Are Women’s Rights on Agenda in Latin America?

For all of President Barack Obama’s pledges that he stands for universal human rights, the fundamental rights of women are likely to be left off the table when he visits leaders in Latin America this week. Indeed, Obama’s swing south includes stops to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador – countries whose governments have failed to fully address women’s health, equality and empowerment as priority policy issues.  Despite these countries’ political and economic accomplishments, the sad fact is too many women in the region continue to be discriminated against, abused, and victimized by violence, because they are living in societies that fail to fully respect women’s human rights.

Brazil is hailed as a leader and symbol of economic development, and yet the country is plagued with stark gender and racial inequalities.  A strong economy has helped Brazil to make great strides in reducing HIV transmission, poverty, and infant deaths, but the government has virtually ignored the disparities in the high numbers of women dying from pregnancy-related causes in the country.  According to the World Bank, Brazil’s maternal mortality ratio is 3 to 10 times higher than countries with comparable economic status. Quality public and private healthcare services are concentrated in wealthier states creating a system that discriminates against poor, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian women.

According to Brazil’s own health ministry, women of African descent are 50 percent more likely to die of obstetric-related causes than white women. That’s in large part because these communities receive less information about pregnancy, delivery and post-natal care of children, including signs of labor, importance of early breastfeeding and importance of prenatal examinations. The Brazilian government has acknowledged that 90 percent of maternal deaths in the country could be prevented, but is still not doing enough. The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently representing an Afro-Brazilian mother whose pregnant daughter died after a state clinic and hospital misdiagnosed her symptoms and denied her timely care.  Her death was entirely preventable, but Brazil has failed to prioritize maternal mortality.

Chile, which has been a poster child for political moderation, democratic progress and good governance since the transition from the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, continues to promote traditional patriarchal views on family life and gender relations that contradict the very notion of women fulfilling their human rights.  For example, in 2004 Chile became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce. Still, women’s reproductive autonomy is extremely limited.  Abortion is illegal under any circumstance in Chile, even in cases of rape or when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger.  And for the past decade, U.N. human rights committees have recommended that Chile loosen its abortion ban in order to comply with its human rights obligations, but the government has refused. 

Similarly, since 1998 El Salvador, the last stop on President Obama’s trip, has criminalized abortion on all grounds.  El Salvador’s restrictive abortion law contributes to its high maternal mortality ratio, more than twice the average in Latin America.  The government vigilantly enforces the ban, prosecuting women who have had abortions as murderers.  Reportedly, women who have miscarried have been prosecuted as well.  An example is the story of Marina, who had a miscarriage and in 2008 was condemned to 30 years in prison.  While in prison she was diagnosed with cancer, and died a year ago without having access to any medical treatment.

Women should not have to go through this pain, suffering and death.  A woman’s ability to make decisions about whether and when to have children and to access quality reproductive health services cut to the core of her basic well-being and place in the world.  History shows that when women and girls are healthy and have access to opportunity, societies are more just, economies are more likely to prosper, and governments are more likely to serve the needs of all their people.

The President has been a powerful voice for human rights, but he must remember that countless women in Latin America continue to be robbed of opportunities and freedom.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • kirsten-sherk

    Lilian and Luisa are right on — I have been thinking the very same things about Obama’s trip. I would also add that abortion in Brazil is also highly restricted (tho not banned as in El Salvador or Chile), and as a result, clandestine abortion has been a serious contributor to pregnancy-related deaths and injuries, with the burden falling particularly on poor women and women of African descent. Approximately 1 million women seek illegal abortions each year, and 1/5th of these women will require treatment for complications. 


    For a look at how El Salvador’s abortion ban plays out, there is this article from the Times.

  • beatriz-galli

    Despite recently election of the first woman President, Brazil does not fully recognize women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy. Its very restrictive law on abortion leave women with no choice. Almost 230.000 hospitalizations per year are related to unsafe abortion’s complications. Yet, women prosecuted for abortion suffer different levels of stigma in their families, health services and communities. Obama’s visit offers the opportunity to open the dialogue to improve women’s health and rights in the region.

  • saltyc

    Luisa, Lilian, Beatriz and Kirsten,

    You are right on. Brazilian society is massively hypocritical when it comes to sex. One the one hand they act like they’re so free and liberated  about sex just because they have lots of it, start young, never stop, nudity on TV, horny horny yada yada. But mention any complication around women’s sexuality such as maternal mortality and abortion, and watch them clam up like uptight prudes.

    And I am Brazilian so I can say that.


  • beenthere72

    He hasn’t made a peep about the war on women here in the U.S., why would he address it abroad?

  • arekushieru

    But mention any complication around women’s sexuality such as maternal mortality and abortion, and watch them clam up like uptight prudes.

    Salty, while I try to keep discrete interests separate, right now I’m hoping that you’re wrong in one particular person’s (someone whom I thought might be you, at one point) case.  I’m currently talking to another woman who’s originally from Brazil on a different forum.  She now lives in the Netherlands. But the reason for my hope being that she has stated that it takes more than DNA to make a human being (while I’m aware that doesn’t necessarily prove anything, it does make for a stark contrast to antis normal position that anything with two pairs of chromosomes must be a human being).

  • saltyc

    there are plenty of genuinely open-minded Brazilians, many of them in my life for instance. The real root of the problem, IMHO, is the Catholic church. Somehow, Brazilians have broken free from the morals of the Catholic church when it comes to sex for pleasure, sex outside of marriage, birth control, AIDS, condoms, etc. But one of the sticking points, among others, is reproductive rights. It is a damn shame that Brazilian women are subject to one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, while enjoying (from what I gather) pretty good heakthcare and a growing economy. And even knowing  that it’s so much easier to die from pregnancy, especially if you’re African-Brazilian, and still not allowing for abortion?? It boggles the mind, this is a severe blindspot in the Brazilian sense of justice. Also bear in mind, that though there is a rape exception in law, very few legal abortions for rape victims take place because questions over how to prove that it was a a rape without a police report, etc. mean that legitimate doctors wouldn’t want to expose themselves so don’t do the procedure. Also questionable is the exception to save the life of the pregnant woman. Obviously that didn’t save all the women who have been increasingly dying from childbirth lately. Because an abortion might not save you anymore after they determine that you needed one. Many women find themseleves in the dangerous halls of a Catholic hospital who won’t do one at all. Nationwide, government enforcement of the ban on abortions has been increasing There are frequent police raids on clandestine abortion clinics if you read Brazilian media accounts andcan also find on youtube, with everyone, including patients in various states of recovery, minors, going to the station to be booked and often jailed.  I don’t know what you do if you’re middle class and need an abortion, I imagine many must be coming to the States these days.

  • kimf

    Luisa excellent article and it brings up such a great point, about the fact the when women and girls are healthy and participating in society, every single aspect, including the economy, has a better chance of prospering. Many of the African nations are a good example of this. I am from Wyoming, “The Equality State” because we were the first to give women the right to vote. It is sad that there is such a big gap in wage gender ratios, and sex discrimination is alive and well.  I am currently writing an article about it, and will post it on our website,  I’ll be back, what a great find this site is!