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Opinion | How the ‘Green Wave’ Movement Did the Unthinkable in Latin America

Equally important as legal action has been the movement’s efforts to break the stigma against abortion and help people understand the realities women and girls face when they’re forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. In 2016, Planned Parenthood Global and others began the Niñas, No Madres (Girls, Not Mothers) campaign to inform and engage the public about the consequences of sexual violence and forced motherhood for young girls. In Bolivia, the recent case of an 11-year-old raped by her 61-year-old step-grandfather and forced to carry the pregnancy to term has reopened this debate.

For years, stories of mostly poor women and girls facing criminal charges and putting their health and lives at risk because of the lack of access to safe abortion services went unheard. Research by Human Rights Watch and other groups has shown that criminalizing abortion does not eliminate it, but rather drives people to resort to unsafe procedures that endanger their lives. It also exacerbates inequality and discrimination. Many, particularly those who live in poverty or in rural areas, resort to unsafe self-induced abortions or seek assistance from untrained providers. The abortion rate is higher in countries that restrict abortion access than in those that do not.

Along with grass-roots mobilizations to apply pressure from the bottom up, the movement has enlisted notable women to promote its cause. In 2018, more than 250 Argentine actors and writers signed a letter calling on Congress to decriminalize abortion. The issue took hold as a campaign topic when Alberto Fernández, who was then a presidential candidate, promised to submit a bill to Congress decriminalizing abortion. Under concerted pressure from the Green Wave movement, a bill to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy was passed in December 2020.

The solidarity of the Green Wave has helped break down stigma and raise awareness around women’s and girls’ rights, and has influenced policymakers to place reproductive autonomy and gender justice at the core of this political and legal debate. In moves that might have been unthinkable a decade ago, Chile’s Congress is debating the decriminalization of abortion up to 14 weeks, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court is hearing a case that could effectively decriminalize abortion by removing it from the country’s penal code.

Big challenges remain in Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, as well as in other Latin American countries where abortion is not yet legal. But the sisterhood of the Green Wave is and will be the movement’s strength. It has taught us that organization and collaboration are what fuels successful demands for women’s rights.

Ximena Casas is the women’s rights researcher for the Americas region at Human Rights Watch. She previously worked to advance the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights of Latin American women at Planned Parenthood Global and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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