Ecuador: Indigenous Women Speak Out on Abortion Rights

Mujeres celebran la despenalización del aborto

FROM THE EDITORS: Patricia Yallico from ACAPANA hosts the show “Insurrectas,” a show posted regularly on their social media. We are featuring this conversation below with Paolina Vercoutere of the Otavalo people and Ana Cristina Vera of Surkuna, an organization that fights for women’s reproductive and access to abortion rights.

In April of 2021, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court voted 7-2 in favor of decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape. This occurred thanks to a mobilized “green wave” of women who have been fighting for the right to have abortions safely and legally for years. Women in Ecuador who undergo illegal abortions or suffer miscarriages (most of them poor, indigenous, and afro-Ecuadorian women), face up to 2 years in prison, according to a Human Rights Watch report. This issue is already hard to talk about for many, but more so for indigenous and afro-descendant women who have to deal with machismo in their communities and discrimination from the State and society at large. We leave you with this rich conversation.

SOURCE: ACAPANA, English subtitles and transcription by Awasqa.

Fuente: ACAPANA, subtitles in English by Awasqa

– PATRICIA: Do we indigenous women, do we have abortions?
– PAOLINA: We indigenous women have had, are having, and will continue to have abortions.

PATRICIA YALLICO: Abortion is a complex issue to talk about, for many reasons: political short-sightedness, the moralism of the inquisition, ignorance, and the most fraught with danger, structural machismo. In 2021, women still don’t have the right to decide over our own bodies. The church, backward education, and a large section of Congress insist on wanting to make decisions over our lives. But those of us who have clandestine abortions and are jailed for having clandestine abortions – Black, poor, campesino, marginalized women, and yes, indigenous women, we also have abortions – we are raped by priests, pastors, the police, an uncle, a cousin, a friend, a boyfriend. All of them rape us… and remain silent. But we won’t remain silent anymore. For today’s Insurrectas show, we are joined by Paolina Vercoutere of the Otavalo people, and Ana Cristina Vera of Surkuna. Welcome!

Ana Cris, what happened with women in Ecuador? What happened with the abortion rights process we’ve been going through for a while now?

ANA CRISTINA VERA: The Constitutional Court decided it was unconstitutional to criminalize and jail women and girls, or anyone who can become pregnant, victims of sexual violence. That is, for those who decide to end a pregnancy as a result of this violence. So abortion was decriminalized in cases of rape, which is great news because we’ll be able to guarantee the rights of victims and survivors of sexual violence, which had been denied historically.

I think it’s a great historical moment for Ecuador, allowing us also to ask ourselves: what comes next? This is a great, urgent step, but we need to keep organizing and fighting so that this specific legal procedure is made effective for all and in all territories. And for us to keep moving forward.

Our goal is full decriminalization of abortions and other issues as well, such as gender inequality, economic inequality, capitalism, patriarchy… the fight goes on.

PATRICIA: Paoli, do indigenous women, do we have abortions?

PAOLINA VERCOUTERE: We indigenous women have had, are having, and will continue to have abortions because it’s the reality we live in, just like any other women. We probably do it more quietly, perhaps it’s more taboo. We really don’t have any data on this, and that should be considered an issue of redress for us. We want to make it visible. Who are the most vulnerable and in precarious situations? It is often women who live double and triple discrimination because of economic exclusion, poverty, racism, and the machismo that is often deeply embedded in our communities. And many times, people use cultural issues to sugar-coat the pill and avoid discussion about all the violence present in our communities.

Through our facilitation process as a collective, we’ve had to admit, painfully, that we’ve seen many many cases of severe violence many times covered up by the ayllu [family], by the community. What we’re seeing in Ecuador is that we have a voice now, which will help indigenous, racialized, and afro-Ecuadorian women who are the most vulnerable as objects of this violence.

PATRICIA: If we say that abortion is a reality for indigenous, non-indigenous, campesino, black, and everyone else. Is abortion a crime?

ANA CRISTINA: Technically, women who have abortions can be criminalized in our country, unless it’s to save their lives, for health reasons. Or when becoming pregnant after sexual assault. This was only permissible for women with mental disabilities, although within the health causality, we could talk about many issues. We could talk about mental health, social health, amplifying wider public support for abortion.

There are still women who can be penalized for having an abortion, unfortunately in our country, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting against, against the criminalization of women. Although in our country many people socially do not agree with abortion, they don’t support sending women to jail either. And that’s what we need to uplift. Focusing on women’s right to freedom, so abortion is not seen as a crime.

We’re fighting against the stigmatization of women and those who decide to have an abortion, which is very damaging for women, whether they are prosecuted or not, by creating barriers to exercising their rights and the stigma generated against them. That’s what we’re hoping to change, to decriminalize abortion so that women who decide to have an abortion are not prosecuted for making decisions over their reproductive lives.

What’s worse, Paty, is that most women who are prosecuted, 70% of them are young, 100% of them are poor, with a large representation of indigenous and afro-Ecuadorian women. That means that there are specific populations affected by criminalization. None of the women I’ve defended have been middle or high class because poor women are the most affected by this issue and criminalized. Which I think is related to who is persecuted by the law, which bodies and lives are important, and which aren’t. And the criminalization of abortion has made that evident. Because women can have safe abortions, although illegally, if they can pay for them. So of course criminalization is tied to a lack of economic and social resources, like for teenagers, for example, who might be middle class but can’t afford to pay. The challenge is finding social justice for all women.

And as you mentioned, this is all reflected in the structure we live in: a patriarchal, colonial, capitalist system.

PATRICIA: Is it the system, then, that continues to condemn poor women and indigenous women?

ANA CRISTINA: Absolutely, that’s undeniable. It’s a systems-based problem that is used to oppress certain people and generate exclusions. I don’t think criminalizing abortion is tied to safeguarding life, rather is about controlling the population economically, politically, and morally. It’s about controlling specific populations. That’s what reality shows us. The criminalization of abortion is a strategy of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonization to impose itself on our bodies and our decisions. Authors like Silvia Federici are very useful to show us how the transition to capitalism required implementing mechanisms of control over reproduction. The criminalization of abortion, patriarchy, and capitalism, are closely, profoundly linked.

PATRICIA: Paoli, what about Provida? Is it a front for the Catholic Church, puritanism, or what?

PAOLINA: Well, we’ve had to deal with this double-morality culture for centuries now. We have in Latin America and Ecuador, on the one hand, a colonial society and a racist State. A State that rejects the expression of a diverse nation. A State that rejects the rights of difference, including cultural differences, that marginalizes half the population, that is, women, even more so racialized, indigenous, and afro-Ecuadorian women. We hear a very democratic state discourse, covered in gold but established on this morality, where some things are allowed and others aren’t.

So, for example, poverty and racism are tolerated. When we talk about racism, they tell us, “Get over it, stop being so bitter. Turn the page, it’s been 500 years, you should look forward.” When we can see the colonial State is still very much racist. It’s like a varnish that you scratch on it and it’s there, pulsing, and shapes relations. So yes, we are living a double discourse, a double standard, a puritanism that is under our skin, since abortion deals with women’s bodies. And that is something that doesn’t just happen here but it’s a worldwide issue. But I think that it is closely tied to other unspoken issues. Unspoken structural issues.

PATRICIA: Talking again about how your collective is providing support for women who had abortions in cases of rape. Are there any painful cases that have influenced the work you do?

PAOLINA: Right now we are supporting a very painful experience, the case of a girl, where we can see a lack of concretion of the plurinational state. There is a need for women to become more involved in communal justice, what is wrongly conceived as “indigenous justice,” because it often infringes on indigenous women and girls’ rights. So, for example, we had a very painful case of a child, because as you know, most cases of rape happen within family circles… What we see is that indigenous justice, actually, is not there for us, doesn’t consider us as equals. It revictimizes us and doesn’t guarantee any restitutions. Meanwhile, standard justice is racist, doesn’t listen, is cruelly deaf to our pleas, deaf to women who don’t speak Spanish well, who are poor and lack [health] access.

That’s our great dilemma. Neither justice system listens to us nor gives redress. And that’s exactly what we’re demanding and trying to make visible, so that we can help crystalize communal indigenous justice. Our rights as women should be respected and guaranteed, with restitutions, but not to detriment of our collective rights.

PATRICIA: Ana Cris, I hope to part with this idea people have that because abortion in cases of rape is now legal that it applies to all. That we’re all going go out and have an abortion. What does it mean to have an abortion? What does it involve?

ANA CRISTINA: It’s very important to make visible what we women go through during an abortion, in order for people to understand it better. When a woman goes through an unwanted pregnancy, any decision about it is extremely difficult. The decision, for example, to follow through with a pregnancy, even when it was forced upon her through sexual violence, or to opt for adoption or abortion. I think it’s a misconception to think everyone will go out to have an abortion. That we have abortion parties.

The decision to have an abortion is extremely complicated because it originates from an un-wished for, an unwanted pregnancy. It requires women to think about it thoroughly, to have the ability to think and rethink our lives, which influences this definite decision. It’s crucial to understand that it’s women who need to make that decision. First, because we have the greatest clarity about our lives, knowing that is not easy to make a decision about abortion but rather very complex because it comes from this imposition. What we deserve from society is trust. Trust that we won’t lie about sexual violence, which is one of the greatest aberrations and stereotypes. Trust in our full abilities to make decisions about our lives. We need society to stop treating us like objects of reproduction, and recognize us instead as subjects of the law.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. If you listen to many objections to abortion, like it will be widespread, they show an absolute distrust in women. In women’s capabilities to act, to decide, to control their sexuality, to control their lives, which doesn’t have a basis on what women are or experience in reality. So I think we need to demystify these stereotypes about us, our decisions, our sexuality. And generate spaces where we can reflect upon what we’re asking, at a minimum, which is the possibility of making decisions about an issue that will mark the rest of our lives. Because we’re the ones who become pregnant, are caregivers, and give birth.

PAOLINA: It is evident that, as Ana was saying, in the collective social imagination, people think we’re all going to have abortions, that we’re out of control, and other epithets used, other labels and adjectives used against us. Not just today but for centuries.

That’s the great challenge we have before us: implementing the law, to help indigenous and afro-Ecuadorian women not feel afraid go to health centers. How to deal with the racism that still exists in health centers. All of those are challenges that our society needs to face. Implementation of the law is key to this conversation. We can’t say, “Oh, how great to have this now” if we’re still afraid of going to rural health clinics, in particular indigenous women. Are we going to feel ashamed still when asking for contraceptives? Because sexual education is still only mostly accessible to men. It’s more accepted for them to ask for condoms or other methods. When we have those conversations with women who work at these health clinics, they tell us that yes, indeed, it is very difficult for women to visit. More so now during the pandemic when mobility has become limited, therefore, they have limited access to contraceptives.

There are too many barriers to access to contraception methods. Worst still, imagine accessing something as taboo as abortion in cases of rape, let’s not say, for other reasons. Sexual education is definitely a whole issue we need to deal with that goes beyond talking about reproductive systems, but talking about the day-to-day issues. About how in public health systems women should have access to practices reclaimed by indigenous midwives, for example. Which is really about the plurinational state we would like to build. There’s absolute silence in our organizations about these issues, about the day-to-day issues that affect our bodies. I have asked, and they say that doesn’t exist. Gay and lesbians, that doesn’t exist in indigenous populations. Abortion doesn’t happen; we live in a bubble. “Everything’s normal…”

PATRICIA: “You are crazy…”

PAOLINA: “Things are just splendid the way they are.”

PATRICIA: And now we’re not just “crazy” and “whores” but “abortionists.”

Thank you, Pao, Ana Cris. Congress rejected the court’s decision. Why is it so hard for the State to understand the need for free, safe, and free of charge access to abortions?

ANA CRISTINA: Well, I think it’s hard because it requires dismantling the patriarchal, capitalist State, which subjugates women into a submissive state before men. There is a fundamental structural issue where we need to be prepared to respond to this mandate. Our reproduction serves a utilitarian purpose to the State. When they need more people, they push for reproduction, reproduction is free… But when less
people are needed, we need to use contraceptives or resort to limited abortions.

There is a State interest in our reproduction, which includes a private interest from the male head of a household. That’s why it’s so hard to understand this issue, and it’s so hard to grant rights. The nation-state is fundamentally structured on the subjugation of women within family spheres, in order to keep regenerating these power relations. Controlling reproduction, thus, becomes fundamental to this issue. It’s also hard to understand the way the State was built on a concept of women with a limited understanding of our reality. We are conceived as beings without certain capabilities as we should be afraid of our abilities. That construct is the one questioning the autonomy of our bodies and the right to demand deep structural sociocultural changes to have the power of decision over our reproduction instead of the State, instead of men or other people.

PATRICIA: I think men believe we still need to ask for permission, permission to pick up their dirty underwear, permission to speak, permission from the State because I was raped and want an abortion. We always have to ask permission from the masters, the husband, the State. Women are always asking for permission to do, to be, to exist.

Paoli, why is it so hard for our indigenous, afro-Ecuadorian, campesino men to understand abortion and sexual education? Moreover, and we can talk about it later, sexual and gender diversity. What have you experienced in the years of work as a collective? What’s going on?

PAOLINA: I think there is a lot more silence in our cultures. Community takes precedence. In all our political mobilizations and organizational processes, other agenda takes precedence, such as ethnic [rights] over existing inequalities between men and women.

I do think there is a double standard, hypocrisy even, because they use different reasonings that have to do with parity and complementarity, which are indeed present in our language, and other spaces, such as the economy. But they are completely absent in political participation or the control of our bodies. So I do think there’s a double-standard and a lack of… When colonialism began, we were dispossessed of our parity spaces with our men, both politically as well as life-sustaining. That’s when women lost our voices, when the hegemony of our men was instated. We all need to have this discussion, including men, to stop romanticizing how others see us, which is of course an easier thing to do. But I do think it’s important to take our voices back, our own cultural models and logic to build our own feminism based on that sense of parity.

PATRICIA: How can we conclude, Ana Cris?

ANA CRISTINA: We need to keep fighting for this right, which at a low-level grants women access to abortion in cases of rape, for full access, without restrictions. And organize to keep making advances. Women have gained rights through struggle, nothing was given freely to us. We need to organize to keep fighting for full decriminalization of abortion, one of our main objectives, but also for a more equitable world, for all of us. A world free of capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and heterosexism. That is the road ahead of us.

PATRICIA: What about for our indigenous, campesino, afro organizations Paoli?

PAOLINA: We’re talking about the Warmi Pacha, or time for women’s equality. I think we need to be watchful of all spaces, together with feminists, but also within our own organizational and political spaces. And we need to insert these issues on the agenda. We need to watch for the implementation and break structural barriers of a colonial racist state, which still manifests itself in its public policies in a violent racist way for racialized women. We need indigenous and afro-Ecuadorian women to freely access these rights. We need to burst our way in, speak out, and become politicized. If not now, when? We can’t let our guards down so that our demands are met. We need to talk about the issue of
constitutional parity, push for a more equitable world between each other and with nature.

PATRICIA: Thank you so much, my friends. I’m sending you loads of hugs. We’ll keep finding each other on the streets and in the struggle, in these virtual spaces that also weave our path. Thank you for your time.

PAOLINA: Thank you, see you on the streets and in the struggle.

ANA CRISTINA: Thank you, hugs to all.

Patricia Yallico

Patricia Yallico

Productora-directora audiovisual. Fundadora de ACAPANA.

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