informeannual_17_1_jpgprintjpg
Advocacy, annual report, education, Environment, Food Security, News Highlights, Voices Developments, Womens issues, Youth Development

Celebrating 30 years of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – 2016 Annual Report

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.

informeannual_17_1_jpgprintjpg

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.

Advocacy, Womens issues

Las 17: Women Convicted of Murder for Having a Miscarriage

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.

Womens issues

Constitutional Court Says Beatriz Cannot Terminate Her Pregnancy

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.

El Salvador Government, Public Health, Womens issues

Beatriz and Abortion in El Salvador

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).

Advocacy, Public Health, Womens issues

Please Help to Save Beatriz’s Life – Sign on to the Amnesty International Letter

Amnesty International is asking people to sign on to a letter supporting Beatriz – a 22 year-old Salvadoran women who is 4 ½ months pregnant. Her doctors have diagnosed her with kidney disease and Lupis, and said the fetus doesn’t have a large part of its brain. Beatriz’s life is at risk if she does not terminate her pregnancy. The hospital treating Beatriz has asked the Ministry of Health for permission to provide Beatriz an abortion, but officials have ignored their request.

El Salvador has a constitutional ban against abortion, which has resulted in several serious issues for poor women throughout the country. There are too many cases in which doctors and police have accused Salvadoran women of trying to terminate their pregnancies when they were really having a miscarriage. There are many other cases in which women have died trying to terminate pregnancies that they didn’t want, either because they were raped or their impoverished situation made it impossible for them to care for another life.

To be clear – this is an issue that affects poor women. Salvadorans who need to terminate a pregnancy and have money can go to private doctors and have an abortion without the risk of being arrested. They also have access to information and contraception that is not readily available in public schools or health clinics.

Poor women who can’t pay for a private doctor and have to rely on state facilities do not have any options available to them, other than trying to terminate their pregnancy at home. On March 16, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held a hearing on the impacts of the strict abortion laws in El Salvador.

Unfortunately, abortions are sometimes necessary to save the life of the mother, as it the case with Beatriz.

Please help Beatriz by sending the letter to the Ministry of Health – here is a link to the Amnesty Letter. The letter and instructions are in Spanish – if you fill out the fields under the email, Amnesty will send you an email with the letter and email addresses. All you have to do is reply to the letter (make sure to delete the instructions, leaving the letter in the body of the email). If the email addresses don’t automatically fill in, you can cut and past them.

Thank you!

Equality, Womens issues

International Women’s Day in Morazán – More of a Rally than a Celebration

This week Voices on the Border has been hosting a delegation from Georgetown University, a group of students getting their Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution. They are exploring issues of conflict and peace in the country, beginning with several meetings in San Salvador to get a general overview of issues at the national levels, followed by several days in the mountains of Morazán, where Voices has worked since 1987.

DSCF0154
2013 Celebration of International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis

 

Yesterday the delegation attended a Celebration for International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis in Community Segundo Montes, where a few hundred women gathered to discuss issues that impact their every day lives. Even before the delegates arrived in Morazán, gender issues came up in several of our meetings in the Capital. At CONFRAS (Confederación de Federaciones de la Reforma Agraria Salvadoreña), we learned that only 1% of Salvadoran women own land! Maria Silvia Guillén, the Director of FESPAD (Foundation for the Study of Application of Law) told us of a recent case in which a woman who worked at the Legislative Assembly filed a sexual harassment case against her boss, only to be arrested for defamation. We also heard horror stories of pregnant women going to the hospital with a miscarriage, only to be arrested for supposedly trying to terminate their pregnancy. Several women have been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. During our meetings we heard of several law reform efforts in 2012 to improve conditions for women, but few passed the Legislative Assembly, which is still controlled by men.

The celebration held at the Temple of Martyrs and Heroes in San Luis was as much a rally and call to action as it was a celebration. During the event we spoke with Father Miguel Ventura, who has been working in the region since the early 1970s. He told us that while Morazán doesn’t suffer the high rates of femicide that other regions have, they do have the highest rates of domestic violence in El Salvador. The number of men who attended the event at the Temple, approximately 5, is evidence of the persistence machismo culture. We were told that if men attended the event their male friends would ridicule them.

Speakers at the event stressed the need for women in the region to continue fighting for equality, stressing greater awareness of rights and the need to report domestic violence. While highlighting some of the successes over the years, they said that women had to keep fighting.

Traditionally men give women flowers. Perhaps next year the best gift that Salvadoran women could get would be reduction in the rates of domestic violence, femicide, and inequality.

Womens issues

El Salvador’s Abortion Law in the News

El Salvador’s tough abortion law has been in the international news lately.

This morning, Trust Law told the story of a 27-year-old mentally ill woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for terminating her pregnancy. The woman, whose name has been withheld, went to the hospital this year with complications from an alleged self-induced abortion. She was arrested and in August a judge sentenced her to two years in prison for violating El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion, which includes cases of rape, incest, and when the health of the woman is at risk.

While in jail the woman tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrist with a rusty nail. Authorities responded by committing her to a psychiatric ward where “she now lies handcuffed in a hospital bed under the watch of an armed policeman.” Once released from the psychiatric ward she’ll have to return to prison.

Another case that has received a lot of international attention lately is that of Sonia Tabora, who is also mentioned in the Trust Law article. Ms. Tabora’s case is also tragic. In 2005 she was seven months pregnant when she went into pre-term labor. Family members found her collapsed and lying in her own blood so they rushed her to the local clinic where doctors delivered her stillborn baby. The doctor suspected that Ms. Tabora had tried to terminate her pregnancy and reported her to the police. Upon arrival the police handcuffed her to her bed and placed her under arrest. Later in the year a judge found her guilty of murder, a crime with a much stiffer sentence than the abortion law.

Family, friends and women’s rights activists fought her case for years and she was finally released from prison in August after spending seven years in prison and suffering a mental breakdown. Salvadoran human rights attorney Victor Hugo Mata Tobar, who has worked with Voices on a few issues, has defended several women pro bono, including Sonia Tabora, who have been accused of violating El Salvador’s abortion law or murder. Here are a couple videos about Ms. Tabora’s case – sorry, they are in Spanish:

 

 

In September, Morena Herrera told Contrapunto that she has identified at least 24 women who are currently incarcerated with 30-year sentences for violating the ban on abortion but were charged with murder.

Such aggressive enforcement of El Salvador’s abortion laws has a tremendous impact on women. Between 30 and 40% of women experience a miscarriage, but such strict enforcement of El Salvador’s abortion laws have created a chilling affect in which women are afraid to seek medical care and doctors are afraid to care for them without calling the police.

The issue is compounded by other women’s rights issue, including femicide (El Salvador has the highest rate in the world), sexual violence, economic disparity, and others. For example, in 2010, the Ministry of Health reported that 26,662 girls and adolescent women between 10 and 19 years of age were pregnant and accounted for 1/3 of all births that year. The same age group also accounted for 1/3 of all maternal deaths, 40% of which were suicides.