It was mid-July when Milagro Alvarado received yet another text message from a worried mother who suspected that her 12-year-old daughter was pregnant, and had been raped.
"Don’t worry, tell me what happened,” said Alvarado. “Try no to be afraid."
Alvarado, an activist for a non-profit Coalition for Women of the East which works in sexual health, says sexual abuse has increased during the pandemic as a result of young girls being more confined to their homes and unable to escape unwanted sexual attention from relatives and other aggressors.
Informal reports of unplanned pregnancies in young girls and teenagers to non-profits who work in sexual rights have surged since the government of El Salvador introduced strict lockdown measures in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“This problem is going to get worse - it’s a complicated issue that girls and teenagers are facing,” she said. Alvarado says many pregnancies aren’t being reported officially because women aren’t able to move around to do so, and are also fearful because they are confined to living with their aggressors. Estimates by non-profits for new pregnancies in minors are higher than government figures.
"I'm very worried about the underreporting, which is severe".
Another group registered a 76 percent surge in teenage pregnancies in the months of April, May and June, and a 71 percent increase in expectant mothers aged 15 to 19 during that time.
“Girls and teenagers haven’t left their houses to go to school or do other things, and [the growth in pregnancies] shows that they’re increasingly the victims of sexual violence, abuse and rape at home. They’re being exposed to forced pregnancy as a result of sexual abuse,” Roxana Rodríguez from the organization PROES told local media.
A lack of official data and research to explain the increase in pregnancies in such young girls is lacking, but some government workers concur with non-profits on the cause. "Cases of sexual abuse and pregnancy in girls has been increasing during the pandemic period," said Mario Soriano, a doctor at the Attention for Teenagers Unit at the Ministry of Health.
Those who work with women say that the sexual abuse of minors in the home is common even when lockdown measures aren’t in place. Silvia Juárez, a coordinator for the feminist organization Salvadoran Women for Peace (known by its Spanish acronym ORMUSA), said that during normal times, more than half of the women they work with report abuse at home.
A lack of access to contraception services due to restrictions on movement is also a factor pushing up unwanted pregnancies, said Juarez.
El Salvador has some of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the world. Terminating pregnancy is prohibited under all circumstances, even in cases of rape and sexual abuse. Women who have suffered miscarriages are currently serving jail sentences on homicide charges, according to human rights organizations.
Alvarado says the authorities are part of the problem. “Police say processing reports [of pregnancy in minors] isn't a priority, and the government says that women are safer at home."
Cover: Women shout slogans and hold up banners against sexual harassment and sexual assault during a protest in San Salvador, El Salvador on November 4 2019. Photo by Camilo Freedman/Getty Images)