In Panama, the fundamental rights of women and girls – such as education, work and political participation – continue to be violated. These violations extend to sexual and reproductive health rights, which should give women and girls access to services such as prenatal control, contraception and, in certain cases and as permitted by Panamanian law, safe and legal abortion services. The levels of violence against women, teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality in Panama undoubtedly reflect the existence of a public health problem that has been dramatically exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to gynecologist and obstetrician Ruth De León, former president of the Panamanian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (SPOG) and focal point for the Advocating for Safe Abortion Project (ASAP), SPOG remains concerned about the potential risks the pandemic poses for women . Although care services are open, restrictions could continue to be a trigger for gender-based, domestic, and sexual violence that can lead to unplanned pregnancies as well as possible induced abortions. If carried out in unsafe environments, these can lead to the death of the woman or girl.
“As a medical-scientific group, the SPOG focuses primarily on the prevention of morbidity and maternal mortality – a situation that can be influenced by appropriate or limited access to these sexual and reproductive rights,” says De León.
Protecting the SRHR during COVID-19
Deaths from pregnancy complications remain one of the most dramatic indicators of health inequality. In Panama, this mainly affects the poorest women in the country, for whom motherhood is often a life risk.
De León points out that during the COVID-19 pandemic in Panama, sexual and reproductive rights were not directly restricted by the authorities, but the measures imposed by the authorities to reduce contagion had an indirect impact. Gender-specific mobility, total quarantine, transfer of control and counseling services to other public institutions or bodies, temporary closure of private care services, impacts on the supply chain and fear of contagion – all of these hampered women and girls’ access to prenatal control and contraception services in Panama .
“The pandemic should not affect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of Panamanian women and girls. Therefore, we must do everything in our power to provide them with the information they need to enforce those rights and the care they need or want when they “need it indiscriminately,” she stressed.
SPOG encourages and encourages women to use permanent contraception for better family planning, which is a good option right now given the pandemic and its impact. It also ensures that any teenage girl or grandmother (woman with more than five births) who has had an abortion is released from health care facilities using permanent contraception, provided that she has given her consent; to prevent life-threatening pregnancy complications. SPOG also conducts communication and educational activities on birth control (including emergencies) and access to safe abortions, including measures that can be taken to reduce preventable maternal mortality and disability.
De Leon says that
“To ensure the full sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, priority must be given to measures that ensure access to and quality of care, maintain access to sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents, and reduce the serious effects of unsafe abortions The aim is to ensure that preventable maternal mortality and disability are treated as a public health and social justice issue until it is eliminated. “
Form alliances to challenge and fight
“The violation of the human rights of women and girls in Panama is obvious and occurs through omission, both due to ignorance and failure to comply with institutional and government guidelines as well as due to prejudice and stigma. Perhaps the most serious problem is the indifference of the state in its duty to uphold and guarantee these rights, “says De León.
Through official statements, SPOG has sought joint advocacy and intervention with health professionals and urged the authorities to take steps to reduce such violations. Likewise, the SPOG remains vigilant about the passage of laws that bring victims of rape back to the victim or violate other fundamental rights of these women and girls.
For SPOG, the fight against violence against women is everyone’s responsibility. Under this premise and through the ASAP project, SPOG has built a solid and collaborative communication and teaching network that provides information on raising awareness of violence against women and its effects on society as well as asserting and defending the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls in Panama. This partnership includes media such as Nex TV and the printed supplement Revista Ellas, medical societies and other non-governmental organizations.
In a cooperation alliance with La Asociación Panameña para el Planeamiento de la Familia (APLAFA), SPOG has been organizing monthly teaching days since November 2020 under the hashtag #JuevesdeDerechosSexuales, which are suitable for students and university students as well as other health professionals who work with victims of violence or with those seeking advice on sexual and reproductive health.
SPOG has also created an integral care protocol for women victims of violence, for which SPOG works with government institutions such as the Ministry of Health, the National Women’s Institute and the Ministry of Social Development. The SPOG was also instrumental in ensuring that the application “Revision and change of the theoretical framework of sex education in schools” was included in the AGORA platform for citizen participation.
We continue to advocate safe abortion in Panama
SPOG started in April 2019 with the support of FIGO, the Ministry of Health and the social insurance fund ASAP. Through its work within ASAP, SPOG seeks to publicize the risks of unsafe abortion as well as the circumstances that allow access to legal abortion services in Panama and, consequently, the avenues to safe abortion.
Abortions in Panama are restrictive and only allowed under certain conditions. The Penal Code of the Republic of Panama provides in Articles 141 to 143 a prison sentence of up to eight years. However, there are limited situations in which it is not considered a criminal offense – after rape (up to 8 weeks gestation) or when pregnancy could pose serious health risks to the mother or fetus.
“Even during the pandemic, we will continue to ensure the overall health of women and girls and, in this context, promote the full validity of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights – and urge that the body be viewed as the territory of autonomy and freedom of choice.”
– Dr. Ruth De Leon.