Mother’s Day (May 15)—an emotional date where millions of women celebrate giving birth and the joy of children. However, for one ten-year-old pregnant girl in Paraguay, this day was not one she was hoping to celebrate anytime soon.
I was born and raised in Paraguay, a highly conservative and religious country in the middle of South America which has recently garnered critical headlines for its treatment of this child who became pregnant after being repeatedly raped by her stepfather. The news, which shocked Paraguayan society and horrified the world, quickly went viral owing to the refusal of the Government of Paraguay to allow a termination of the approximately 23 week pregnancy. The stepfather, after going on the run, was arrested on 15 May, while the girl’s mother has been incarcerated for complicity, despite her having several times denounced the abuse of her daughter to local authorities.
According to the Minister of Health, Antonio Barrios, an abortion is out of the question since the pregnancy has passed 20 weeks. But this pregnancy – for a girl who weighs only 34 kilograms – represents an enormous risk to both her health and her life.
On May 18 a group of UN human rights experts accused Paraguay of failing to protect ‘the physical and mental’ health of the 10-year-old girl. But the Paraguayan foreign ministry rejected the charges and accused the UN experts of interfering without having sought the government’s views.
Paraguayan society has been shattered by this tragedy; the population is now intensely debating the legality and acceptability of abortion. By law, abortion is illegal in Paraguay, even in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal defect. But worse still are the official statistics regarding teenage birth—last year alone, 680 girls between the ages of 10 to 14 gave birth in what is quickly becoming one of the worst places in Latin America or the world to become a mother. Shockingly, at least two births per day are from girls under the age of 14. Most of these pregnancies were the result of sexual abuse and rape. Furthermore, according to data from the UN, girls aged 10 to 14 make up 2.13% of maternal deaths in Paraguay.
These appalling figures highlight not only the devastating conditions for women in Paraguay but also the abject failure of the state to protect and assist vulnerable citizens. While the WHO estimates that almost 20% of women suffer gender-based violence in the country, these numbers are likely to be severely underreported. Cases of sexual abuse are rarely prosecuted due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms and public trust in the justice system, and more often than not end in the criminalisation of the victim.
This failure of justice in Paraguay is the inevitable consequence of the lack of rational separation between church and state. In issues of legality and citizens’ rights, religious views often take precedence over the duties of the state. When religious ideology dominates the state, when dogma overrules morality and justice, the end result is extremism, no matter in which God one believes.
Although this case has forced Paraguayan society to discuss the issue of abortion – one camp in favour of protecting the life of the young girl, the other seeking adoption for the possible child while disregarding the health of the mother – there is a need to start a broader conversation regarding the situation of women and children. This case is not simply about abortion, it is about a legal system that punishes child molesters more leniently than cattle rustlers; it is about a society that to this day refuses to speak openly about supposedly ‘taboo’ sexual abuse; it is about the almost complete absence of sexual education and, where it does exist, the drastic limitations imposed on it by religious views; it is about a state that criminalises a mother seeking help and medical assistance for her daughter.
My views may not be widely shared in Paraguay – in fact I have been accused of lacking any humanity – but I cannot stop thinking about this pregnant girl who turns eleven this month. She should be given a doll for her birthday, but instead will soon hold a real baby in her arms while celebrating her first Mothers’ Day.