On Wednesday, a teenage rape victim in El Salvador was sentenced to 30 years in prison after giving birth to a stillborn child. According to a report from The Guardian, Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz didn't even know she was pregnant after being repeatedly raped over the course of several months by a gang member.
In 2016, Hernandez, then an 18-year-old high school student, complained to her mother of back and abdominal pain. Not realizing she was in labor, she gave birth into a toilet. Although medical experts were unable to determine if the baby died in the womb or after he was born, the prosecutors claimed Hernandez did not want him because she did not seek prenatal care and threw him in the toilet. The judge apparently agreed, convicting her on the grounds that her failure to get adequate antenatal care was tantamount to murder.
According to El Salvador's Citizens' Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion (CCDA), Hernandez's attorneys intend to appeal the ruling, citing "failure to comply with due process and that the sentence is not bound by law."
Hernandez is the latest in a long line of El Salvadoran women who have suffered because of the country's all-out ban on abortion, which has no exception for cases of sexual violence and incest. The law, which went into effect in 1998, is so severe that it's been unfairly used to target women who suffered obstetric emergencies, such as miscarriages or stillbirths, on the suspicion that they self-induced abortions.
According to a report from CCDA, 129 El Salvadorian women were prosecuted due to pregnancy-related issues between 2000 and 2011. In the past few years, reproductive rights groups in the country have identified 17 women—typically referred to as "Las 17"—who were convicted of homicide after miscarrying, and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison as a result.
El Salvador's complete abortion ban is particularly cruel because it's hard to definitively prove a miscarriage was accidental, Center for Reproductive Rights spokesperson Paula Avila-Guillen told Broadly in 2015. "Trying to prove that a woman didn't do anything wrong to terminate her pregnancy is extremely difficult, and in most circumstances the women are poor—they didn't have access to education, they didn't have access to maternal healthcare to begin with—so they are already in a vulnerable situation."
Multiple international groups have called for the repeal of the country's draconian abortion law, including United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. "El Salvador's anti-abortion law is causing nothing but pain and suffering to countless women and girls and their families. It goes against human rights, and it has no place in the country or anywhere," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Earlier this year, legislators in El Salvador considered decriminalizing abortion in four instances: if the woman's health is in danger, if the fetus isn't viable, if the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence from human trafficking, or if a minor has been raped or abused and has her parents' consent. Thus far, however, the bill to amend the ban has yet to move beyond legislative committee.
Elida Caballero Cabrera is the advocacy adviser for Latin America & the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She tells Broadly there's no timeline of when the committee will make its decision on the amendment, especially as the country moves into campaign season with primary elections next March, and many lawmakers are hesitant to bring up polarizing topics such as abortion. But, she says, she and other advocates are hopeful some of sections of the abortion ban will be revised.
"One of the most important things that have happened in El Salvador is that now people talk about [these issues]," she says. "It's important for people to know what's happening. Before the case of 'Las 17,' no one knew there were women being accused of abortion and then incarcerated for up to 30 or 40 years because of aggravated homicide. Now people know this is happening, and all of this is a consequence of the complete ban the country has."
Since the Center for Reproductive Rights began partnering with other organizations to get the cases of Las 17 reviewed, several women have been freed, Cabrera says. She says it's "insanely crazy" that, despite these convictions being overturned, another woman finds herself "sentenced up to 30 years without any proof."
"The prosecutors [in Hernandez's case] were very clear during the hearing that they could not find the cause of death of the fetus," she says. However, "the judge, with so much prejudice, condemned this 19-year-old girl, regardless of all the cases that have been known before. They keep just sentencing women for obstetric emergencies, and this needs to stop."
Cabrera says she visited Hernandez last week in jail. "She's a girl—a 19-year-old girl. We are not giving them the chance to live their lives."