meet the women rallying for reproductive rights in el salvador
The Central American country has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Ahead of Imelda Cortez’s trial for attempted homicide, i-D spoke to some of the women rallying for change.
Artwork of Imelda Cortez courtesy of the Center for Reproductive Rights
Last year, 20-year-old Imelda Cortez, from the rural town of Jiquilisco in El Salvador, gave birth to a healthy daughter—one she did not know she was carrying—in the stool of a public latrine. Cortez started to bleed immediately after the delivery, shouted to her mother for help and fainted from the pain. She was then transferred to a hospital, where the doctor on duty notified the police who proceeded to arrest and imprison her for attempted aggravated homicide under Article 1 of the country’s Constitution: all for an abortion she didn’t even have.
The pregnancy itself was the result of repeated rape, which Cortez had endured from the age of 12 at the hands of her 70-year-old stepfather Pablo Hernandez. Yet under El Salvador’s draconian abortion laws, Cortez, a victim of sexual abuse, could be the one who faces up to 20 years in prison for an out-of-hospital birth while her rapist walks free. And sadly, she’s not the only one. There are currently at least 28 women in prison, criminalized for births like Cortez’s or obstetric emergencies such as miscarriages and stillbirths—a result of the skepticism placed on any woman whose child is born outside a hospital or whose pregnancy fails to end with a living baby.
Of course it is poor women who are left most vulnerable under the ban, which was introduced in 1997 by lawmakers across the political spectrum—because they do not have the economic resources to attend a private clinic or travel abroad. They are often blamed for wanting to have the abortion due to their socio-economic conditions with everyone from doctors, police, prosecutors and judges failing to show solidarity or empathy in favor of the woman.
Between 2014 and 2018, 60 women were charged with having an abortion (punishable by up to eight years in prison) or murder (up to forty), and sent to the overcrowded and squalid Ilopango women’s prison. But a movement to free them has increasingly gained traction. Groups like Las 17, Agrupación Ciudadana, and Seguimos Unidos have staged protests, run social media campaigns, hosted press conferences and sought the help of the international community to place pressure on the Legislative Assembly to release these women and consider relaxing the total ban.
They have pushed two proposals (with support from El Salvador’s health ministry and lawmakers from the leftist party) that would legalize abortion under four circumstances: When the pregnancy is the result of rape or trafficking, in the case of minors, when the fetus is inviable, and when it poses a risk to the life of the mother. But these amendments have yet to pass. Here, i-D speaks to the women fighting for change and control over their own bodies.
Maria Teresa Rivera:
In November 2011, 28-year-old Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted to 40 years in prison after the miscarriage of her second child. Although her doctors had not realized she was pregnant (she visited them twice because of pains in her lower abdomen), and an autopsy showed the fetus most likely died in the womb before it was expelled, a judge found Rivera guilty of aggravated homicide. She became one of Las 17, a global campaign to release seventeen poor women, arrested between 1999 and 2011, who were sentenced to harsh punishment for obstetric complications.
Rivera has now joined the organization as an advocate, and speaks up for women in El Salvador who have lost their freedom like she did. Many have been raped but stay “silent because of fear, and threats from their rapists,” she says. “This is one of the reasons I am never going to shut up! I am a survivor of sexual violence. I was raped 8 years ago. But the state condemns the woman but leaves the rapist free.”
“I want girls and women to be able to live in a world without violence and discrimination. I want girls and women to be the protagonists of our own lives. I want the world to change but I know that it can’t change alone, the world needs strong and brave people to fight for it.” Being an activist has its consequences “but my strength is greater than fear.”Catalina Martinez Coral:
“Salvadorian law is interpreted in a way that leads doctors to break confidentiality if they think a woman has tried to have an abortion herself,” explains Martinez, the Latin American Director at The Center for Reproductive Rights—a legal advocacy group that fights for women in countries that fail to protect their reproductive choices as a fundamental human right. “Local organizations have found more than 28 women who presumably have had obstetric emergencies and were sent to jail. We represent nine of these cases on the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights. Unfortunately, she says, as in many countries in Latin America, women in El Salvador face challenges with the sexism present in their society. “But there is a new generation of women who are involved in politics, who want to get their rights guaranteed. El Salvador has an amazing community of feminists who have been working on getting their rights.”
One of these women is Keyla Cáceres, who at the age of 15 began standing up to the inequalities evident in El Salvadorian society and fighting for women’s rights: taking over public spaces, staging protests outside the Legislative Assembly and commemorating victims of femicide with vigils.
El Salvador is a deeply religious society, she says, and the church “perpetuates a conservative imagination that impedes women’s access to justice and, of course, reaffirms the roles of women in a patriarchal society. This conservative talk allows impunity for violence against Salvadoran women, which also prevents access to abortion.”
But while she knows it is hard to change “fundamentalist groups who believe that the bodies of women belong to men,” Cáceres has found social media to be a powerful tool in activating the young. As a campaign organizer she has helped with initiatives like Seguimos Unidos, which has a following of over 20,000 people from across Latin America on Facebook, using the platform to educate and inform women about their human rights. “Today, with just one click we can have a lot of information and access to different perspectives,” she says.
Sara Garcia Gross:
“The total ban on abortion will never be the solution,” says Sara Garcia Gross, a youth organizer who has been campaigning for women’s rights for almost a decade. “Criminalizing does not solve anything. Abortions do not cease to exist because a law prohibits them, what it generates are abortions that happen in an unsafe manner. Criminalization, she says, “does not take into consideration women who have faced sexual violence, as it forces them to continue with pregnancies that often become a form of torture.”
In fact, it’s a kind of torture that has led 6 million girls under the age of 19 to suicide, the leading cause of death for pregnant teenagers—many of whom were abused by their own family or gang members and are left carrying the stigma of rape. “The only message [criminalization] sends is that women are second-class citizens—it is urgent that we transform this systematic violation of human rights.”
As a region Central America—El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras—has some of the harshest laws surrounding abortion, but, Garcia notes, these are “countries where violence and repression is part of daily life. El Salvador is a country where concrete lives do not matter, where they kill us because we are women, where they violate and make us disappear.”
Imelda’s case “represents the injustices and the intersectionality of oppression,” she adds.
“The prejudices that exist in the justice system that cause women to lose their presumption of innocence and their due process. El Salvador has the opportunity to make history by changing the reality faced by Imelda. In December, her trial is scheduled. We demand her freedom. Enough of the torture and violence against women.”