We’ve put together some of our highlights from the last 12 months.
2019 ANNUAL WORK REPORT
We’ve put together some of our highlights from the last 12 months.
Watch the Morazán Women’s Network take their first course on self-defense.
This special workshop was giving by Claudia Fuentes, a Salvadoran martial artist who has developed a self-defense program with a feminist approach especially for women and girls in El Salvador.
The Women’s Network of Morazán continue to develop their community Action Protocol to address the very real problem of gender violence in the department. This month they began working on an important section, the actual step by step guides that different actors should follow in order to ensure the safety, justice and healing for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
2016 was a dynamic year for Voices. We said goodbye to old friends and opened the door to new ones. We began an extensive education revitalization project in Bajo Lempa, started supporting women’s empowerment in Morazán and even joined in on environmental justice protests in the capital San Salvador.
This year is even more special because we turn 30! Since our inception in the refugee camps until now, we have never deserted our communities and are committed to being a critical source of support for them now, and in the future.
Read our report to find out what our partners have been up to, the large scales issues they are facing and how Voices has been working hard in collaboration with leaders to find solutions to issues and pathways to accomplishing goals.
The application of El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion is among the most draconian in the world.
One thing that makes it so barbaric is that women who miscarry can be convicted of murder and be sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. Right now there are at least 15 women (called Las 17) living in El Salvador’s notoriously over-crowded, violent prisons just for having a miscarriage.
Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, so in El Salvador every woman who gets pregnant is at risk of ending up in jail.
Actually, its not every woman – those who can afford it go to private hospitals and clinics where they receive proper care (including abortions) and privacy. Poor women, however, must rely on the public hospitals and clinics where they may receive good care, or be treated as criminals.
In recent months, the case of Carmen Guadelupe Vasquez has gotten some international attention. After a long battle, advocates secured her release after she miscarried and was convicted for murder. Guadelupe served more than 7 years of her 30-year sentance. Guadelupe’s is not an uncommon story. At the age of 18 she was working as a maid for a family in San Salvador. The family’s neighbor raped Guadelupe and she became pregnant. She miscarried and sought care at a public hospital where a nurse or doctor called the police. Guadelupe was arrested and handcuffed to her bed.
The Salvadoran Supreme Court recently recommended to the Legislative Assembly that Guadelupe be pardoned due to the manner in which the courts handled her case. It took the Legislative Assembly two votes but in January 2015 they finally voted to release her.
One incredible aspect of these cases is how easy it is to convict women accused of violating the abortion ban or homicide. The impunity rate for violent crimes against woman (including rape and murder) is between 95 and 97%. That means if a man rapes or kills a woman, he’s got a good chance of getting away with it. Prosecutors and judges, however, have no problem convicting women for having a miscarriage, and basing that conviction on little or no evidence.
Last year National Public Radio did a story on Christina Quintanilla who was convicted for murder after having a miscarriage. Her conviction was over-turned when an attorney argued that her original conviction was not based on any evidence.
At least fifteen women remain incarcerated for murder after having a miscarriage. While advocates like Morena Horrera of the Feminist Collective and Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion celebrate Guadelupe’s recent release, they continue to seek justice for the others. Advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of all 15 women. The court has denied six of these petitions and has yet to decide on the other nine. Advocates have asked the United Nations and other international agencies to intervene.
The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently circulating a petition asking that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervene on behalf of Las 17 – please go to their site and sign the petition… and stay informed – El Salvador won’t be repealing the abortion law anytime soon, and more women are likely to be convicted.
The Salvadoran Supreme Court handed down a 4 to 1 decision denying Beatriz’ request to terminate her 26-week fetus, which doctors say has a fatal anomaly and will not survive childbirth.
Over the past couple months, Beatriz has gained international attention because she has lupus, an autoimmune disease that has damaged her kidneys and resulted in other health problems. If forced to carry her pregnancy to term she faces any number of life-threatening complications including kidney failure or preeclampsia – pregnancy related hypertension.
El Salvador has an absolute ban on abortion that does not allow exceptions for the health of the mother or for rape or incest. In April Beatriz’s doctors and attorney appealed to the Salvadoran Constitutional Court, asking that her medical team be allowed to terminate her pregnancy without fear of prosecution and prison.
After weeks of contemplation, four of the Court’s five magistrates determined that if Beatriz and her doctors terminated the pregnancy they could be prosecuted under the abortion ban.
According to the BBC, Rodolfo Gonzalez, one of the four Magistrates who voted against allowing the termination, said he had not been convinced that Beatriz was at risk of dying if the pregnancy was allowed to continue. He also said that they could not turn the Constitutional Court into a “tribunal to allow the interruption of pregnancies.”
The Magistrates also said the rights of the mother cannot supersede those of the unborn child, and vice versa, that the rights of the fetus cannot supersede those of the mother. That logic, however, doesn’t seem to work in this case. Either way the court decided they would put the rights of the mother or the fetus over the rights of the other, and they decided that the fetus’ rights trump, even though it has no chance of survival.
The Court could have taken the opportunity to decide that El Salvador’s abortion ban is too extreme and that women should not have to carry pregnancies that are jeopardizing their health. In their appeal to the Constitutional Court Beatriz’s attorney was challenging the ban and asking for a broader decision that at least allowed for an exception when the mother’s life is at risk. A broader decision would have addressed Magistrate Gonzalez’s fear that the Court would turn into a tribunal for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. But the Constitutional Court, which has showed some independence in recent years, does not appear ready to start protecting the rights of Salvadoran women.
Florentin Melendez, who was the only Magistrate to vote to allow Beatriz access to an abortion, said the court should have ruled in her favor to “guarantee that the medical personnel would not omit [any treatments] and would act diligently at all times, without having to recur to legal authorization to protect the life of the mother and the human being she is carrying in her womb.”
But this is already a serious problem in El Salvador. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the absolute ban on abortion prevents doctors from, among other things, treating women with ectopic pregnancies – a condition in which the fertilized egg is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus – without risking imprisonment. That’s right… Salvadoran doctors cannot treat ectopic pregnancies, which have zero chance of survival and can be fatal for the woman, without being prosecuted for violating El Salvador’s abortion ban.
A Salvadoran women’s rights organization that has taken on Beatriz’s case indicated they are trying to help Beatriz travel to another country where she can safely and legally terminate her pregnancy.
But Beatriz’s case is not unique and that is not an answer for the thousands of other women in El Salvador that are or will be in her position. Women with ectopic pregnancies, preeclampsia, lupus or other illnesses regularly die alone at home or in an over-crowded maternity ward where they are being denied life-saving treatments because doctors fear prosecution.
And every year 13, 14, and 15 year old girls are raped by a family members or local boys and have to drop out of school because they are pregnant, all but guaranteeing they will spend their lives in poverty.
There is some discussion – not enough – about El Salvador’s extremely high femicide rate – the highest in the world. But repression and violence against women comes in too many forms, and El Salvador’s extreme abortion ban is just another way that Salvadoran society represses women.
As we have stated on this blog before, the hypocrisy behind El Salvador’s abortion ban is extreme and tragic. The wealthier classes that enacted and enforce the ban and stripped any meaningful sex-education from schools, have access to the full range of health services from their private doctors, including contraception and abortion. They can also afford to travel to the U.S. or other countries where they can safely and anonymously terminate their pregnancies.
For now, the Constitutional Court and much of Salvadoran society seems to be okay with that. But the conversation will surely continue because there will undoubtedly be more brave women to come forward.
Doctors recommend that Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman with Lupus, terminate her 19-week pregnancy due to the associated risks of morbidity or mortality. Her doctors are worried that because Lupus has damaged her kidneys and caused other health issues, she is at high risk of preeclampsia, pregnancy related hypertension, and other life-threatening complications. Also, her fetus has a lethal anomaly that, aside from any of Beatriz’s health issues, will result in its eventual demise, either in utero or immediately after its delivery.
We first posted about Beatriz’s case last week when Amnesty International asked the international community to write to members of the Salvadoran government on her behalf.
In 1998, El Salvador completed a series of reforms, which included changing the constitution, resulting in an absolute ban against abortion. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the ban is so restrictive that doctors cannot remove ectopic pregnancies (when a fertilized egg stays is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), which have no chance of survival and put the mother’s health at risk.
After years of quiet activism a growing cadre of civil society organizations and human rights activists are speaking out against the absolute abortion ban and its extreme application. Over the past several years, activists have been defending women who have been accused of having an abortion, some of which have been convicted in a court of law and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Civil society, however, has really coalesced around Beatriz’s case, which is a potentially tragic example of the impact that the ban has on Salvadoran women.
This movement, which has become more vocal in recent weeks, is being met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church and Fundación Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life Foundation), which represents some 50 pro-life organizations.
The Catholic Church and Yes to Life oppose allowing Beatriz to terminate her pregnancy, even if it means that she loses her own life. The Archbishop of San Salvador José Luis Escobar, said, “it is my understanding that the mother of the child is not in an intensive care situation… For me, it is the baby in utero that is in more danger because there is a movement to terminate its life. Only God knows how long this baby that they want to kill will live.”
Julia Regina de Cardenal, the President of the Foundation Yes to Life said “She [Beatriz] is stable, and able to speak, what we want is her physical and emotional wellbeing; we are trying to get close to her to help her. Carlos Mayora Escobar, also from Yes to Life, said “these people, why do they want to legalize abortion in this country? For political reasons, for ideological reasons, for reasons unknown. We always try to defend the rights of the women.”
As we posted last week, doctors at the National Maternity Hospital have filed an appeal with the Salvadoran Supreme Court, asking them to give the okay on terminating the pregnancy to save Beatriz’s life. The Court has yet to respond, but the magistrates asked the National Bioethics Commission of El Salvador (CNBES, in Spanish) for its opinion, which they provided this week. The CNBES advised the Court that Beatriz’s doctors should be allowed to immediately proceed with the potentially life-saving procedure.
The Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which advocates for legalization of abortion in El Salvador, supports Beatriz’s case. They are using it to demonstrate why they believe abortion should be safe and legal. On Thursday, April 25th, the group is presenting Beatriz’s case before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, asking them to intervene.
Lic. Oscar Luna, the Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights in El Salvador, published a statement on April 16 also supporting Beatriz’s case as a human rights issue, stressing the mother’s right to life. He wrote in 2009, “the complete ban of abortion greatly increases the pain and suffering of women and girls, including those who seek medical attention for complications that require an abortion… because the penalty for abortion causes physical pain, fear, depression, and prison. In many occasions the suffering can lead to death or suicide.”
Luna says, “During my term [as Ombudsman], I have insisted that the human rights approach to health care ought to have an integral focus, taking into account the needs and requirements particular to women during all the different stages of life; and that in all forms, it is urgent to double up the efforts to decrease the causes of mortality and morbidity in El Salvador.” He concluded that the medical team should “use all means necessary to protect Beatriz’s right to life, health, and personal integrity.
In 2006, the New York Times Magazine published a long article on the abortion issue in El Salvador called the Pro-Life Nation. In addition to detailing the experiences of women who have had abortions in El Salvador, the article discusses the constitutional ban and abortion laws, and how the doctors/police/prosecutors enforce them.
In one sense, Beatriz’s case is extreme – it is a potentially life or death situation for her. But in many ways her case is not that different from other Salvadoran women who are socially and economically marginalized, lack knowledge of or access to contraception, and have little control over when and with whom that have sexual intercourse.
If you want to help Beatriz, please visit the Amnesty International website (click here).