Bertha DeLeón wears a green facemask as she campaigns for votes in upcoming legislative elections in El Salvador.
To those outside of Latin America, green may mean an environmental agenda, but here, it signals another struggle. The words “Vota Por Mujeres” —vote for women—are emblazoned across her mask. In this part of the world, green has come to symbolize the fight for legal abortion, and a feminist movement in ascendancy.
“Clearly,” DeLeón told the host of a prominent television show in El Salvador last month, “I am in favor of decriminalizing abortion.”
Such words are unprecedented during an election campaign in El Salvador, which has one of the harshest bans against abortion in the world. It’s one of four countries to have outlawed abortion completely in the region. More than 140 women accused of terminating their pregnancies have been jailed on homicide charges since 1998.
“And why not say it? It’s one of my strongest motivations, to get to the legislative assembly and debate it under the criteria of public health, and under the criteria of the reality of poor women, rural women, women who are never heard,” said DeLeón.
She and four other women have banded together to run for office on a shared platform of women’s rights, placing the typically taboo topic of abortion at the center of their proposition to the public.
With DeLeón, a human rights lawyer, as its most recognizable face, the group of longtime activists draws inspiration from the Squad, the group of legislators in the United States led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, who are pushing progressive policies and challenging the dominant economic system. Knock Down the House, the documentary on Ocasio-Cortez’s remarkable 2018 run, has become required viewing for DeLeón and her colleagues.
“We have that same warrior spirit,” said DeLeón, who is running for a legislative seat in the capital city of San Salvador. The El Salvador group includes Keyla Caceres, who is running as DeLeón’s deputy; Wendy Delgado Fernández and Angélica Maria Rívas, running for Congress in the department of Santa Ana, and Amanda Quijano, who is seeking a municipal seat in the capital.
They don’t have a catchy group name, and as political novices they are very much learning along the way. But their alliance is evidence of a shifting landscape in a traditionally conservative part of the world. Feminism is gaining ground as a political force. The regional movement clinched its most significant victory yet in December, when Argentina legalized elective abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy. But shortly afterwards, Honduras, another country that has banned abortion, put a legal padlock on it by adding the prohibition to the constitution.
The El Salvador candidates are moderating their expectations, aiming for the most basic legal provisions that would decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, if the mother’s life is at risk, or the fetus cannot survive outside the womb, rather than all out elective abortion.
A similar proposal was put forward in 2016 by Lorena Peña, a legislator for the leftist Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), but never approved. Decriminalization of abortion in specific circumstances has also been taken up by a group of women candidates in the FMLN this election, and was highlighted at a press conference this month, but it remains a divisive issue within its own party ranks.
“We can’t keep waiting for society to open up,” DeLeón, a 42-year-old mother of two, said to VICE World News. “We simply have to position ourselves from the need to protect the lives of women, and the freedom of women. It doesn’t matter if that position does not help us get to a position of power. I think it’s necessary that we open up that path. If we don’t do it as lawyers and activists, no one is going to.”
The women are part of a new party, called Nuestro Tiempo, or Our Time, that is made up of mostly unknown, young candidates. A recent poll suggests that less than one percent of voters intend to back them.
“We’re tired of knocking on doors in the legislative assembly and that it’s always conditioned by the political will of the parties because of votes,” said Fernández, a 32-year-old lawyer and entrepreneur who owns a bakery that employs women who are victims of violence.
“It’s exhausting but also infuriating to see how the legislators don’t respond to the needs of women and girls,” said Caceres, a 28-year-old who has worked on cases of femicides and sexual assault on university campuses. “A man who killed a woman, or who dismembered her, is able to walk free with a sentence reduction, and not the woman who has been criminalized for an emergency obstetric event.”
Like most else in El Salvadoran politics, the attention during the legislative elections at the end of the month is squarely on President Nayib Bukele, a so-called “millennial” leader who rose to power in 2019 on an anti-establishment agenda and who has turned increasingly authoritarian. This will be the first test for his newly formed party Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, and polls clearly indicate they will emerge victorious.
The climate is tense and the stakes are high. On Jan. 31, gunmen opened fire and killed two members of the FMLN while on their way home from a campaign event. It was the worst political violence seen in years in a country that is still haunted by a civil war that ended in 1992. Bukele, who is accused of sowing division with hateful and confrontational rhetoric, suggested that the attack was staged by the FMLN, his chief political opposition. But police have arrested a police agent, a motorist and a security guard for Bukele’s health ministry in the slaying.
DeLeón was Bukele’s lawyer before he was president and has since become one of his most vocal critics, something that has made her the target of vicious attacks online. The harassment got so bad, a court barred a Bukele ally who had been incessantly attacking her on social media from running in the election. Bukele responded with the tongue-in-cheek move of changing his profile photo to a fictional dictator.
Gaining a foothold in politics for women is its own challenge in El Salvador, where public opinion surveys show “an important prejudice” against those females who seek public office. Women who have made it inside have not shown a propensity to take up the causes of the feminist movement, said Laura Andrade, director of the University Institute of Public Opinion based out of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University.
In a country where eight out of ten people identify as Evangelical or Catholic, abortion remains a divisive issue. Andrade pointed to surveys that show that even in instances where the brain of the fetus is not developing, 49 percent of respondents said they did not approve of terminating the pregnancy. A survey published last month found that 82 percent of people interviewed are against abortion for medical reasons.
“This is a problem that has to do with education and information,” said Andrade. “We’re very far from understanding that it’s a necessary discussion that we have to have.”
Indeed, with Bukele in staunch opposition - “one day we’re going to realize that we’re committing a great genocide with abortion,” he said last year - advancement on the issue will be difficult.
“Politicians evade it, or they simplify it to an issue of pro life,” said DeLeón, who has fought for the release of women who were jailed for obstetric incidents, including the high profile cases of Imelda Cortez Palacios and Evelyn Hernandez Cruz, both rape victims who gave birth in toilets.
“They don’t take into consideration maternal deaths or the suicides that are happening - girls who choose to kill themselves because they are pregnant from rape, and they don’t see a way out.”
The group of five maintain that attitudes are changing. They have been working from the ground up for years, and it’s through that activism that they got to know each other. Now they meet once a week to share feedback on what they’re learning, and strategize on messaging and other initiatives. Their platforms extend beyond abortion, to policies to improve the economic picture for women, combat the high rate of femicide, and a gender identity law that recognizes trans people.
They see gains being made, in particular how their message is being amplified by the mainstream media.
“We wouldn’t be in those spaces if we weren’t a group, competing as candidates, saying something new, and part of a new party that is close to these power players who own these channels,” said Rivas. “We’re not the same conservative society from 30 years ago,” added Fernandez. “There are a lot of people who support these issues.”
But they have been on the receiving end of online vitriol, and there are days when the personal risks they are taking weigh on them. “It is a bit reckless, to be challenging power, being a mother, you know,” said DeLeón, who has received death threats following the legal victory against the president’s ally.
Quijano, the daughter of a well known feminist in El Salvador, Morena Herrera, doesn’t expect to win this round.
For her, as for the entire group, it’s about the long game. “I decided to run to put on the public agenda topics that were not being touched,” said Quijano, 29. “That, for me, is already a victory.”