Lima, Peru - March 8 2019: Group of Peruvian woman supporting the movement girls not mothers (niñas, no madres). A social campaign for abortion rights for underaged raped girls.

Grassroots Mobilization Needed to Defend Abortion Access

By Camila Gianella

On August 3, Kansas voters spurned the recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment that, in line with the ruling, aimed to ban abortion in the state.

What happened in Kansas shows the central role of social and political mobilization in securing abortion rights. In Kansas, Dobbs caused an unprecedented mobilization of women voters.

On the other hand, without such mobilization, access to abortion can suffer – even if the law protects sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). In the case of Peru, my country, which is often cited as an example of the internationalization of SRHR norms through supranational litigation, internationally recognized legal victories have often fallen short of the high expectations they created. Despite the success of international bodies, abortion rights in Peru have not been expanded. Further, there are attempts at the legislative level to advance a total ban on abortion.

Certainly, multiple factors have contributed to this. Anti-abortion actors are using similar strategies to the more progressive abortion rights actors: advocacy at executive and legislative levels, proposed bills, and litigation. These movements also have shown the capacity to organize massive rallies and link with local political leaders. The “conservatives” within the left are also a factor to consider, as left-wing is not synonymous with feminist. However, other factors need to be considered. In the case of Peru, the professionalization and specialization of the abortion rights movement is worth considering.

Across Latin America, professional feminist NGOs have played a key role in securing access to abortion. Legal battles have framed the importance of sexual and reproductive rights and challenged administrative barriers to accessing legal abortion. However, in countries like Argentina, these legal victories happened parallel to broader political debates, like the Encuentros de Mujeres, a significant meeting that allowed “professional feminist” and working-class women’s organizations to collaborate on goals and strategies.

In the early 1980s in Peru, because of the marginal interest of progressive parties in the feminist agenda, including sexual and reproductive rights, a feminist movement independent from party structures emerged. The professionalization and institutionalization of the feminist movement deepened as the decade continued, as internal conflict (including attacks and murders of leadership) weakened grassroots organizations and crises among political parties. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became the dominant mode of feminist organization. This was not a uniquely Peruvian phenomenon. It has been described how, during Latin America’s second-wave feminism, feminist NGOs became convenient substitutes for civil society.

Undoubtedly, NGOs have played an important role in advancing SRHR in Latin America. However, it is important to remain cognizant of NGOs’ organizational structure (often hierarchical with non-participatory decision-making spaces) and funder-driven agenda when considering the social and political representativeness of these organizations. For example, NGOs’ dependence on funding raises the question of the extent to which their priorities reflect grassroots concerns rather than foreign or national funders’ interests. To what extent are funders interested in framing sexual and reproductive rights within the historical context, in linking sexual and reproductive rights with other struggles, such as labor rights, housing, tax reforms, or with debates on structural violence and inequity?

In Peru, as in many parts of the world, women who live in poverty and in rural areas (many of them indigenous) continue to experience the highest unmet need for contraception, the highest fertility rate, and the highest rate of complications from unsafe abortions. Moreover, female poverty in Peru is higher than male poverty, and a higher percentage of women are in the informal market, meaning that the majority of Peruvian women work without any protection from labor laws, or social benefits, such as a pension, maternity leave, or paid sick leave. Further, some vulnerable groups, such as indigenous women, are at risk of land grabbing, or must deal with the health consequences of contamination of their land and water sources (which also affect their cattle and harvest). Peruvian women, especially the worst-off, shoulder the responsibility of caregiving for small children and the elderly, which often requires dealing with low-quality public services. Poor women are also at significant risk of being reported to authorities and criminalized when seeking abortion and post-abortion care.

However, little has been done to create spaces to allow horizontal dialogue between “professional feminists,” working-class women’s organizations, and indigenous organizations. There are spaces of encounter, but in many cases, these are spaces where “the professionals” train the others; these are not spaces to collaborate, as equals, on goals and strategies to build up a common national women’s rights agenda and to frame, within this, the right to abortion. The weak impact of legal victories around abortion rights in Peru shows another risk of the hyper-professionalization of abortion rights organizing. Without grassroots support, legal victories lack a social foundation to defend and secure their enforcement.


Camila Gianella received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Bergen. She holds an M.Sc. from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and a degree in psychology from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, where she is currently the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Sciences Research (CISEPA) and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Psychology. She is also a Global Fellow at the Centre on Law and Social Transformation, Bergen, Norway. Gianella´s research focuses on health systems and the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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