SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR—In 2007, Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana was raped. She was 18 years old at the time, working as a housekeeper, and suddenly pregnant.
Vásquez Aldana was born into a working-class family, and all she ever wanted was to earn enough money to support the child growing in her womb. She worked at a private home, and frequently stayed overnight, often sleeping on the floor. One night, about a month before she was due to give birth, an erratic pain became steady and excruciating. The woman she worked for refused to drive her to the hospital or call an ambulance.
Vásquez Aldana suffered an emergency delivery at the home without any support. The baby didn’t survive, and she lost consciousness. When she eventually arrived at a hospital, Vásquez Aldana was handcuffed to a bed for four days. She was then transferred to a jail and sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide.
Her case became one of “Las 17,” the number of women jailed between 1999 and 2011 for miscarriage, and who helped to galvanize a growing movement to protect Salvadoran women from being sent to prison for abortion or miscarriage.
Abortion is the only crime in El Salvador where a woman is automatically presumed guilty, with very little chance of proving innocence once convicted. The maximum sentence for an abortion conviction is 12 years in prison, but many women face a charge of aggravated homicide, which carries a sentence that ranges from 30 to 40 years. “In jail, the other women would say, ‘You killed your baby,’” Vásquez Aldana recalled of her time in prison. “You are treated like a dog.”
For the first time since the law that put Vásquez Aldana in prison passed, many Salvadoran activists saw a glimmer of hope in the last year: El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly had the opportunity to consider two proposed reforms before the end of their legislative session on May 1.
Heartbreakingly, though, it failed to approve proposed amendments to the law to include allowing for an abortion under four conditions: if the pregnancy is a product of rape; if the pregnancy is a result of human trafficking; if it puts the mother’s life at risk; or if a minor is pregnant, specifically if they are victims of abuse. As of this writing, at least 24 women are still incarcerated in El Salvador for this crime, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. With no change to the law on the horizon, these women face a perilous and frightening future.
According to Denis Muñoz, a lawyer who represents many of the Salvadoran women and girls imprisoned for abortions and miscarriages, “They would jail them for sneezing if they could.” Even when formerly incarcerated women become free, he said, unemployment is exacerbated because they are “marked.”
“It’s part of this patriarchal system and forced motherhood,” he said. “What is the one crime that would only ever implicate a woman? Abortion. And that points to the inequality of women’s rights in El Salvador.”
With the help of Muñoz and Agrupación Ciudadana, a Salvadoran advocacy group working to lift the abortion ban, Vásquez Aldana is no longer in prison—she was released in 2015 after serving seven years—but her story is all too familiar to Salvadorans who have miscarriages or are seeking abortions.
Vásquez Aldana knows that her release makes her a rare and lucky case. More than 150 women have been prosecuted since the ban took effect in 1998. The law was written into the constitution in 1999, amended to declare that a human life begins at conception, giving the fetus the same legal protections as a person. A stillbirth, miscarriage, or loss of the fetus is still considered an abortion under Salvadoran federal law. When a doctor encounters one of these issues, he or she is required by law to notify the police.
In 1973, El Salvador’s penal code allowed for abortion in select cases, but in 1998, a bill that banned abortion completely passed into law. By 1999, with the support of the Catholic Church, a severe ban was amended in the constitution. In 2016, a conservative legislator, Andrés Velásquez Parker, introduced a bill that would increase the maximum sentence for a woman found guilty of abortion—from eight years to 50.
Vásquez Aldana regularly speaks about how these laws affected her personally, including on a trip to the United Nations earlier this year with the Center for Reproductive Rights. In March 2017, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) proposed recommendations to El Salvador that would decriminalize abortions in cases of rape and abuse, fatal fetal impairments, and when the mother’s life is at risk.
Soon after the recommendation, the case of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who endured 10 years in Ilopango Women’s Prison for a stillbirth she had at age 24, gained renewed media attention. In December 2017, she went back to court, hoping for justice.
On the night when she had a stillbirth, in 2007, she had called for an ambulance, explaining she was pregnant and bleeding profusely, only to wait four hours for one to arrive. By then she had already become unconscious. She said she was arrested at the hospital without much explanation from police. She recalled the story to Al Jazeera: “They … [said] that I had killed my baby …. [But] I thought the baby was still inside [me].”
Vásquez’s case was reopened in San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgement, which, after a full day of deliberation, upheld her 30-year sentence. It came as a shock to activists and organizations fighting for her release.
“It was very sad and outrageous,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The judicial system is failing us.”
She said the courtroom was filled with supporters from NGOs and embassies around the world, including ambassadorial representatives from Spain, Germany, and Canada. A few days later, Martínez Coral visited Vásquez at the prison. “Teodora told me she felt very supported, and even now, that gives her a lot of faith that things will work out. Symbolically, [the support] helps a lot.”
Finally, in February 2018, Vásquez was freed.
I met Vásquez Aldana on a sunny day last September in the garden at a women’s community center outside of San Salvador. She is a single mother now, and it’s a role she relishes, though she talks a lot about her trouble finding a job. She bounced her 18-month-old on her lap and, for a moment, it became visibly difficult for her to keep her composure as she looked off to the distance. Her daughter, fiddling with a granola bar, interrupted her train of thought. She smiled and continued the conversation while breastfeeding.
“You try to forget it, but it’s something you lived, something you suffered,” she told me. “I try to forget it. And now I have my daughter. I’m a mother. I’m very happy. And I am going to protect her from all the bad… we’re in a very unsafe time.”
A few days later, on Sept. 28, 70-year-old Susana Lopez stood in San Salvador’s historic city center surrounded by a rosy hue. She was there, along with hundreds of her peers, to protest exactly what Vásquez Aldana and Muñoz had described to me, marching to end the criminalization of abortion. The weeklong rains had finally let up, so she only needed her pink umbrella to block the bright sun as she walked through the capital. It lent a warm shadow over her T-shirt, also rose-colored. They were there, as Lopez told me, “to save women’s lives.”
She waited for friends next to a swarm of young activists—some dressed in white hospital gowns splattered with fake blood to represent teenagers who died as a result of dangerous pregnancies that they weren’t allowed to terminate.
At the march, 28-year old Monica (who is going by a pseudonym to protect her privacy) told me about her clandestine abortion. “I wasn’t worried about it being illegal,” she said. “But I still can’t tell my mother. There’s a shame attached to it.”
Despite the procedure being illegal, women in El Salvador, just like women everywhere, still need abortions. According to the Ministry of Health, 19,290 abortions were performed between 2005 and 2008, which is the most recent time that data on this was collected. Monica regularly accompanies friends through an underground network of medical professionals who assist women in getting pills for medical abortions, such as Misoprostol and Mifepristone, which can safely abort a fetus up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. Still, because of serious retribution and death threats—and the possibility of losing access to the prescriptions—this system is rarely spoken about publicly.
Monica says she’s a proud feminist and part of various collectives of women activists who work to bring reproductive issues to the forefront of public dialogue through art, theater, and academia. She grew up in the Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador, considered one of the most dangerous regions in the country due to economic poverty and gang violence. Monica points to a cycle of violence woven into El Salvador’s social fabric, one perpetuated in schools and at home.
“Women are constantly under pressure,” she said. “There is a general violence that exists in our system against women.”
She recalled her mother, who suffered sexual and physical abuse growing up, perpetuating the cycle as a single parent. Monica said her mother wasn’t allowed to leave the house as a young girl, and instilled a deep distrust of male figures on Monica and her sister. “I grew up with a very irresponsible father,” she told me.
“This repression put my mother in a difficult spot,” Monica said. “But we’re taught even in school to focus on our looks, not on our grades like the boys. My mother was violent but she wanted a better life for us. She pushed us to study. I’ve forgiven her.”
Monica has spent hours with women, on the phone and in person, guiding them through taking the pills and performing their own abortions. When she had her own, she recalls feeling incredibly alone. She waited until her house was empty. It was 4 a.m. Her mother had already left for work. She followed the instructions on the pill’s packet and, within four hours, felt sharp pains.
“I waited and waited, and in those moments I felt desperation,” she said. “I was very afraid. I didn’t have money to even pay for a taxi if something went wrong. But I couldn’t tell anyone else because you feel judged. Why should other people know? Then they’d talk about me. That’s what you think in a moment like that, when you’re being self-critical.”
She still hasn’t told her mother, and it’s been almost four years. “I’ve been sexually active since I was 20,” said the now 27-year-old, “and I am always careful. But this happened with someone who wasn’t a long-term partner, and I was mad at myself. My mom would see me as guilty because I didn’t use a condom. I didn’t want to talk to her about it.”
Monica said that, anecdotally, most women she knows who have chosen a clandestine abortion have been raped. In El Salvador, an adolescent girl is sexually abused every 20 minutes. The teen pregnancy rate remains the highest in Latin America. A third of all pregnant women are girls between the ages of 10 and 19, according to the World Health Organization. Thirty percent of Salvadoran girls in that same age group gave birth in 2015. But rape victims are still jailed if they have an abortion or a miscarriage, as was the case of a 19-year-old in June 2017 who remains in a Salvadoran prison, sentenced to 30 years.
A common factor among convicted women is the lack of economic resources and education. Poor people are targeted under this system, most of whom, according to a 2014 report by Amnesty International, have zero or next to zero access to contraception or prenatal care.
“It’s complicated because a repressive politics that criminalizes women will not solve social problems of poverty, of the lack of education, and the lack of sexual and reproductive health,” Muñoz, the lawyer I spoke with told me. “There will never be justice in terms of sexual and reproductive health.”
Despite the Legislative Assembly’s failure to act, the rhetoric around abortion in El Salvador is clearly changing. Sara García, of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion told the New York Times in April that “this is a point of no return.” A progressive stance is taking an undeniably stronger hold in this country of just over six million people in spite of an overwhelmingly conservative and religious political influence (backed by the American religious right). Seventy-four percent of El Salvador’s population is in favor of lifting the ban if an abortion saves a woman’s life. And the Salvadoran government is slowly—too slowly—beginning to release women convicted of abortion from prison. Just a few days after Salvadoran women marched in the streets on International Women’s Day on March 8, the government released Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín, who suffered a stillbirth in 2003, from prison.
Indeed, what Vásquez Aldana, Lopez, Martínez Coral, Marroquín, Vázques, and the women fighting beside them have brought about can’t just be put back in the box. Generations of Salvadoran women are confronting a patriarchal system and pushing back against it. The rhetoric surrounding the issue seems finally to have become palatable to a general public. “The issue has captured the attention of a huge sector of the population in El Salvador,” says Martínez Coral of the Center for Reproductive Rights. The intersectional support among the marchers in September—spanning gender and generations—is evidence. “The very same victims [of the ban] are taking part in its impact. These voices have been incredibly supported by the international community. El Salvador must change its laws—it’s outrageous what is happening.”
Shortly after the news spread of the Legislative Assembly’s failure to act, the Center for Reproductive Rights released a statement, accusing lawmakers of failing “to take a very basic step in ensuring access to safe and legal abortion for women and girls whose health and lives are at risk, or who have been victims of rape by not acting to reform its abortion law.
“This is a major missed opportunity in the advancement of human rights that sends a signal that Salvadoran legislators are not committed to protecting the rights and health of women and girls.”
In November, in light of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez’s case and the women still imprisoned for abortion, the United Nations made another official recommendation to the Salvadoran government. In it Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for a moratorium on Article 133 of the penal code that enforces the ban, urging President Sánchez Cerén to “review all cases where women have been detained for abortion-related offences, with the aim of ensuring compliance with due process and fair trial standards. Should it be found their cases were not compliant, I appeal for the immediate release of these women.”
“El Salvador must respond to this situation,” Martínez Coral said at the time. “The momentum must continue now with much more force.”
At the march in September, a palpable energy uplifted a crowd that grew buoyant, with a love and a fury that went hand in hand. Where 70-year-old Lopez was standing, a low pink ledge bordering a government building propped up a poster of a hand-drawn uterus bleeding into a rose. In Spanish it read: “Obligating me to give birth to a product of rape interrupts my own plan for life.”
The marchers embodied a multi-layered feminism that showed subtle roots of tradition rattled by circumstance. Women like Lopez, who is 70, for example, represent a generation which, by my estimate, made up about a third of the protestors that day. They are women who have lived through a decades-long civil war, women who have spent a lifetime of fighting for their right to exist. Some fought on the front lines, like ex-guerrilla Morena Herrera, now a prominent Salvadoran abortion rights activist with the advocacy group Agrupación Ciudadana. But the quieter battles fought at home imposed a lasting feminist resistance that has persisted through generations. By the end of the war in 1992, at least half of the heads of households were women. By the early 2000s, that number spiked to more than 60 percent.
“We are always fighting for something, and maybe that’s why we’re here today supporting this struggle,” Lopez said.
The criminalization of women and girls—especially of a lower socioeconomic class—is a rampant abuse of power that the people of El Salvador are standing up to. They are a public weary, angered, and mobilizing.
Victoria Bouloubasis is a journalist and documentary filmmaker focused on food and labor, migration, and human rights. She is currently directing The Last Partera, a documentary film about the threat to midwifery in rural Costa Rica. Victoria is based in Durham, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation. Additional reporting by Monica Wise.