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The measures that the Colombian government has taken to contain the contagion by COVID-19, such as the national quarantine and the closing of borders, although necessary for the sanitary protection of citizens, may hinder the access of Colombian and Venezuelan women to services. essential for your sexual and reproductive health.
“In times of pandemic, women will continue to require services to access safe abortion, emergency contraception, and protection against sexual violence and abuse,” Selene Soto, a lawyer for the Women’s Link Worldwide organization in Bogotá, told Global Voices.
In Colombia, abortion is authorized on three grounds: serious malformation of the fetus, risk to the life and health of the woman, and rape. Despite the Court's rulings that protect this right, there are still information, social and economic barriers that prevent women and girls, particularly in poor and remote regions, from terminating pregnancy safely.
In addition, there is another risk. The Penal Code makes abortion a crime if it occurs (or if the procedure is interpreted) outside the three grounds. Therefore, in fear of being criminalized, many women, particularly the poorest and in rural regions end up undergoing unsafe abortions that put their health and lives at risk.
For Soto, “If health emergency policies and decrees are not designed within a human rights and gender perspective framework, many women will be left unprotected and at risk.”
Colombia is in national quarantine until April 13 and may be extended, as at the time of writing there are 798 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and it is still on the rise. The government only allows the mobility of people in certain exceptional cases, such as supplying food and resorting to health services, among others, but the right to sexual and reproductive health is not mentioned. Those who fail to comply with the mandatory quarantine isolation measures will be fined. They could also be penalized and go up to 8 years in prison.
“These exceptions should explicitly include services that allow maintaining and guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health,” says Selene Soto. “Not only access to abortion, but also anti-conception of emergency and access to health for women victims of sexual violence.”
For example, says Soto, if a woman in a remote region needs an abortion and it requires a transfer to a healthcare center in another city, this case will require administrative procedures and safe-conducts that cannot be managed in time. This situation directly impacts the possibility of terminating unwanted pregnancies and at the same time could push women to perform unsafe abortions, thus increasing their risk of mortality.
Although the figures are not clearly established, it is calculated that an average of 400,000 women in Colombia undergo clandestine abortions annually and around 70 women die each year from these procedures.
“It is necessary to guarantee permanence (the right to IVE) in this time of humanitarian emergency,” says Soto.
Venezuelan migrants would also be impacted
Despite the closure of the border, Venezuelan migrants desperate for conditions of extreme poverty and collapse of public health in their country continue to cross on foot, using trails and clandestine roads. This situation that goes beyond official control particularly exposes migrant women and girls to a situation of greater vulnerability due to the phenomenon of human trafficking and sexual violence.
“With greater lack of protection, more risk of contagion and without the health authorities exercising control of the situation at the border, women (migrants) will be more dangerous and will have much more difficulty accessing health services,” says Soto. Lack of protection includes pregnant and lactating women.
Even before the pandemic, with the presence of almost 2 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, there were already limitations in sexual and reproductive health services to meet the needs of migrant women. Many of them do not know their legal rights and protections and sometimes face barriers and mistreatment by health providers.