Paula Avila Guillen

At the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Avila Guillen Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy Interview
Avila Guillen Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy Interview

Paula Avila Guillen is the director of Latin American initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, a human rights attorney and a women’s rights advocate, with a focus on reproductive rights in Latin America. 

Jennifer Brough (JB): Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you came to work for Women’s Equality Center (WEC)?

Paula Avila Guillen (PAG): I am originally from Colombia and grew up in the middle of the Colombian conflict. I didn't grow up in the city but I grew up in one of the areas that were really affected by the conflict. I saw first-hand what it meant to not have human rights - I didn't grow up in a bubble - and I always knew that I wanted to study human rights. I remember being in high school and in my last year having three or four classmates who were pregnant. The reason why they were pregnant, of course, was influenced by lack of education and access to contraception, but mostly because that was the ‘project’ of life - there weren’t that many options. They couldn’t go to school or university, so this gave them a purpose - they were going to move in with somebody and have a life. It really hit me, seeing it in that way. Women and girls don't have access to many opportunities and on a conscious level, sometimes an unconscious level, see motherhood as an imposition of the system. Otherwise they would have wanted to go to school, but didn’t have that option, so they think ‘well, let’s do it.’ I think that that shaped my life a little bit to try and work in this field.

I went to law school in Colombia, then I had a chance to participate in an international moot court competition in Washington DC. We went to the final of the competition, which completely changed my life. I got an internship in the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Since then, life completely changed and I ended up moving to the United States. I have lived here for twelve years but never stopped working in and with Latin America from a different perspective. I try to understand the platform we have here; we have access to certain offices and media to actually influence the work we are doing in Latin America. Before the Women's Equality Center I was working for the Center for Reproductive Rights and prior to that I was working at the O’Neill Institute, Georgetown University, which focuses on public health, human rights work and advises governments and NGOs in litigation and strategy. I could not be happier or feel luckier in the job that I have right now and the work that we do at the WEC. It’s been a long road to get here but I’m glad I am.  

JB: How does WEC use its resources to collaborate with organisations in Latin America? What are some of the main issues that have been at the focal point of this work?

PAG: This question is important because we don't want to replicate dynamics in which the US is the saviour, but at the same time we acknowledge that being based in the US gives us certain access and privilege. So I think the question is how you use this in service of others. A lot of what we do is trying to is tell stories, like the story of Imelda Cortez, to lift up the voices of people and organisations who are on the ground, who are doing amazing work but don’t have access to the platforms that we do. 

WEC helps to facilitate connections between organisations and people, women, leaders and activists, then raising awareness and facilitating legal aid when required. I’m rarely in New York as I spend most of my time in Latin America, because the only way you can have a real relationship with partners and organisations, and with women’s stories, is by being there. It's very hard to do things remotely and it's very hard to break dynamics of power when you are doing things remotely, so I think it's very important for me to be there and sit in their houses, at their table and say, ‘we have access to these things, what would be useful for you? Would there be any benefit in, say, doing a podcast about this issue?’ We let our partners and the main characters of these stories decide how to tell their stories and when to tell them. We work in complete partnership with all our organisations. Right now, we’re working in El Salvador, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Argentina, and we’re about to start some work in Colombia. The majority of the work we do is ‘unbranded’ work, where we try to be behind the scenes so we can support organisations that are on the ground in any way they need. I am a human rights expert who has been working on reproductive rights in El Salvador for five years, but I also live in New York, which gives me a different platform. I use this platform to talk about these issues every time I can. Personally, and in WEC, we try to center the voices of those affected, not the voice of the organisation.

JB: Recently, an 11-year old girl in Argentina was forced to give birth to the child of her rapist, after authorities refused to allow her an abortion. This news highlighted that while there are laws in place (the 1921 law allows abortion to be performed in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is in danger), they can be ignored in such cases. As you said, ‘Necesitamos un mundo mejor para nuestra niñas’ - how does WEC work with lawmakers to try and overturn such decisions? How can this better world be forged?

PAG: I was recently in Buenos Aires and this case was in every single conversation we had. Two things are very important to keep in mind, number one: the cases that make it to the media are maybe one percent of cases that actually happen. This is the reality that activists see every day. The lawyers working on this case have had three previous cases that are very similar to this one and that shows how this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the region, we have had an issue of niñas becoming mothers for a very long time, but once in a while there is a case like this and everyone goes in a frenzy asking ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to stop this situation?’

I think people don't realise that there was a case like this four years ago in Paraguay where a 10-year-old was denied an abortion. I was in the media talking about it, everyone was talking about it, and we keep saying this needs to stop but we don't do anything to stop it. I think there is a narrative that we're trying to connect that has not been fully fleshed out or fully connected. This narrative is that sexual education is fundamental to reduce the number of cases of girls who are being raped. Girls who understand their bodies and what is appropriate and not appropriate are more likely to detect and talk about abuse earlier, when it happens. So while you might not be able to avoid an incident, you can avoid the repetition and be more empowered to say no, to understand what is okay. 

Secondly, sexual education is so important and needs to be connected to all these other issues - even if you have the best sexual education you cannot always prevent things from happening, so you need access to emergency contraception. In Honduras, there is a complete ban on emergency contraception and is a place with one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the region. How is it possible to have a ban on emergency contraception given these rates of sexual violence? It’s insane. Then you need to think, even in cases where emergency contraception is available and fails, girls need to be able to have access to abortion. In order for it to be available, you need to have a broad law, compared to the restrictive ones we see here, which are disadvantaging the cases where they are most needed. Some moderates want to prohibit abortion in every case, however, they don’t see that trying to ‘regulate’ abortion outside of these parameters affects all women, but particularly those in the direst circumstances. If a woman needs an abortion, she will rarely choose to go to hospital because of high risk; last year, the Health Minister estimated that more than 350,000 clandestine abortions occur every year.  

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The people who are really impacted by this are the young girls who may not know they are pregnant or, if they know they’re pregnant as a result of rape, feel they may be judged by healthcare providers and risk being sent to prison. If girls go to hospital, they risk being ‘denounced’ by a medical professional who must decide between putting their legal obligations above their duty to protect and care. All this bureaucratic imposition to decide, should this 11-year-old girl have an abortion or not? So, secondly, we need to work with policy makers to change these laws and broaden them so cases like this can actually receive the treatment that they need. We also need to work on a communication component to try to make these stories visible and try to connect all of these narratives that are out there to ensure a change in public opinion. We’ve recently launched a campaign in Honduras to petition for the legalization of emergency contraception. Sharing these narratives and information will help us have more solidarity in these cases, otherwise we are creating a climate of fear for women to go to hospitals and seek basic healthcare. I see this attitude everywhere, not just about abortion but any health issue that could be seen as remotely controversial. These attitudes see hospitals converted into crime scenes where women don’t feel comfortable, and the public health consequences of this are high.

In El Salvador, there are about twenty cases of women in prison because of obstetric emergencies - very similar to Imelda’s case. Some of them have served up to ten years in prison for a miscarriage, a pregnancy that didn’t have a happy ending. Alba Lorena Rodriguez, who was released recently, has two daughters who she hadn’t seen since they were four and five, and now they’re teenagers. If legislators are really giving so much importance to motherhood, then how does that apply here?    

JB: As you said, lawyers and activists in El Salvador have been working on these issues for a very long time, but is there a sign that overall laws are changing, not just a case-by-case basis?

PAG: Absolutely. A phenomenon that we have only seen in El Salvador is that one of the top causes of teenage deaths is suicide, especially amongst pregnant girls, and it’s something that the Minister of Health has called attention to. This and the number of individual cases that are receiving attention have inspired a change in El Salvador. Our work over the last year meant we were very close to eliminating the abortion ban, we had two bills in Congress, but the political movement then shifted so we may have to wait a little bit longer. We were so close to bringing one of them to the floor that will propose a reform in law for exceptional circumstances - so not a broad law - but it is a start to protecting the life and health of the mother, especially when they are minors. This will hopefully alleviate some of the circumstances and cases we are seeing.

Since Imelda’s case and other examples of women being released we are actually seeing that justice can be achieved by changes in the judiciary; even how the media talks about these issues has changed completely. It’s just a matter of time before the law will allow these exceptions. Of course, we were in the middle of a presidential election which meant nothing got done, but now things are settling we are hoping that they will have the courage to do what is right for girls and bring one of these bills to the floor for a positive vote.         

JB: The aforementioned case of Imelda Cortez put El Salvador’s abortion legislation in the spotlight, particularly the targeting of certain demographics “suggesting a discriminatory state policy”. How has this case impacted on abortion activism and will it help to spell progressive change in legislation for El Salvador? And why are certain demographics targeted?

PAG: All the cases that we have seen in El Salvador, Honduras and - I would dare to say Argentina though there is more variance - the women have low socioeconomic status, they are more likely to be single, they don’t have access to education beyond high school. This targeting is intentional; it is a systematic prosecution against poverty because these women will not have the ‘perfect answer’ to prosecutors or doctors. So if you arrive at the hospital and don’t have your speech ready, or the ability to call an attorney and you don’t have the agency that they expect you to have, they will immediately think you are guilty. It is not a coincidence that in all of these cases women are poor. It’s all of these expectations or what women should know, so these women are guilty of not knowing you could have bleeding that seems like a normal period but still be pregnant, or lower back pain could be a contraction. They are guilty of not having access to education or healthcare institutions, which the government has failed to give them.      

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JB: In a survey carried out last year, Oxfam found young people in Latin America see violence against women as “normal”, which is, in part, exacerbated by machismo culture. Simultaneously, the religious underpinnings of countries mean abortion is treated as a moral issue, rather than a healthcare one. How is WEC working with activists in the region to change perceptions and amend legislation to put women’s wellbeing, health and reproductive rights first?

PAG: This is a very complex question. The answer happens on multiple levels. By telling the stories of women on their own terms and the media replicating them, we’re beginning to change the narrative. I also think it happens by working with men, and I give a lot of credit to activists on the ground who sit down with prosecutors who say awful things as a result of this culture in which they have been raised. I was speaking with one public official about abortion law and how we need to protect women’s lives and health. In our conversation, he sat back and said ‘Well, I work with cows and in cattle rearing, when a cow is giving birth and something is wrong with the offspring, you let the offspring die so the cow can live.’ While we were all very offended by this, I said ‘Yes, exactly, so can you support this law?’ While there is so much we need to change, shutting him down or getting angry at that moment wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere. Now he’s actually pretty supportive of the issues and understands that his first comment was very inappropriate, but it does take work. When men are being machistas, it often comes from ignorance, even those who are educated and working in the system haven’t had access to a gender perspective. Working alongside them and trying to find a common language can help us to reduce some of these behaviours.         

I see social change happening on two levels, one is that society changes through movements and conversation and the law needs to adapt to reflect this. For me that was very clear through the LGBTQI+ movement. With reproductive rights, sometimes law needs to be changed for social change to happen. Education, resources and provisions then come subsequently as society adapts.      

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JB: Finally, what would a feminist foreign policy look like to you?

PAG: It would not be one type of policy, but one that is multidimensional and intersectional that would have a gender perspective in everything, even if gender is not immediately obvious. I say this specifically because I work in the United States and I am an immigrant, I am Latina, because I work in Central America - the case about immigration is very close to my heart. I see all of this money given towards immigration, but none of it is directed towards empowering women and girls. A feminist foreign policy for me would acknowledge these interconnectivities and would look at the impact of certain policies and aid on women, girls and gender non-conforming people and include them. Some of these changes could be very easy, but they do require women and gender non-conforming people from all backgrounds to be in the room making foreign policy.     

Follow Paula on Twitter to find out more about her work and activism.

Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough

Marissa Conway