“Our resistance is education”: the social obstacles to abortion access in Colombia

By Poppy Askham March 8, 2023

Educator and activist Mariana Sanz de Santamaría is determined to break down social stigma through reproductive rights education and increase abortion access in Colombia

Photo courtesy of Poderosas

Today, the streets of Bogotá will be awash with green pañuelos, the Latin American symbol of pro-choice, as hundreds take to the city centre to commemorate International Women’s Day. The occasion comes just a fortnight after the 1-year anniversary of the historic court decision that decriminalised abortion up to 24 weeks in Colombia.

To mark the moment, we talked to the founder of Poderosas, an NGO that provides reproductive and sexual rights education across the country. Abortion access in Colombia remains contested, despite the court ruling.

Mariana Sanz de Santamaría picks up the phone from the airport. The bogotana sexual health educator and powerhouse behind Poderosas is on her way to the Amazon to deliver menstrual health lessons to girls in rural communities. 

The departures hall is a mess – it’s the week Viva Air suspended flights – and the member of her team meant to be transporting supplies of reusable cotton pads and menstrual cups has had her flight cancelled. But despite the setback, Mariana’s irrepressible positive energy  flows freely down the phone line. 

“It was one of the happiest days in my life”, she says, casting her mind back to February 21, 2022, the day the Constitutional Court transformed Colombia into one of the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to abortion rights. 

Whilst thousands of people turned out onto the streets to celebrate, Mariana was out of the country, studying for her masters at Harvard. She managed to connect online with some of the many girls she has taught over the years, several of whom literally wept for joy. 

Addressing her students and volunteers, she wrote on social media: “Poderosas!!!!! We will remember this day in which we took an enormous step forward for our freedom.” 

Standing up to social stigma

In the months since that euphoric day, Mariana has seen some change in her educational work, but it has been minimal. “I can mention abortion a little bit more freely, but it still sparks a lot of debate,” she tells us. 

Whilst enormous progress has been made in the legal sphere, there remains a lengthy process of  what she calls social decriminalisation to carry out.  Abortion access in Colombia is more about social factors than legal factors now.

According to Mariana there are three main cultural barriers facing pregnant women and girls. “One: it’s wrong so they shouldn’t do it. Two: they’re going to be punished by God. Three: they’re going to be punished by their families.” 

This final concern – the fear of rejection – is perhaps the hardest to overcome. “They believe it is a higher cost than having a baby they don’t want or cannot have.”   

Poderosas’ teams work in 16 communities spread across six departments to help people overcome these fears. They focus on informing women of their rights and attempting to normalise abortion as “an act of responsibility instead of an act of irresponsibility or immorality”.

Mariana at work. Photo courtesy of Poderosas

A holistic remedy for abortion access in Colombia

Mariana and her team don’t solely work with women and girls, they also educate men and boys about abortion access in Colombia, a facet of their programme they are hoping to expand in the coming years. “We are convinced that […] there will be no advance if we do not work with them,” Mariana asserts. 

Workshops for men pose unique challenges. She explains that there are still high levels of resistance to male sexual health education and that there is a prevailing view that such topics are the preserve of women. For those that do attend, she focuses on themes like redefining what it means to be poderoso as a man and using discussion and debate to break down harmful beliefs. 

“It’s been a beautiful journey,” she says, “seeing them transform their perspective through education, through dialogue. Being a witness of the transformation gives me a lot of hope and reinforces for me the power of education and the urgency [of working] with boys and men.”

Mariana also identifies another group that needs to be targeted: health professionals themselves. In a study released 100 days after the court ruling (pdf), abortion rights group La Mesa found that healthcare professionals often attempt to convince girls not to go through with the procedure.

“This is also an education thing, we need to educate people that work in health because they were also born and raised believing deeply that it is wrong […] it’s been way too many years repeating the same message, so it will take a very long time to change.” 

Too radical or not feminist enough? 

Mariana and her volunteers put their safety on the line to carry out their work. She tells us they regularly face “threats and censorship,” explaining that her work is seen as a source of “disruption” by some armed groups and community leaders, especially in rural regions like Choco and Urabá. 

It’s rural regions like these where Poderosas’ work is most needed to improve abortion access in Colombia. The UN Population Fund’s analysis of 2018 census data found that 21.7% of 18 year-old girls in Colombia were mothers. This percentage rose to 31.2% in rural regions and fell to 18.3% in urban areas.

“I do feel scared sometimes,” she confesses, but there’s also a hint of defiance in her voice.  “I can’t say it’s not frustrating,” she continues, explaining that the risk means that some regions are simply off-limits. 

It’s not just opponents of abortion that Mariana has to worry about, she has also received kickback from within the feminist movement. Recently a Poderosas post sayingla verdad es que nadie, nadie es pro-aborto”, sparked a “huge revolt” on social media. People responded to the message by accusing the organisation of “perpetrating a belief that abortion is immoral” and of “betraying the movement”, she recounts.

Mariana argues that this backlash is linked to a failure to understand that “all modes of battle are important”. Both education and activism are crucial to advancing women’s rights and abortion access in Colombia, but they require different approaches. 

“Our resistance is education […] so we have to adjust our speech.” Omitting labels such as ‘pro-aborto’ or even ‘feminist’ is a “strategic decision” rather than ideological. Her social media accounts are viewed by the groups she is trying to reach out to, she argues that she simply cannot risk alienating school and community leaders. 

“We want this right to be true for all [women] so we have to do some adjustment even if this means the feminist movement [will] say we are not feminist enough.”

Mariana explains that this speaks to what she sees as one of the feminist movement’s key problems – the failure to enter into dialogue with people from the opposite side that results in a “polarised” debate. 

“It’s not that they’re not good people, it’s not that they’re stupid or too conservative […] it’s that they have fear, legitimate fear,” she says in reference to the social stigma she and her team encounter every day.

“We do need a strong activist movement […] but there has to be a section of the feminist movement that puts effort on listening to the opposition.”

Photo courtesy of Poderosas

Looking forward: how to ensure abortion access in Colombia

Mariana is not shy about her ambitions. “The sky is the limit” she enthuses: she wants to spread her organisation throughout “all Latin America.” In the meantime, her 2023 wishlist includes increasing education provisions for men and boys and consolidating the organisation’s structures and financial model to allow future growth.

However, she also recognises that NGOs alone cannot bring about the changes needed to make legal rights a social reality and increase abortion access in Colombia. She also dreams of a “public policy programme”, but acknowledges “[it] will take a long time, there’s still a lot of political resistance to comprehensive sexual education even in this administration.” 

For Mariana, this institutional reluctance has devastating consequences:  “If we don’t educate on sexuality, on exercising our rights, we’re condemned to poverty, we’re condemned to violence.”

“No matter how many rulings, no matter how many laws we have, no matter how many marches we do, if we don’t have education we will not advance.”