A Salvadorean woman marching for abortion rights. Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images
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El Salvador, the country where women get jailed for having a miscarriage

In the UK, it can feel like Latin America had simply been wiped off the map, but women there are facing terrible injustices that completely escape our attention.

When Guadalupe Vasquez was raped by her employer’s neighbour, she didn’t report it. She came from a poor family and was only 17. She didn’t think she would be believed – and in any case, the neighbour had warned her not to tell anyone.

She decided to keep the baby. She had little other choice, being from El Salvador, where abortion is illegal under all circumstances, including rape, incest, and even when the mother’s life is in danger, or the foetus is not viable. But Vasquez seems to have loved her baby, despite his violating conception. She prepared for his birth. She gave him a name: Gabriel. Her body started to change; her belly started to swell.

And then she started bleeding. When Vasquez felt the intense pain across her back and abdomen, she asked her employer to let her go to hospital. The employer refused. A few hours later, Guadelupe gave birth to Gabriel on her own in her room. He cried once, and then died. 

Faced with a dead baby and a still bleeding mother, Vasquez’s employer finally allowed her to go to hospital. “I don’t want to deal with two dead in my house.” At the public hospital, Vasquez was treated for her haemorrhage. Her life was saved. And then the police were called.  

Vasquez woke to find herself handcuffed to the hospital bed. Within four days she was standing trial for trying to abort her baby; when the prosecutors found that Gabriel was not born dead, Vasquez’s charge was upgraded to aggravated homicide. She was sentenced to thirty years in jail.

Vasquez’s case is far from isolated. She is one of seventeen women, dubbed “Las 17”, who have been imprisoned after having a miscarriage. The women have other things in common beyond their imprisonment. Most come from impoverished backgrounds and are working in low-paid, menial jobs. They have neither the money nor the education to mount a successful defence against the chronically cursory trials to which they are subjected before having their lives stolen from them. 

One of the most glaring injustices of the El Salvador system is the divide between women with money and those without. Women who can afford private hospitals are not only able to access medical care when they miscarry without the threat of being reported to the police, it is also estimated that thousands of abortions take place in private hospitals every year in El Salvador. Women without means are resorting to “clothes hangers, metal rods, high doses of contraceptives, fertilisers, gastritis remedies, soapy water and caustic fluids such as battery acid” in order to deal with unwanted pregnancies. Other women are killing themselves: suicide has become the third most common cause of maternal mortality, and, in 2011, was the “most common cause of death among 10-to-19-year-old girls, half of whom were pregnant, according to Health Ministry figures”. Between 2000 and 2011 in El Salvador, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide. Of these, 49 were convicted. 

A report released by ActionAid this week reveals the women who are fighting back against such injustices around the world. We hear about the garment workers in Cambodia who, in the face of police brutality, took to the streets in 2014 to demand an end to poverty waves, and who continue to join unions despite threats from their employers. We meet the lesbian women in South Africa fighting back against a misogynistic culture that considers rape a “corrective” to their desires. And we meet the women in El Savador who are standing up to a justice system that does not believe women.

When we report on the injustices faced by women around the world, Latin America doesn’t tend to figure at the top of the agenda. When I spoke to Valeria Bonfiglio, an Argentine psychotherapist who volunteers at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, she tells me that coming to the UK felt like Latin America had simply been wiped off the map. No one was talking about it. 

The reasons for this ellipsis are not clear. Perhaps we think women in Latin America are doing OK – but if we do, our belief is misguided. Action Aid’s research found that, unlike Africa and the Middle East, where a number of women’s organisations report a sense of optimism, who feel that the situation is improving, without exception, the Latin American respondents indicated that they either felt less safe, or much less safe in their work. Women from Brazil, Argentina and Nicaragua speak of the rape and death threats they are increasingly facing online. One woman from Nicaragua reports having been “violently arrested” by police simply for providing legal advice. They reported the incident, but have heard nothing. Another woman from Nicaragua talks about how the government presents one face to the world, but that, in fact, “the reality is different. The state is supporting and protecting aggressors”.A woman from Mexico reports having received “direct threats”. Asked from whom she feels most threatened, she replies, “the government. The police”. “We are afraid” said one woman who was too scared to reveal which country she came from.

They are afraid. But they don’t stop. All these women are still fighting for their rights. And, as the Action Aid report reveals, some are having success. When I last researched the situation in El Salvador, I came across an interview with the freelance journalist Nina Lakhani, where she spoke about Las 17. Having exhausted all legal avenues by this point, the only hope remaining to them was a presidential pardon – and Lakhani did not consider the hope to be great. Granting a pardon would not be ‘seen as a politically smart move’, she said. 

That was in May 2014. By February 2015, Guadalupe Vasquez had been released, pardoned by the El Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. The pardon came after tireless campaigning by the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, (Salvadoran Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion). Vasquez had served over seven years.

Vasquez’s pardon is the first granted to a woman imprisoned for abortion. It is a significant victory. But the fight is far from over. Campaigners have been informed that there are no plans to pardon any of the other 16 women. They are to remain, for the foreseeable future, in overcrowded prisons, subject to intimidation and harassment for having been convicted of terminating their pregnancies.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.