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.

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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 writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, Invisible Women, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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