In El Salvador, all abortion is illegal and women have been imprisoned after miscarriages and stillbirths. These bold activists are taking on the system.
“I was 20 years old when I entered Ilopango,” whispers Adriana Rodríguez, 32, who looks at the ground as she speaks, strands of dark hair falling over her face while she talks about the years she spent in prison. At 19, she discovered she was pregnant but told nobody, not even her family. As she recounts the story of the birth of her child, she stutters, sits quietly for minutes and then begins to cry without making a sound. Rodríguez, who is just under five feet tall, nestles her tiny frame into a chair in the office of the building where she works as a janitor. She rarely makes eye contact while speaking.
When her water broke near midnight in a neighborhood on the outskirts of San Salvador in 2005, she didn’t have anyone to take her to the hospital and public transportation wasn’t available. She gave birth at home to a stillborn baby. When she finally got to the hospital to seek medical help, the doctor asked, “What did you do to the baby?” By six a.m., she had been handcuffed, and within three days she had her first audience with a judge.
Five and a half months later, Rodríguez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide and sent to Ilopango women’s prison, which was built to house 225 inmates, but currently holds 1,310. She says her lawyer barely tried to help her. “He did not defend me. I was given the maximum penalty, and I never knew why.” Rodríguez spent a total of seven and a half years at Ilopango, often sleeping on the floor in cells packed with 70 to 80 women. She tried to maintain a low profile, never telling anyone why she was in prison.
“For the most part I didn’t have a problem with other prisoners,” she explains, “but a few had seen the article on me in the paper, and those were the ones that treated me like a dog.” She talked about how prison officials would often send women accused of abortion to solitary confinement to protect them from the wrath of other inmates.
Rodríguez, who asked that her name be changed for her own protection, was released early for good behavior, and since then has been trying to make a life for herself.
Her story is not uncommon in El Salvador, where women who miscarry or deliver a stillborn baby are often accused of abortion, handcuffed and sent to jail straight from the hospital, often without medical treatment. San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgment recently reviewed the case of Theodora Carmen del Vásquez, who has served ten years of a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide after the stillbirth of her child. Like Rodríguez, she was sent to Ilopango, living in overcrowded conditions. Vásquez’s lawyers argued that an incomplete forensic assessment and an ineffective legal team lead to her original conviction. Although their hope was that she would soon be released from prison, her conviction was upheld.
In 1998, El Salvador enacted a law prohibiting all forms of abortion — with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Although in theory only abortion is penalized, in practice poor women like Vásquez and Rodríguez who experience pregnancy loss have also been sent to prison. Since 1998, at least 150 women have been sent to prison for miscarriage, stillbirths or abortion. According to Amnesty International, between 2005 and 2008, there were 19,290 abortions in El Salvador. The World Health Organization has reported that 11 percent of women and girls seeking illegal abortions here die as a result.
To put the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador in context, in 2016 the country had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Latin America with 21,477 pregnancies among girls age ten to 19. On average, 59 girls and women became pregnant each day, the equivalent of one pregnancy every 21 minutes. At an early age, especially in families with few economic resources, girls are often expected to drop out of school to work, take care of the home and care for siblings.
Until recently, what El Salvador had in common with Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, and Syria is that it enforced a law that allowed men to escape punishment by marrying the underage girls who they raped. The law was applied for 23 years until it was struck down on August 17, 2017. In recent years, several Latin American countries including Costa Rica (2007), Uruguay (2006) and Peru (1998) struck down similar laws.
But across this country, generations of activists, young and old, buoyed by changing societal attitudes towards abortion and women’s rights, are organizing to educate girls and women about their sexual and reproductive rights.
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María Rosa Cruz, 50, her worry-lined face framed by the late afternoon sunlight, sits in her office at the feminist collective La Casa de Todas. Rosa Cruz, who was born in San Salvador, is a psychologist with the Feminist Collective for Local Development. For the past five years, she has run a support group for women imprisoned for miscarriage and abortion, helping them adjust to life after prison. “The idea of this work is to give women autonomy over their own bodies and to help them become the voices of their own cause — that they were unjustly incarcerated,” explains Rosa Cruz.
Rosa Cruz also discusses a hospital-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes poor women, often sending them to jail to await trial for abortion or miscarriage without treating medical issues such as hemorrhaging. “Unlike in other countries, when any woman arrives with an emergency and is bleeding or almost fainting, the first thing the nurses or hospital staff says is, ‘Ah, she is bleeding, this must be an abortion!’” explains Rosa Cruz. “They will handcuff you. They will call you a bad woman. You are very ill, critically ill. You might be weak and disoriented, but they will take you to jail.”
According to Rosa Cruz, rich women in El Salvador who want an abortion simply fly to Miami. “The truth is that, here, poverty, ignorance and youth are criminalized,” she says. “You won’t see rich women in prison.” Most of the women who do end up in prison, Rosa Cruz says, are young, poor, and afraid. They’re often victims of violence and abuse, but fear speaking up. As Rosa Cruz describes, at Ilopango women face harsh conditions including polluted and rationed water, lack of access to basic healthcare, and other inmates who shout things like “not even animals, not even dogs behave like you” to women who have been sentenced for abortion.
Rosa Cruz points out that women here have very little control over their bodies and often get pregnant due to the difficulty of accessing birth control in a country where doctors continue to question why single women need the pill. “Women have to go secretly and request birth control because they often can’t do it openly — their partner won’t give them permission,” Rosa Cruz explains. “Having kids is a form of control, and if women are taking birth control pills, men ask, ‘Why? Are you going to cheat on me?’ Women still haven’t managed to identify that their body is their own.”
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“The first indirect cause of maternal death is suicide,” says Morena Herrera, the mother of the pro-choice movement in El Salvador, who has devoted her life to fighting for women’s rights. Indeed, suicide accounts for 57 percent of the deaths of pregnant women aged ten to 19 in El Salvador.
Herrera, 57, glasses perched on her nose, has a halo of reddish-brown curly hair and a commanding presence. For ten years she served as a left-wing guerilla commander and military strategist in the Salvadoran Civil War. Herrera formed part of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition that was made up of roughly 30 percent women, many of whom were in leadership positions. When the peace accords were signed in 1992, Herrera spoke out about how the accords did not effectively address women’s rights. Accustomed to being a leader, Herrera was shocked that the post-civil war reality didn’t produce significant gains for women. In response to increasingly draconian laws criminalizing sexual and reproductive rights, in 2009 she founded and became the president of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion.
Herrera says she began working on abortion issues because she knew women who had children that were a result of rape and she had seen them agonize over whether to have an abortion, a decision that could result in death or decades in prison. “These women suffer in silence,” she explains, talking about why she decided to found an organization to accompany women who have been accused, prosecuted or condemned for miscarriage or abortion. “Society has this idea that continues to prevail that to be a woman your main priority must be motherhood or that the only future for women is motherhood,” Herrera says. “Women who are not mothers are not worth anything.”
Herrera’s organization has worked to support women in several high-profile abortion cases. The Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion petitioned pardons for a group of women known as “Las 17” who were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison for miscarriage between 1999 and 2011. She was also vocal in supporting a 2013 Supreme Court case in which Beatriz, a 22-year-old woman, challenged the abortion ban. Beatriz – who had lupus – faced pregnancy complications that would likely result in her death. Various human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch supported her, but her petition was ultimately denied. Beatriz was forced to have an emergency C-section, and the baby lived for only five hours.
Herrera explains, “The problem is that abortion isn’t understood as a problem of human rights, public health and social justice — and this has to do with how women are valued, their sexuality, and their moral responsibility.” Herrera discusses a recent survey in which 74 percent of respondents supported laws that would allow abortion to protect the lives and health of women and girls. However, she admits that political parties are afraid of the church and the influence the institution still wields on such issues, and therefore they have been slow to introduce pro-choice legislation. “In a democratic society, everyone has a right to express what they want,” she explains, “but religious ideas can’t be imposed on the entire population.”
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Carmen Escobar, a 29-year-old sexual and reproductive rights activist for Youth Voices for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, sits outside of Herrera’s office with a group of young women and men. All of them have markers in hand and are writing #ConEllas on their arms, legs and stomachs as part of a hashtag campaign that was launched in 2017 by the community group Seguimos Unidos to make people aware of the effects of the complete criminalization of abortion on women in El Salvador. A self-defined feminist, Escobar, who asked that her name be changed to protect her safety, has dedicated over a decade of her life to educating young women in El Salvador about their sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to working to legalize abortion, she worked to abolish the 23-year-old law that allowed rapists to marry their underage victims.
Escobar is familiar with the way gangs control women because of her work educating girls and teens in her neighborhood about their sexual and reproductive rights, which the gangs that controlled her neighborhood didn’t like. She says that gang members view women as slaves who will bear children, cook, clean, have sex and/or be sold for sex, and take them food when they inevitably serve time in prison. “When you provide educational tools to slaves, you take off their chains, and that isn’t convenient for the gangs,” Escobar says. “When you tell women, ‘You don’t have to carry weapons and drugs,’ you are taking away the gang’s slaves.”
As Escobar became more well known, and was invited to speak about her work on TV and radio, the MS-13 gang in her neighborhood began to threaten her verbally. One day, three members of the gang kidnapped her for 12 hours. “They offered me three options: death, gang rape or beating with a baseball bat,” she says. Escobar chose the beating, but the gang members, laughing, told her they didn’t want to leave physical proof of their violence, so three of them raped her instead. When they let her go, their parting words were, “Unless you want to wake up chopped into tiny pieces and stuffed in a black bag, get out of this neighborhood.”
Escobar fled her home with her daughter and slept on friends’ couches. After the rape, she became depressed and even stopped caring for her daughter for a period. “I couldn’t file a complaint because I had no evidence other than my own testimony, and in my country my word is worthless. The gang didn’t stop me, but I disappeared for two years.”
Escobar remains committed to her work helping women gain rights over their bodies. For her, the 23-year-old law forcing underage women to marry their rapists was personal. When her mother was 14, she was raped by a 64-year-old and then forced to be his wife. During that time, she gave birth to four children. As Escobar explains of her mother, “She is now 64, and still does not know what an orgasm is. It brings me great sadness that my mother never knew her youth, never discovered herself, never empowered herself and never said, ‘This is my body and my territory, and I make decisions about it.’” Escobar continues to work as an activist so that her daughter will grow up in a country where she has right to make choices about her own body. “If my daughter was raped and wanted an abortion, that would be her decision because it’s her body,” she says.
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After getting out of prison, Adriana Rodríguez discovered it was difficult to find a job, given that she had to tell potential employers about her time served. María Rosa Cruz, who continues to work with Rodríguez to help her transition to life outside of prison, discussed how after women get out of prison “they try as much as possible to never say that they are ex-convicts. Most places where women will go to look for a job — transnational companies — will ask if they have a criminal record. You are a woman, you are poor, and you have this history, so it is not easy to get a job.” Eventually, Rodríguez found a job at a cafeteria that offered a miserly wage, and then a year later with the support of a woman’s group she got a job as a janitor. Like most women who are released from prison, she found that both her own family and society were judgmental of her. For the sake of her three-year-old son, who was born after she got out of prison, she wants to do well and get ahead. “I only finished ninth grade, and I want my son to have an education,” she explains. “I still don’t speak about my miscarriage because people judge you,” admits Rodríguez, her eyes down, her entire body trembling.
Women like Rodríguez and Escobar, who have experienced significant violence based on their sexual and reproductive choices, remain afraid that citizens, gang members and government institutions will continue to criminalize them. Herrera, who has witnessed the slow but steady pace of change on views on sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador, finds hope in younger activists who despite such threats, continue to organize to promote reproductive rights on a local level.
Activists and legal teams, such as those who have spent the last decade working on the case of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, continue to press the politicians and judges of El Salvador to stop criminalizing abortion. A bill introduced to congress in 2016 would have allowed abortion in cases of rape, human trafficking, the fetus being unviable, and to protect the woman’s health or life. Although the bill did not pass, it sparked debate on the topic and the international response included a call from the United Nations to decriminalize abortion in El Salvador.
The work of generations of activists like Herrera and Escobar will help ensure that girls and women feel that their voices and their stories matter. Although Rodríguez was afraid and ashamed to share her story, at a great emotional cost, she did so in the hopes that others would never experience the loneliness and abuse of being a woman whose body and territory are, according to the state, not her own. “Truthfully, I don’t talk about it openly here,” she said, “because people judge me.”