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