The attack on a 13-year-old girl in Venezuela and the arrest of her mother and a teacher who helped her terminate her pregnancy forced a national debate on legalizing abortion.
MÉRIDA, Venezuela – She was wearing a tail and a red T-shirt, and the words “Glitter Girl” were outlined in front.
Taking her mother by the hand, she spoke softly, describing how the economic crisis in Venezuela forced her to drop out of school, and then a neighborhood predator raped her at least six times and threatened to harm her family if she spoke up. At only 13 years old, she became pregnant.
With her mother, she sought out a doctor who told her that her pregnancy was life-threatening, and then a former teacher who was giving pills that caused an abortion.
But abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances in Venezuela. And now the girl was speaking, she said, because her teacher Vannesa Rosales was in jail, she was threatened with more than ten years in prison for helping to terminate a pregnancy – while the accused rapist remained at large.
“Every day I pray to God that she is released, that there is justice and that she is imprisoned,” the girl told the New York Times.
The case was published in Venezuela locally i international The press earlier this year became a revolt by women’s rights activists, who say it shows the way the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis has taken away the protection of young women and girls. (The Times does not identify the girl because she is a minor.)
The country’s decline, chaired by President Nicolás Maduro and exacerbated by US sanctions, has crippled schools, closed community programs, sent millions of parents abroad and eviscerated the justice system, leaving many vulnerable to violent actors flourishing amid impunity.
But the attack on the girl and the arrest of Ms Rosales have also become a cry for activists who say it is time for Venezuela to seriously discuss further legalization of abortion, an issue they argue is now more important than ever.
In January, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly under the control of Maduro, Jorge Rodríguez, surprised many by saying that at least open to discussion on that issue.
Earth criminal law, dating back to the 1800s, criminalizes abortion in almost all cases, with penalties ranging from six months to two years for pregnant women and one to almost three years for abortion providers.
The exception allows doctors to abort “to save lives” pregnant women.
But to achieve a legal abortion, a girl or woman must first find a doctor who will diagnose her with a specific life-threatening condition, said Dr. Jairo Fuenmayor, president of the country’s gynecological society, and then her case should be reviewed before the hospital’s ethics committee.
The process is “cumbersome,” he said, and there are “very few” women going through it.
A thirteen-year-old girl may have been entitled to a rare legal abortion, but the procedure is so rarely published, and there are so few doctors who will approve it, that neither she nor her mother knew they could seek it.
Some women believe that simply initiating a problem with a doctor will bring them into the hands of the police.
Activists hope anger over the 13-year-old’s case, combined with regional changes, will force a shift. In December, Argentina, one of Venezuela’s ideological allies, became the largest country in Latin America to legalize abortion, raising debate on the issue in a region that has long had some of the strictest abortion laws in the world.
“We can ride the wave of triumph in Argentina,” said Gioconda Espina, a longtime Venezuelan women’s rights activist.
However, legalization is far from inevitable.
Venezuela is a deeply Catholic country, and many on both sides of the political aisle reject the idea of abortion, even in the midst of a crisis.
“Abortion is something that people naturally or instinctively reject,” said Christine de Vollmer, a Venezuelan activist who opposes the procedure. Venezuela may be “chaotic,” she said, but “I don’t think the idea will catch on.”
Hugo Chávez, who started a socialist-inspired revolution in the country in 1999, never took a firm stand on abortion, but often asked feminist activists – many of whom supported the right to abortion and its purpose – to put their larger political movement ahead. own requirements.
But many abortion rights activists, bored with Mr Chávez’s successor, Mr Maduro, coping with the crisis, say they have had enough of waiting.
In talks with government officials, they tried to set legalization as a matter of social justice, in line with the government’s alleged socialist goals.
Mérida is a culturally conservative, mountain town where the 13-year-old lives with her mother and most of her seven siblings. Her father died when he was hit by a stray bullet in 2016, according to her mother. The family mostly lives off remittances sent by the girl’s older sister, who lives in neighboring Colombia.
“We eat very little,” the girl’s mother said.
Their social life revolves around the church they attend on Wednesdays and Sundays.
After the neighborhood school closed two years ago, Ms. Rosales, 31, one of her teachers, remained a pillar of the community, entering meal delivery, workshops, and emotional support as government services declined.
In October, the girl told her mother that she had been sexually abused several times and that she had stopped menstruating. Her mother brought her to Ms. Rosales, a women’s rights activist who knew how to access misoprostol, a drug used around the world to induce abortions, in many places.
“I don’t regret what I did,” said the girl’s mother, who is not named by The Times to protect the girl’s identity. “Any other mother would do the same.”
Ms. Rosales said she handed over the pills and that the girl had ended her pregnancy. A day later, her mother went to the police to report the attacks.
But the police started questioning the mother, discovered the abortion and instead instructed them to take them to the teacher.
Prior to the economic crisis, attorneys across the country followed an informal policy in which they decided not to charge women who completed pregnancies or those who helped them, said Zair Mundaray, a former senior prosecutor, explaining that the prosecution could criminalize victims.
But many of those prosecutors, including Mr Mundaray, have fled the country in fear of political persecution, and the deal appears to have fallen apart, he said.
Local police representatives and prosecutors did not respond to requests for interviews.
Until December, Ms. Rosales was in police custody for two months, sleeping on the floor in a cell with more than a dozen other women, including one time and the girl’s mother, who was also arrested and held for three weeks.
Ms. Rosales soon heard from her lawyers that she would be charged not only with enabling abortion, but also with conspiracy to commit a crime, which could put her in jail for more than a decade.
One day that month, Ms. Rosales’ girlfriend, Irina Escobar, and a group of supporters were sitting in front of the state courtroom, where Ms. Rosales was due to have her first hearing.
The judge could dismiss the case or let Ms. Rosales await trial at home.
On the street, Mrs. Escobar paced for hours. She knew that people sometimes disappeared for months or years in the Venezuelan justice system, and she worried that her partner would do the same.
Ms. Rosales’ lawyer, Venus Faddoul, left the courthouse. There is no hearing today, she said. And it would probably be last week before the judge took over the case.
Mrs. Escobar collapsed, swallowed with rage and anxiety. Soon she was shaking violently and struggling to breathe.
“We are powerless,” she cried.
In January, Ms. Faddoul, along with other activists, decided to make the case public. The story caused so much Internet rudeness that Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab, switched to Twitter to clarify that he had issued an arrest warrant for the accused rapist.
Authorities in Merida soon released Ms. Rosales awaiting trial under house arrest.
Abortion activists last month met for hours with Mr. Rodríguez, the president of the National Assembly, where, among other ideas, they proposed an amendment to the penal code.
The influential association of Catholic bishops in the country responded with letter begging the country to adhere to the status quo.
Powerful international organizations, the association said, have tried to legalize abortion “by appealing to false concepts of modernity, inventing” new human rights “and justifying policies that run counter to God’s designs.”
Ms. Rosales is still in a legal situation. Six months after her arrest, she has not yet had her first day in court. The accused is still at large.
“This crosses the border of an unscrupulous state,” she said. “This is a state that is actively working against women.”