El Salvador’s ban on abortion is one of the toughest in the world, but for the first time in 20 years, there are signs the law could be weakened. These are some of the men and women spearheading the country’s movement for women’s rights.
San Salvador, El Salvador (CNN) – María Teresa Rivera was 28 when her mother-in-law found her bleeding heavily on the bathroom floor. She rushed Rivera to the hospital, desperate to save her life, but when they arrived, medics took one look at the young woman and called the police.
As Rivera lay in her bloodied clothes, police officers questioned her about what had happened to her baby. She says she had not known she was pregnant until that moment.
Despite evidence showing the fetus had died of natural causes, Rivera was later found guilty of “aggravated homicide.” She was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
“Life in jail was hell,” says Rivera. She and others in similar situations had “lost children, families, and everything. And the saddest part of it all was that we’re paying a conviction for a ‘crime’ that never existed.”
“I do not want another woman to go to prison,” she says. “Instead of protecting our health and freedom, the Salvadoran state and the law criminalizes and tortures poor girls and women like me.”
Lengthy prison sentences
In El Salvador, a small Central American country with a population of more than six million, El Salvadoran women who have an abortion, or simply miscarry, can face up to 50 years in prison.
At least 129 women were prosecuted under El Salvador’s stringent anti-abortion laws between 2000 and 2011, according to the pressure group Citizens for the Decriminalization of Abortion.
The Center for Reproductive Rights says at least 13 women remain in prison, convicted of aggravated homicide over the death of their babies.
Last week another woman, Evelyn Beatriz, who activists say had been raped, was sentenced to 30 years in prison over the death of her newborn. The baby was found in a septic tank, where prosecutors say Beatriz had thrown him. Beatriz’s mother told CNN her daughter did not know she was pregnant when she gave birth in a bathroom in April 2016.
Campaign groups say Beatriz’s case is emblematic of the harm that harsh anti-abortion laws can cause.
In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under all circumstances, with no exceptions, even in the case of rape, or where the woman’s life is at risk.
Over the years, the country’s abortion law has sparked witch hunts within communities – if a neighbor, relative or doctor suspects a woman may have had an abortion, they can call the police and have her arrested.
Fears surrounding the punitive law mean self-induced abortions are common. According to Amnesty International, Salvadoran women and girls have gone to extreme measures, thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix, ingesting rat poison and taking ulcer treatment drugs, to cause abortions.
Now, almost 20 years after the law was introduced, there is a growing chorus of calls to overturn the total ban.
Amid increased pressure from its own citizens, campaigners, doctors, ethicists and lawyers, as well as international bodies such as the United Nations – which urged the country to allow abortion in some cases earlier this year – legislators and politicians are considering loosening the restrictions.
A new bill – first introduced in late 2016 by the left-wing party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – would allow abortion in cases of rape when the victim is a minor or a victim of human trafficking, when the fetus is unviable, or to protect a woman’s health or life.
A change in the law would mark a significant turning point for women’s rights in the country, but the bill faces serious opposition from El Salvador’s Catholic Church, anti-abortion groups and politicians, including the right-wing opposition party the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena).
These are the people demanding reforms to El Salvador’s abortion law.
The millennial campaigner
Sara Garcia is a campaigner with the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which has played a key role in leading the younger generation’s abortion rights efforts. Her campaign is professional as well as personal – over the years, she has struck up friendships with many women incarcerated for having abortions, and regularly meets with them and their families.
“This is a historic time for us,” says Garcia, smiling as she takes a sip of coffee. “Everything happening now has never happened before.”
Garcia has grown up alongside the law, which came into effect when she was 10, but says conversation around the issue was “non-existent” for many years.
Today, Garcia says that for the first time in the movement’s history, there is opposition support in the assembly to change the law.
“For reproductive rights, all the world’s eyes are looking at El Salvador,” she says.
“What happens to our reproductive rights will mark a sign for women everywhere. We have an opportunity to stop our country sliding backwards. Salvadorans can no longer deny the cruel consequences of this law.”
Abortion and women’s reproductive rights are heavily politicized issues in El Salvador – and the divide between the two sides is deeply entrenched.
Politicians are “always thinking of the election,” says Garcia – they know the issue of abortion will have a big impact on how people vote.
Garcia says the international community has helped abortion advocates’ campaign efforts. Recently, her organization joined forces with Planned Parenthood and Women Human Rights Defenders, an international coalition of 35 human rights groups, to take a stand against criticism from politicians – and death threats from anti-abortion campaigners.
“Everything that happened with Planned Parenthood and women’s rights in the US also happened here,” Garcia says. “Violence is everywhere in the politicians’ arguments against abortion – in the way they talk, in their messages, in their actions.”
“These are the same people who say women can’t have access to contraception, and to many other rights,” she added.
The champion of the abortion rights movement
If Garcia is the leader of the younger generation campaigning for abortion in El Salvador, then Morena Herrera, head of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, is the voice of the old guard.
Huddled in a small office in the center of San Salvador, Herrera and Garcia work at desks facing each other, surrounded by feminist posters.
Herrera says she is driven by the ordinary women behind bars in prison who she says are “just like her,” but face an unknown future.
A former Marxist guerrilla, Herrera has channeled her decades of experience fighting for social change into the women’s rights cause.
“I try to make it all work,” she said with a laugh as phones ring and people bustle in and out, asking for guidance. “I work night and day, I have many to-do lists, I collaborate with a lot of people, and I have a lot of meetings. I always say that I live with urgency!”
El Salvador has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America – something Herrera says is fueled by the lack of sex education in schools.
She says sexual abuse and rape are leading factors in underage pregnancy; she has worked with many women whose children have been subjected to sexual abuse and rape, and wants to help the mothers fight the issue.
In 2016, El Salvador’s National Civil Police recorded 3,947 sexual offense complaints, of which 1,049 were cases of rape; 1,873 of the victims were minors, or classified as “incapacitated,” according to the Organization of Salvadoran Women (ORMUSA).
“Many of the girls here who need an abortion have been raped,” Herrera explains. “It is not just adult women, it’s abuse of minors. Children cannot consent – it is sexual violence.”
If a teenage girl is raped and tries to terminate her pregnancy, she could face decades in jail. But her rapist, if convicted, would only face six to ten years’ imprisonment. According to a study by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), girls under 12 are most at risk of getting pregnant by rape, most commonly targeted by stepfathers and relatives.
Herrera says many uncertainties lie ahead: She is unsure whether the proposed reform will be sent to the legislative assembly, or if it will be shelved, meaning the issue will be taken off the agenda for six months. Months after the legalization campaign began, the new bill remains mired in political arguments, and has yet to come to a vote.
But she says the fact there is a proposal at all is hugely significant – and that the fight isn’t just for feminists.
“Yes, this is a huge injustice to women, but it’s an injustice that can be repaired,” she says. “It’s a problem for society, democracy, not just a problem for feminists. It’s essential the women’s movement are involved - but this isn’t just our fight, it’s a fight for everyone.”
Dennis Munoz, a lawyer in San Salvador, first took notice of El Salvador’s abortion laws when 17-year-old Christina Quintanilla was found guilty of aggravated homicide after suffering a miscarriage, and sentenced to 30 years.
Munoz took up her case, leading to her release four years later.
“I took the first case because of my daughter,” he says, smiling at Marcela, an 18-year-old student. “I asked myself: if this was my daughter in the prison, who would help to release her?”
Munoz says his work defending women is a “privilege.”
Visiting Herrera and Garcia’s office with Marcela, the group discusses the latest court cases and ask the teenager how her studies are going, as the office buzzes with phone calls.
“Justice is important to me,” Munoz says, sitting in the courtyard outside. “I want girls in my daughter’s generation to have their rights.”
“My dad’s work is very inspiring,” says Marcela. “When you see a group of people who want to do something to make a difference, it makes me want to be better. You can change the world in many ways, and this is one of them.”
The majority of women imprisoned under El Salvador’s abortion law are poor and lack education, and Munoz has seen how the law significantly punishes women living in poverty.
He says some rich women are able to get around the law by going to private clinics and having abortions in secret, but poor women simply don’t have that option.
“They call me many things,” Munoz said. “They say I’m a bad father. But for me, the justice and truth is important. I know this is best for the country – one day I dream for that change to happen.”
The fight goes on
El Salvador is considered the most dangerous country in the world outside of a war zone. Gang violence and murder plagues the nation, which, according to police, recorded its first homicide-free day in two years earlier this year.
Abortion rights campaigners have vowed to continue their efforts regardless of the outcome of the bill – as will the anti-abortion lobby.
The Catholic Church, which holds huge influence in a country that remains socially conservative, remains staunchly anti-abortion, despite Pope Francis’s 2016 ruling that priests may “absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion.”
The Vatican’s view, clarified in 2009, is that “abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law … Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” Pope Francis restated in 2016 that “abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to innocent life.”
Unlike many other women in similar situations, María Teresa Rivera’s story has something of a happy ending: After years of failed legal appeals, the criminal chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court agreed to review her case. In May 2016, Rivera’s conviction was overturned after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence against her.
This year, Rivera and her 12-year-old son were granted asylum in Sweden; Rivera is the first woman in the world to receive such protection because of her country’s abortion laws, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“It’s not easy to arrive in a country where you cannot speak the language, but I have the opportunity to start a new life,” Rivera tells CNN. “I’m very happy to be safe and away from a society where I only received discrimination and persecution from the state.”
Rossalyn Warren is a reporter and contributor to The Fuller Project for International Reporting. Reporting for this article was supported by The European Journalism Centre. CNN’s Marilia Brocchetto contributed to this report.