cancer, and died a year ago without having access to any medical treatment.

Women should not have to go through this pain, suffering and death.  A woman’s ability to make decisions about whether and when to have children and to access quality reproductive health services cut to the core of her basic well-being and place in the world.  History shows that when women and girls are healthy and have access to opportunity, societies are more just, economies are more likely to prosper, and governments are more likely to serve the needs of all their people.

The President has been a powerful voice for human rights, but he must remember that countless women in Latin America continue to be robbed of opportunities and freedom.

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