Lorena Gelis Palomino who lost her life because of an unsafe clandestine abortion in Barranquilla, Colombia is one of the many women who are the leading emblem behind Colombia’s most recent wave of feminism.
It’s targeting the decriminalization of abortion, spearheaded by the women’s rights organization Causa Justa. ‘Justicia para Lorena,’ chanted protesters dressed in green, the symbolic color for women’s rights in Latin America. Had Lorena lived, she could have faced criminal charges.
But because of a swift movement spanning across Latin America from Mexico to Argentina, things are changing. As of February 21st after hours of debate in the Constitutional Court, women in Colombia can no longer be criminally charged for receiving or providing an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
An estimated 70 women die each year in Colombia from a clandestine procedure, and around 400 are prosecuted, some under the age of 18. About 33 percent of abortions carried out each year see complications which can be life-threatening for the mother, as unsafe abortions are the fourth leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. Since 2006, women were only allowed to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances such as abuse, incest, non-consensual pregnancy, or when the life of the mother or child was in danger.
Over the years, the streets of Colombia have seen activists voicing their demands in decriminalizing abortion – to great avail. IMAGO spoke to María José González, also known as Chepa Beltran, and Ximena Rubio of Long Visual Press, a Colombia-based news and photo agency, about their work covering this movement.
Rubio photographs a range of topics, especially concerts, but she was drawn to these protests to show the strength and struggle that has carried on in Colombia over the years. “In the country, women die due to a bad abortion process and some can carry a penalty of up to 4 years if their cause is not among the 3 legal determinations by the government,” she says. Aside from high mortality, she adds that legalizing abortion would also be a huge step for women in Colombia because of its highly male-dominated society. “Being realistic, Colombia is one of the most male chauvinist and conservative countries that still exists, which is why this movement is a great hope for all women in the country,” she says in regards to the freedom of choice which decriminalizing abortion brings to women.
Beltran agrees, adding that “Colombia is a religious country – That in the first place is one of the barriers to the decriminalization of abortions, which took more than 500 days in the Constitutional Court. But I can highlight a few things that motivated women across Colombia as feminism and pro-choice movements helped women to find a voice against violence, male chauvinism, and a freedom of choice on their bodies,” she says.
Those who oppose the movement like in other countries such as Poland and The United States where a similar battle is being fought, typically base their grounds on religion. Best known as the ‘Provida’ movement, it is predominantly led by members of the Catholic Church in Colombia who believe that the life of a fetus is sacred. Another factor standing in the way are social pressures and intimidation, or when healthcare providers decline to perform the operation.
Regarding the demonstrations which have shaken Bogota, Beltran speaks on the importance of photographing the women behind this movement:
“I like to capture moments and people, and being able to capture what could be an historic moment for me is the most important achievement. With abortions it is the ability to show how women fight for their bodies and being able to decide for themselves.
Women in Colombia are united, you can see from teenagers to elders fighting for the same outcome. It is rare to see male photographers covering these demonstrations due to the awareness of a safe space separate from men, as violence against women is still a common problematic in the country. This encourages me and other women photographers to make a voice and tell the story of the women of Colombia. As an agency we at Long Visual Press also prioritize women photographers in these spaces, as the story needs to be told by the ones who live through it.”