Here’s how you can support women suffering under El Salvador’s harsh abortion laws.
A rape victim could spend 20 years in El Salvador after giving birth to her abusive stepfather’s baby, in a case that shines a spotlight on the country’s shockingly strict abortion laws.
Imelda Cortez, 20, is standing trial this week for attempted murder. She gave birth to her stepfather’s baby in a latrine in April 2017, and was rushed to hospital after her mother found her bleeding and in extreme pain.
The Guardian reports that upon Cortez’s arrival in hospital, doctors suspected that she had attempted to abort the baby and called the police. Despite the fact that the baby girl was found healthy and alive, Cortez was arrested, charged with attempted murder and imprisoned after a week in hospital.
Prosecutors initially accused Cortez of lying about her stepfather’s abuse, which she says began when she was 12, to justify the alleged crime of attempted abortion. A DNA test later confirmed that he was the baby girl’s father. If Cortez is found guilty, she could spend two decades behind bars - but her stepfather is still yet to be charged with a crime.
Abortion has been illegal in all circumstances in El Salvador since 1998 (previously, it was permitted in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormality, or where continuing with the pregnancy would put the woman’s life in danger). This ban was reinforced by a constitutional amendment in 1999, declaring that life begins at conception.
Only a small number of countries, including five other Latin American and Caribbean nations - the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname - still maintain an absolute ban on abortion.
What makes El Salvador unique is the fervent way the law is enforced by prosecutors, police and judges, and the complicity of doctors who fear being prosecuted. It is currently the only country in the world to sentence women to 30 to 40 years in prison for having abortions, and there have even been cases of women being prosecuted for aggravated murder in cases of miscarriage or stillbirth.
Earlier this year, a woman named Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was finally released from prison after being sentenced to 30 years for aggravated murder after suffering a stillbirth. Another Salvadoran woman serving time in prison for abortion has had her sentence commuted in 2018: Teodora Vásquez suffered a stillbirth in 2007 and was sentenced to 30 years in jail for aggravated homicide in 2008. She was released after 10 years in February.
The criminalisation of abortion in El Salvador has resulted in delays to, and the denial of, crucial medical care for women and girls whose health or lives are endangered by continuing with their pregnancies. The total ban means that young girls and teenagers are particularly vulnerable. Amnesty International has found that girls as young as nine have been denied therapeutic abortion in El Salvador, and three out of every eight maternal deaths in El Salvador are pregnant teens who take their own lives.
While the law ostensibly applies to all women in El Salvador, we know that banning abortions does not prevent abortions from taking place. In reality, the ban simply affects the poor and poorly educated: women and girls who can’t afford care in private clinics and hospitals where doctors maintain patient confidentiality, or good legal counsel should they be arrested.
What can we do to help women in El Salvador?
You can donate money to feminist groups working on the ground there. Several organisations are pushing for change to El Salvador’s abortion laws, although passing progressive legislation has been a challenge.
Grassroots feminist group Citizens for the Decriminalisation of Abortion works to free women who have been sent to jail for abortion-related offences in the country, and has been successful in securing the release of some women. Last year, Citizens for the Decriminalisation of Abortion joined forces with Planned Parenthood and Women Human Rights Defenders, an international coalition of 35 human rights groups, to stand against political criticism and death threats from anti-abortion campaigners.
The grassroots campaign group Seguimos Unidos is also advocating for change. The group seeks to protect the health and life of all Salvadoran women, girls and their families. After Evelyn Cruz, a 19-year-old rape victim, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after having a stillbirth in 2016, Seguimos Unidos took to social media to make her case a global headline. Women’s rights groups and lawyers held a press conference to discuss the long-term steps being taken to try to change the law within the context of Evelyn’s trial. Op-eds and editorials appeared in Salvadoran papers, and cries for #justiciaparaevelyn filled Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Amnesty International has also been a key voice on this issue, working with activists on the ground in El Salvador and accusing the country’s government of violating women and girls’ fundamental human rights through its abortion laws. You can donate to support Amnesty’s work in El Salvador by following this link and selecting ‘El Salvador’ in the drop-down menu.
Main image: Women in El Salvador march for reproductive rights on International Women’s Day 2018. All images: Getty Images