SAN SALVADOR — A woman convicted of homicide under El Salvador’s draconian abortion laws was released this week after serving a decade of her 30-year sentence in a rare victory for women’s rights activists.
The woman, identified only as Elsy, was working as a housekeeper in 2011 when she suffered a medical emergency about 22 weeks into her pregnancy, leading to a stillbirth, activists say.
Police arrested her on suspicion of having an abortion and a judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide. After a four-year legal battle, another judge commuted Elsy’s sentence and released her to her family. Her son turns 12 on Friday.
“I am so happy. Because there were times I thought this day would never come,” Elsy, 38, told abortion-rights activists after her release on Wednesday from the Zacatecolica Detention Center. The Women’s Equality Center, a New York-based human rights group, shared the interview with VICE World News.
El Salvador is one of five Latin American countries with a total ban on the procedure, including in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk. Women convicted of abortion face up to eight years in prison. Many women, like Elsy, have been charged with homicide after stillbirths and then been sentenced by judges to decades in prison. In some cases, hospital employees reported the women to police after they came in seeking medical treatment.
El Salvador’s abortion ban has been toughest on poor, rural women with little access to prenatal care, which means they are more vulnerable to losing their pregnancies. Women's rights activists have fought one by one to win the release of women they believe are wrongly convicted, slowly notching up victories.
But their grass-roots campaign to rewrite one of the world’s strictest abortion laws has so far failed.
“The absolute ban on abortions leads to stigmatization, discrimination and persecution. It automatically converts women who lose their babies into suspects and practically condemns them,” said Morena Herrera, head of the Salvadoran non-profit Citizen Group For The Decriminalization of Abortion.
“This has been a long and tortured path to free Elsy, but we have been determined and finally won.”
Across Latin America, abortion-rights advocates have made major inroads over the past two years. Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion last year and Argentina passed legislation legalizing the procedure up to 14 weeks of pregnancy at the end of 2020. Ecuador lifted its total ban on abortion last year to make it available under specific circumstances.
El Salvador has bucked that trend. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras also have total bans on abortion.
“I have had conversations where prosecutors tell me it’s impossible for a woman to bleed during pregnancy,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, an international human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Women’s Equality Center.
“There is this chaotic environment in which women—all of them poor—don’t have any idea how to advocate for themselves,” she added. “They are assigned a public defender that in many cases doesn’t even know their name. When you look at the files, there is not one inch of defense. It’s outrageous.”
Over the past two decades, more than 180 women in El Salvador who suffered obstetric emergencies—health problems that cause a woman to lose her baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy—have been prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide, according to activists. While prosecutors sometimes dropped the charges, dozens of women ended up in prison.
Women’s rights advocates say they have helped free 62 women since 2009 in El Salvador, including Elsy. In December, they began a campaign featuring Hollywood stars like America Ferrera and Milla Jovovich calling on President Nayib Bukele to release a dozen women who remained locked up.
Bukele has frequently expressed his opposition to abortion and in a March 2020 interview with the Puerto Rican rapper Residente, he called the practice a ”great genocide” and said that even rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term. But he has expressed concern that women are unfairly charged in the case of medical emergencies.
“One thing I do oppose is that in countries like ours, women are criminalized for having miscarriages. Because they’re poor, they are automatically accused of having an abortion,” he said.
The Salvadoran anti-abortion group Foundation Life SV has criticized the effort to release Elsy and the other women, describing it as a “massive disinformation campaign” and a “strategy of media, political and legal manipulation” in an attempt to decriminalize abortion.
But the campaign has made an impact. On December 23, the courts and government officials approved the release of three women serving 30-year sentences. On January 17, a fourth woman who was raped at 17 and had spent nine years behind bars was released.
“We did whatever necessary to get them out,” Avila-Guillen said, acknowledging that they are still considered to be guilty under the law because their sentences were commuted and their convictions had not been overturned. “They are innocent and hopefully they get reparations one day.”
Even today, many women who go to hospitals for medical emergencies are reported to the police for alleged abortions, Herrera said. But fewer are going to prison because abortion-rights groups have gotten better at defending them.
“We understand how the criminal justice system functions,” she said. “Some judges and prosecutors also understand that this complaint violates human rights.”
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in November that El Salvador violated the rights of a woman who died in prison in 2010 while serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide after suffering a stillbirth. The court said El Salvador must pay reparations to the woman’s family and develop policies that protect women who suffer obstetric emergencies.
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