Detention of Venezuelan Abortion Activist Prompts Continental Pressure Campaign

Vannesa Rosales is facing charges for counselling a pregnant 13-year-old rape victim.


Mérida, January 11, 2021 ( – Grassroots organisations have launched a campaign in defense of a Venezuelan abortion activist facing up to 25 years in prison.

Vannesa Rosales (31) was arrested in Merida nearly three months ago after having counselled a 13-year-old rape victim and allegedly supplied her with Cytotec abortion pills. According to extraofficial reports, 600 Cytotec pills were found at the school teacher and feminist campaigner’s home when it was raided by police.

Rosales’ case was commuted to house arrest on January 11 after an intense media campaign led by leftist grassroots movements. The initial charges levied aganst her of assisting in an abortion were ramped up by a local judge who referenced her pro-abortion political history, and now include “forcing a third party to abort” and “association to commit a crime.”

Since October, Rosales’ legal representatives have denounced a series of procedural irregularities in her case, including the impossibility of holding a private meeting with her while in prison or having access to the official investigation. They further claim that the preliminary hearing has exceeded the 15-day deadline, and argue that the advice Rosales offered was based on World Health Organization recommendations.

Following the kick-starting of the grassroots campaign, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab commented on the case. Taking to Twitter, Saab posted an image of the October 16 arrest warrant and an Interpol red alert for Carlos Teran, the man accused of raping the teenager and who remains at large. He made no mention of the charges levied against Rosales.

Authorities were alerted to Rosales’ involvement in October after the rape victim reportedly sought additional follow-up medical attention. Both the victim and Teran live in Rosales’ working-class neighbourhood of Pueblo Nuevo.

Despite United Nations calls, extensive grassroots activism and government promises to debate the issue, abortion remains illegal in Venezuela except in cases where it is necessary to save the mother’s life. Women or doctors carrying out the procedure face up to three years in prison, and in rare cases it can be prosecuted as homicide, carrying a much greater sentence. Sentences may be reduced by up to a third if a judge rules that the abortion was carried out to “save the honour” of the woman involved.

It is estimated that hundreds of backstreet abortions are carried out every month in Venezuela, many in unsanitary conditions or without effective medical oversight. Unsafe abortions allegedly cause 10 percent of maternal deaths in the country, while around 13 percent of teenage pregnancies end in abortion. Though it is illegal, a number of grassroots organisations offer free advice and many doctors are willing to carry out the procedure for a fee, but criminal action such as that faced by Rosales is rare.

An on-going grassroots campaign calling for the charges to be dropped has largely been credited with getting Rosales’ sentence commuted. The campaign included a Twitter storm last Friday with the hashtag #JusticiaparaVannesa (“Justice for Vannesa”) which was one of the top trends on social media. To date, more than 200 organisations have subscribed.

Among those rallying to support Rosales are Merida-based social movements 100% Estrógeno, Somos, Merida Feminista, the Casa del Costurero and TatuyTV, which argue that her detention follows “the logic of patriarchal justice.” Likewise, national organisations and NGOs, including Juntas y a la Izquierda, AVESA, the Clara Zetkin Women’s Movement, the Popular Revolutionary Alternative and Comadres Purpuras have also mobilised, with the latter pointing out the irony between the state’s inability to guarantee safe and legal abortion and its persecution of those who counsel the issue.

A number of high-profile personalities have also voiced their support, including former Vice President Elias Jaua, former Economy Minister Luis Salas, recently-elected Deputy Rigel Sergent and VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos.

Internationally, support has also arrived from a range of Latin American grassroots groups from countries including Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, where abortion was recently legalised.

In spite of repeated grassroots-led efforts to raise the issue, Venezuela retains one of the most antiquated abortion legislations in the continent, still based upon the 1926 Penal Code. Despite over two decades of campaigning, efforts to legalise abortion have been thwarted time and again, most recently in December when the National Constituent Assembly, which had hinted that the issue might be included in a new Magna Carta, dissolved itself without drawing up a new constitution.

Nonetheless, the issue remains high on revolutionary organisation’s list of demands to the government, prompting President Nicolas Maduro to state that “we aren’t afraid of debating any sort of issue, be that abortion or civil union” on October 22, ten days after Rosales was arrested. Strong objection to both issues remains, however, from ecclesiastic groups, right-wing organisations and even sectors within the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV).

Feminist groups have pledged to continue the struggle, most recently taking inspiration from neighbouring Argentina.