Safe Abortion Helpline Receives Few Calls From Teens in Ecuador

Ecuador 2015

By Nitasha Natu

October 25, 2015

Also published by The Times of India

Ecuador's teens seem to be shying away from seeking information on safe abortion, despite the country having one of the highest number of adolescent pregnancies in south America. A telephonic helpline, the first-of-its-kind in Ecuador to dispense information on using medication for safe abortion, received only 5% of its calls from teenagers in the period of one year. Salud Mujeres, a collective of women who run the helpline and are fighting to get abortion legalised in the country, have now made it their goal to reach out to as many teens as possible.

Abortion is illegal in Ecuador. The only exceptions are where there is a threat to the life or health of a pregnant woman and the danger can't be averted, or in the case of a rape of a woman suffering from a mental disability. A woman can be sentenced to up to two years in prison for seeking an abortion. Harsher penalties apply to medical professionals who perform abortions.

Between June 2014 and 2015, the helpline run by Salud Mujeres received 574 calls seeking information on safe abortion. A majority of the callers (67%) were aged between 18-27 years. The group's database also shows that maximum callers (86%) were from the highlands, which includes Quito and Cuenca, while the lowest (0.2%) were from the Amazonas. Salud Mujeres has been operating the helpline for the past seven years to make misoprostol, a pill that induces early-term abortions, more accessible. Volunteers manning the helpline offer tips to women callers on where to find the pill and how to use it.

"No phone calls come in during Christmas or New Year's Eve. But as February approaches, the helpline rings non-stop. That's the busiest time of the year for us," said Anais Cordova Paez, a 26-year-old volunteer. The helpline is currently manned by six volunteers from 5pm to 10pm everyday. "We are often contacted by partners of women seeking abortion-related information on their behalf. The mothers of two 15-year-old girls had called us separately. But we always insist on speaking directly to the woman or the girl who wants an abortion. We do not ask our callers for their names. But we ask them other details like age, location, medical history, occupation, previous abortions if any etc.," said Laura Cevallos, another volunteer.

Eighty eight percent of callers in 2014-15 said they did not suffer from any kind of ailment which could make it difficult to have Misoprostol. Sixty one percent of the callers did not have any kids while 63% said their partner would be around to support while they had a safe abortion. Eighty two percent of students, who dialled the helpline, were in University.

"Eighty percent of callers said were not aware that a pregnancy could be terminated with a pill. We give tips to our callers about pharmacies where Misoprostol is available. The pill is not sold without a prescription. But it also treats stomach ulcers, so that's one way of procuring a prescription. Misoprostol can also be bought online," Paez said. "Giving out information on safe abortion is not illegal," she added.

Each volunteer of Salud Mujeres is trained for six months before they can start answering phone calls. The group has tied up with a gynaecologist whom they can dial whenever callers report medical complications that volunteers are not equipped to tackle. Cevallos works with a non-profit for victims of gender violence and identity. "If women calling on the helpline say they are living in a violent place or are seeking shelter, we direct them to the non-profit," said Cevallos.

The helpline also guides its callers on what they should do after popping the pill. "Misoprostol cannot be swallowed; it has to be kept under the tongue till it dissolves. If her pregnancy term is more than 12 weeks, we ask the woman to stay close to a hospital after having the pill," said Paez. The volunteers admit that while their parents are not always supportive of their work, their partners usually are.

As per World Bank data, there were 77 births per 1000 women, aged 15 to 19 years, in Ecuador in 2014. With abortion banned legally, quacks and private clinics have been charging anywhere between USD 200 to 4000 for the procedure. In most instances, women end up suffering from complications after an unsafe abortion. Salud Mujeres has published a handbook with information on safe abortion that can be downloaded from the net.

"Ecuador has one of the highest number of unwanted early teenage pregnancies in south America. It also has a high number of child abuse and teen abuse cases. In many instances in the Andes and isolated places on the coast, family members or people known to the victim are involved in abuse. As a result of this abuse, there are early unwanted pregnancies. Running pregnancy campaigns will not solve the issue of gender equality and sexual abuse," said Dr. Maria Amelia Viteri, professor of anthropology at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito (USFQ). As far as reporting sexual abuse cases to the law enforcement authorities is concerned, Viteri said that there are more procedures to be completed now than in the past. "The process is slow. Few cases go to court. There's also the factor of isolation of certain communities in order to get to a place where they can file a report," she added.

This article was supported by the International Reporting Project.