News Highlights, women & girls

Imelda es Libre!

December 17, 2018
Jiquilisco, Usulután, El Salvador

Salvadoran judge Hugo Noé García, overturned an attempted murder charge, carrying a 20 year sentence, by the district attorney’s office in Usulután against Imelda Cortez, who then at 19-years-old, experienced a traumatic labor which caused her to loose consciousness and give birth to her baby in a latrine.
 
The baby girl survived and is in good health and Imelda spent 609 days in prison.

Her 71-year-old stepfather, Pablo Dolores Henríquez Ayala, who after 7 years of assaulting her, impregnated her, has been prosecuted for aggravated and continued rape of a minor. This after he himself gave accusatory testimony to the national police about his step-daughter on the day of the incident.

The judge recognized the mental and physical stress Imelda must have endured before, during and after giving birth to the newborn and lamented over the fact that she was denied access to not only her baby but the therapeutic care she desperately needed in order to heal from the long-term psychological damage that had been inflicted on her.

Since it was put forth, the case has been contested in the international court of public opinion and, due to the full-scale feminist movement in El Salvador and beyond, Imelda has receive top-notch legal representation, international media coverage and diplomatic support.

The morning of the 18th, Imelda and her defense team were prepared to accept a reduced sentenced of one year, time served, in exchange for pleading guilty to the prosecution’s lesser change of “abandoning a newborn.” However the judge, in an astonishing move, over-tuned the ruling four hours after the session began.

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Hundreds of supporters gathered outside of the courthouse on Monday to support Imelda and chants of “si se puede!” rang out as she was led out.
 

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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!

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.

El Salvador Government, Public Health

Women’s Rights Debate Heats Up in El Salvador

El Faro published an article last week discussing the United Nations’ appeal to El Salvador that it amend its laws to accommodate safe access to abortions. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee issued a report last Thursday asking El Salvador to decriminalize abortion and revamp its dismal record of women’s rights violations. The report emphasizes, “El Salvador is one of the only five countries in the Latin America that maintains an absolute prohibition on abortion, including under circumstances when pregnancy endangers the women’s life.”

El Salvador’s laws restricting abortion have become increasingly restrictive in the last two decades.  Until 1998, abortion was illegal except in cases of rape, incest, fetal anomaly, and when the mother’s life or health was at risk.  Starting in 1998, El Salvador instituted a series of reforms restricting women’s access to reproductive service.  Chapter II of El Salvador’s revised Penal Code now “penalizes women who induce their own abortions or give their consent to someone else to induce an abortion; doctors, pharmacists or other health care workers who practice abortions; persons who encourage a woman to have an abortion or provide the financial means to obtain an abortion; and persons who unintentionally cause an abortion.” The penalty ranges from two to eight years in prison. In 1999 the constitution was amended to define a human being “from the moment of conception.” Although El Salvador is party to many international treaties guaranteeing women’s and children’s rights, and although El Salvador’s constitution grants recognition to these treaties and conventions as equal in status to national law, the country continues to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

The UN report also highlights the concern over violence against women and girls in the country, including rape and sexual violence, which it characterized as “pervasive and widespread.”  The report “demonstrates how El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion health services directly violates of women’s and young girls rights to equality, life, liberty, health and be free from torture. Furthermore, it violates every woman’s right to receive medical attention while preserving patient confidentiality, which is violated by medical personal that have been pressured by the police to report these incidents.”

A blog article in yesterday’s Ms. Magazine touched on the concerns over the links between restricting reproductive rights and increased violence against women when discussing the case of Irma Medrano, a Salvadoran woman who fled the country in 1995 and settled in California.  She has been living with her sister and hoped to escape the dangers of her abusive husband back in El Salvador, whom police investigators refused to investigate citing the violence as a private matter.  Although the Obama Administration has previously recognized fear of domestic violence as a justification for asylum, Ms. Medrano is currently in the process of being deported back to El Salvador despite word that her husband will be looking for her once she arrives.

Access to abortion became a subject of public debate earlier this year after Maria Evelyn Martinez, Director of the Salvadoran Institute for Women (Idesmu, for its name in Spanish), ratified the Consensus of Brazil without the President’s explicit consent. The Consensus was developed during the 11th Regional Conference for Women in Latin America in the Caribbean, an event sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations, which took place on the 16th of July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Consensus calls for greater protection of women’s rights, and asks that all signing countries reconsider any laws that punish a woman for seeking an abortion and promise safe and secure access to abortion where it is permitted by law. By ratifying the Consensus, Ms. Martinez agreed that El Salvador would revisit its strict anti-abortion laws. Her action is widely unpopular and was harshly criticized before being overturned by President Funes.

Martinez signed the document with the understanding that she was authorized to participate fully in the forum using only her own judgment. In the governing laws of Idesmu it specifically states that the director is authorized to “create, circulate, and promote effective compliance with the agreements ratified by El Salvador in relation to the improvement of women’s quality of life” (Idesmu Charter). Given this language, Ms. Martinez felt that she was able to sign on behalf of the nation without the President’s specific approval.

However, in a public statement in late August, Funes criticized Martinez’ actions and said that he has “never given any consent for the revision of the country’s laws.” He continued, “the national constitution states that life begins at the moment of conception, and as long as this constitution is in effect we must respect its laws” (El Faro). He also stated that he would communicate with the coordinating bodies of the Consensus of Brazil to inform them that Ms. Martinez was not authorized to sign the document and that El Salvador would be withdrawing its signature from this aspect of the agreement.

Ms. Martinez has defended her actions by pointing out that this is the fifth time she has signed an international document calling for the revision of El Salvador’s abortion laws, but no President (including Funes) has ever criticized these decisions in the past.

Official responses to the event were mixed. Many FMLN representatives have asked for improved communication and coherency between government offices so that misunderstandings like this one can be avoided in the future. The Vice-minister of Health, Violeta Menjivar, and the second in command for the FMLN Legislative group, Norma Guevara, openly expressed their disappointment at the President’s refusal to reconsider the law. El Faro took this opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with Ms. Martinez, questioning her about her role as Director of Idesmu and her personal beliefs.  Archibisop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, publicly announced his support for President Funes’ decision to uphold the constitution.

In contrast, public response to the event has been overwhelmingly consistent, with almost all Salvadorans opposing any changes to this aspect of the constitution. El Diario de Hoy polled public opinion on the issue and found surprisingly homogenous results: 93% of respondents said they were against modifying the constitution to allow abortion; 76% support Funes’ decision to modify El Salvador’s commitment to the Consensus of Brazil, and 32.7% believe that Ms. Martinez is “mentally ill” for signing the document.

With such an overwhelming public response and the clear agreement of the President it seems unlikely that El Salvador will seriously reconsider its abortion laws anytime soon. El Salvador remains one of only 3 countries in the world that have increased restrictions to abortion care in the last 50 years; regulation in every other country has stayed the same or become more lenient over time.