By Vilma Vaquerano, Communications Coordinator of Ormusa
(translated and adapted from the original Spanish)
In El Salvador, every day at least five women are raped; every 21 minutes a child or adolescent becomes pregnant; every day at least one woman is killed. There are many stories of mothers raped by their own sons who are raising children as the result of this incestuous rape. Nearly 3 out of 10 Salvadoran women suffer physical or sexual violence inflicted by their partners.
But sadly, such horrific statistics do not cause the same sort of outrage in El Salvador as stories about a woman or girl accused of abortion.
In El Salvador abortion is totally criminalized without exception. Women and girls who are raped must carry any resulting pregnancy to term. Even if the woman could die from such a pregnancy, or if the fetus is dead, the woman must carry it to term.
This in a country where many women do not dare to report sexual abuse or rape because they fear they will be accused of being responsible for the attack; or because they do not trust that a complaint could lead to the punishment of the aggressor; or because a complaint could put their life at risk; and because for women a complaint means exposure. A complaint could draw attention to an unacceptable pregnancy and should the woman suffer a spontaneous miscarriage or stillbirth, she could be accused of abortion, which carries a penalty of imprisonment for up to 8 years. Often women accused of having had an abortion are charged with homicide, which carries a penalty of 30-50 years.
Teen pregnancy is common in El Salvador: 25% of adolescent girls under 19 were pregnant in 2015, according to official Ministry of Health statistics. Of these, 1445 girls aged 14 years or less were pregnant, including 7 girls who were 10 years old and 8 girls who were 11 years old. According to the World Health Organization teen pregnancy has high personal and psychosocial costs, the risk of maternal mortality is 4 times higher than older women and the mortality rate of infants is 50% higher than that of adult women.
Many of those arrested in El Salvador are women and girls from low-income households. Often they are reported to the police by medical personnel and are arrested in the hospital. And often they are found guilty by the court of public opinion before even coming to trial, their cases sensationalized in a frenzy of media coverage.
Take the August 2016 case of a 19-year-old schoolgirl from Santa Tecla. According to her grandmother, the girl was sexually abused for years by her 30-year-old brother-in-law who lived in the same house as the girl, along with her older sister and grandmother. The girl was prosecuted for aggravated homicide after a premature still-birth at school. According to Karen Rivas, a lawyer from a feminist organization who provided support to the mother of the student at the initial hearing, the girl said that she did not know she was pregnant and therefore she never attended prenatal care. She said she had colon pain but she bled every month, which she thought was menstruation, so there was no reason to think she was pregnant. Forensic evidence showed the fetus was 6 to 7 months old.
There was massive media coverage of the girl’s case and of the court hearing that lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes. The court did not allow the lawyer to act for the girl at her hearing (and her case is still pending at time of writing). But it is almost irrelevant since the girl has already been condemned by society, by the media and by the law in a country where any form of abortion is criminalized, regardless of the circumstances. And although the law does not state it as such, having obstetric complications that result in a still-birth has been grounds for convicting women of abortion or aggravated murder and punishing them with jail.
In El Salvador, the country with the highest murder rate in the world and the highest rate of femicide (the deliberate killing of a woman because she is a woman), it seems disproportionate to devote resources to the criminal and social persecution of women and girls for a spontaneous or induced abortion, rather than to the men who commit murder. And in prisons, women prosecuted for crimes related to abortion are harassed and attacked, according to Maria Auxiliadora Rivas, the Ombudswoman for the Defense of Human Rights in El Salvador.
Ormusa argues that the ban on all abortions is a violation of El Salvador’s own Constitution, which protects every person’s right to life, liberty, security of person, and social justice. The Constitution also states that all persons are equal before the law and there can be no restrictions based on race, gender or religion. Ormusa contends that El Salvador’s criminal anti-abortion legislation violates all of these constitutional rights, as well as basic human rights established by international treaties that El Salvador has ratified, because it violates the principle of equality and the right to life of women.
Currently the Commission on Legislation of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador is holding consultations with different institutions on a proposed amendment to the Criminal Code to raise prison sentences up to 50 years for the crime of abortion. This legislation was proposed by Ricardo Velasquez Parker of the Nationalist Republican Alliance political party. He believes that raising the punishment will be “a message of protection to the most vulnerable people” and reaffirms the commitment of his party to the defense of life from the moment of conception. It seems that the lives of women do not deserve such protection.
As has been recommended by the United Nations, in the case of El Salvador it is imperative to re-think the absolute criminalization of abortion, and to provide regulatory frameworks, plans and permanent programs of sex education.