MarÃa del Carmen is a girl from TucumÃ¡n who, at the age of 19, has already had five children with a man 18 years older than herself. However, she was not in the news for her stolen puberty, her prematurely aged body or the situation of chronic abuse she lives in. She appeared on TV and in the newspapers because her eldest daughter, born 6 years ago with cerebral palsy, had just died of malnutrition. Besides, two of her other children were severely undernourished and hospitalized. Moreover, all this has raised suspicion around her: “But, do you actually look after your children?” Both journalists and public opinion seemed to be shocked that all she could do was to keep reproducing her own destitution. This was the first of a long and painful series of mourning mothers upon whose dying children public attention was focused for a few days.
Destitute or not, a growing number of young girls and teenagers live in such conditions in Argentina. It is estimated that, each year, 3,400 children are born to mothers whose age ranges from 9 to 14 years old. The men behind these pregnancies are between 10 and 20 years older than the girls. This is an old practice; the consciousness that labels these relationships as abusive is quite recent and is struggling to break through heavy obstacles.
It is no secret that early motherhood, as well as a gap of less than two years between births, even in adult women, entails a risk for both mother and child. However, both children and teenagers are subject to the current reproduction policies, whose consequences turn out to be more and more fatal as one goes lower in the social scale.
It was not until the past October 30th that a National Reproductive Health Act was passed. Its national scope is of the utmost importance, since, to date, only the cities of Buenos Aires, Rosario and 13 provincial governments have implemented reproductive awareness programmes, known as â€œprogramas de procreaciÃ³n responsableâ€. For the first time ever an official budget was approved to impart sexual education and distribute free non-abortive contraceptives in health centers. Nonetheless, church pressure has crippled the act in the eyes of the womenâ€™s groups that had presented and endorsed it. Article 4 encloses the act “within the framework for the regulation of custody rights and dutiesâ€, which could deprive minor girls of its benefits. What custody framework would Maria del Carmen fall under? That of her missing family of origin? That of the man who keeps making her pregnant since she was 12? By Article 9, private institutions are exempt from complying with Article 6, which enforces the distribution of contraceptives on demand. Besides, the enumeration of contraceptive methods was removed from the text of that section, which can fully neutralize its sense since all the methods, except for the Billing, are equally abortifacient as far as the Church is concerned. And the act still has to go through an instance called “Mesa del DiÃ¡logo”, or debating table, where it can be further pruned.
From its beginnings, the act lacked the support of some feminist sectors that did not accept that an act of this nature should fail to include right to abortion. Illegal abortions account for 30% of maternal deaths in Argentina, which are estimated to be some 35 per 100.000 live births, with an under-reporting of 50%, according to official data from the year 2000. It is estimated that approximately 500.000 illegal abortions are performed every year, nearly 500 of them result in death due to widespread infection. Women who are hospitalized for post abortion complications occupy one third of public hospital beds. While this takes place in Argentina, in several developed countries abortion pills that eliminate all surgery related risks of abortion are found on the market. The fact is that in Argentina not even the non-punishable cases of abortion established by the law in extreme cases are observed. Proof of this is the succession of anencephalic pregnancies since 2001, where pregnant women have been denied the right to have a therapeutic abortion.
Original Title: En Nombre de la Vida
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique (ediciÃ³n Cono Sur), January, 2003
Translation: Marcela Serra
Proofreading: Maria Fernandez and Jain Alkorta