The assault of a 13-year-old girl in Venezuela and the arrest of her mother and a teacher who helped her end the pregnancy have forced a national debate about legalizing abortion.
MÉRIDA, Venezuela — She wore a ponytail and a red T-shirt, the words “Glitter Girl” sketched across the front.
Gripping her mother’s hand, she spoke softly, describing how she had been forced out of school by Venezuela’s economic crisis, and then was raped at least six times by a neighborhood predator who threatened to harm her family if she spoke out. At just 13, she became pregnant.
With her mother, she sought out a doctor, who told her the pregnancy endangered her life, and then a former teacher, who provided pills that induced an abortion.
But ending a pregnancy is illegal in almost all circumstances in Venezuela. And now the girl was speaking up, she said, because her teacher, Vannesa Rosales, was in jail, facing more than a decade in prison for helping her end a pregnancy — while the accused rapist remained free.
“Every day I pray to God that she is released, that there is justice and that they lock him up,” the girl told The New York Times.
In Venezuela, the case, made public in local and international press earlier this year, has become a point of outrage for women’s rights activists, who say it demonstrates the way the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis has stripped away protections for young women and girls. (The Times is not identifying the girl because she is a minor.)
The country’s decline, presided over by President Nicolás Maduro and exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, has crippled schools, shuttered community programs, sent millions of parents abroad and eviscerated the justice system, leaving many vulnerable to violent actors who flourish amid impunity.
But the girl’s assault, and Ms. Rosales’s arrest, has also become a rallying cry for activists who say it is time for Venezuela to have a serious discussion about further legalizing abortion, an issue, they argue, that is now more important than ever.
In January, the president of Venezuela’s Maduro-controlled National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, surprised many by saying he was at least open to a discussion on the issue.
The country’s penal code, which dates back to the 1800s, criminalizes abortion in nearly all cases, with punishments for pregnant women lasting six months to two years and one to nearly three years for abortion providers.
An exception allows doctors to perform abortions “to save the life” of a pregnant woman.
But to obtain a legal abortion, a girl or woman must first find a doctor who will diagnose her with a specific life-threatening condition, said Dr. Jairo Fuenmayor, president of the country’s gynecologic society, and then have her case reviewed before a hospital ethics board.
The process is “cumbersome,” he said, and there are “very few” women who go through it.
The 13-year-old girl may have been eligible for a rare legal abortion, but the process is so infrequently publicized, and there so few doctors who will grant one, that neither she nor her mother knew they could seek one out.
Some women believe that simply raising the issue with a doctor will land them in the hands of the police.
Activists are hoping that the anger over the 13-year-old’s case, combined with regional changes, will force a shift. In December, Argentina, one of Venezuela’s ideological allies, became the largest country in Latin America to legalize abortion, elevating a discussion about the issue in a region that has long had some of the strictest abortion laws in the world.
“We can ride the wave of the triumph in Argentina,” said Gioconda Espina, a longtime Venezuelan women’s rights activist.
Legalization, however, is far from imminent.
Venezuela is a deeply Catholic country, and many on both sides of the political aisle reject the idea of ending a pregnancy, even amid a crisis.
“Abortion is something that people naturally or instinctively reject,” said Christine de Vollmer, a Venezuelan activist who opposes the procedure. Venezuela may be “chaotic,” she said, but, “I don’t think the idea will catch.”
Hugo Chávez, who began the country’s socialist-inspired revolution in 1999, never took a strong position on abortion, but often asked feminist activists — many of whom supported abortion rights and his cause — to put his larger political movement ahead of their own demands.
But many abortion rights activists, fed up with how Mr. Chávez’s successor, Mr. Maduro, has handled the crisis, say they’re tired of waiting.
In discussions with government officials, they have tried to frame legalization as a social justice issue, in line with the government’s purported socialist aims.
Mérida is the culturally conservative, mountainous city where the 13-year-old girl lives with her mother and most of her seven siblings. Her father died when he was hit with a stray bullet in 2016, according to her mother. The family lives mostly on the remittances sent by the girl’s older sister, who lives in neighboring Colombia.
“We eat very little,” said the girl’s mother.
Their social lives revolve around a church they attend on Wednesdays and Sundays.
After the neighborhood school closed two years ago, Ms. Rosales, 31, one of its teachers, remained a community pillar, stepping in to provide meals, workshops and emotional support as state services dwindled.
In October, the girl told her mother that she had been sexually assaulted repeatedly and had stopped getting her period. Her mother brought her to Ms. Rosales, a women’s rights activist who knew how to access misoprostol, a drug used around the world, legally in many places, to induce an abortion.
“I do not regret what I did,” said the girl’s mother, whom the Times is not naming to protect the girl’s identity. “Any other mother would have done the same.”
Ms. Rosales said she handed over the pills, and the girl ended her pregnancy. A day later, her mother went to the police to report the assaults.
But the police began to question the mother, discovered the abortion and instead instructed her to take them to the teacher.
Before the economic crisis, attorneys general across the country followed an informal policy in which they chose not to charge women who ended their pregnancies, or those who helped them, said Zair Mundaray, a former senior prosecutor, reasoning that prosecution might criminalize victims.
But many of those prosecutors, including Mr. Mundaray, have fled the country for fear of political persecution, and that agreement appears to have fallen apart, he said.
Representatives for the local police and prosecutors did not respond to requests for interviews.
By December, Ms. Rosales had been in police custody for two months, sleeping on the floor in a cell with more than a dozen other women, including, for a time, the girl’s mother, who was also arrested and held for three weeks.
Ms. Rosales soon heard from her lawyers that she would be charged not only with facilitating an abortion, but with conspiracy to commit a crime, a charge that could put her in prison for more than a decade.
One day that same month, Ms. Rosales’s girlfriend, Irina Escobar, and a group of supporters sat outside the state courthouse, where Ms. Rosales was supposed to have her first hearing.
A judge could dismiss the case or release Ms. Rosales to await trial at home.
In the street, Ms. Escobar paced back and forth for hours. She knew that people sometimes disappeared for months or years in the Venezuelan justice system, and she worried that her partner was about to do the same.
Ms. Rosales’s lawyer, Venus Faddoul, exited the courthouse. No hearing today, she said. And it would probably be weeks before a judge took up the case.
Ms. Escobar collapsed, consumed by anger and anxiety. Soon, she was shaking violently and struggling to breathe.
“We are powerless,” she cried.
In January, Ms. Faddoul, along with other activists, decided to go public with the case. The story caused so much internet outrage that Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek Saab, took to Twitter to clarify that he had issued an arrest warrant for the accused rapist.
The authorities in Mérida soon released Ms. Rosales to await trial under house arrest.
Abortion rights activists last month met for hours with Mr. Rodríguez, the National Assembly president, where they proposed a change to the penal code, among other ideas.
The country’s influential association of Catholic bishops responded with a letter imploring the country to stick with the status quo.
Powerful international organizations, the association said, were trying to legalize abortion “by appealing to fake concepts of modernity, inventing ‘new human rights,’ and justifying policies that go against God’s designs.”
Ms. Rosales remains in legal limbo. Six months after her arrest, she has yet to have her first day in court. The accused person is still free.
“This goes beyond being a negligent state,” she said. “This is a state that is actively working against women.”