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The Handmaid's Tale of El Salvador

Poverty, misogyny, and Christian fundamentalism in El Salvador lie behind the prison sentences of up to forty years handed down to seventeen women who were arrested for the crime of abortion, but sentenced for murder.

Do you remember the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale, set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States?

The novel begins with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremists) that kills the President and most congresspeople creating a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" which launches a revolution and suspends the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily regime. Following the dictates of Christian Fundamentalism, in this society, women have no rights and many of them form a class of women kept as "handmaids" for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from radiation and other ecological disasters.  Yes this novel is fiction, but El Salvador, a tiny country in Central America, it is not. 

Even though El Salvador has one of the highest teen-age pregnancies, a very high maternal mortality rate and no sexual education, in 1998, this country reformed its penal code to include an absolute ban on abortion (this includes when a women’s life is in danger or in circumstances of rape, incest, or a fetus with no chances of surviving after birth) which makes it one of the most restrictive countries in the world for sexual and reproductive rights.

As members of JASS Mesoamerica (Just Associates) we visited El Salvador in early October for a series of activities organized by the Feminist Collective for Local Development along with JASS and the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders. Days before our activities began, Amnesty International had been there to present its publication: “On the Brink of Death. Violence against Women and the Ban on Abortion in El Salvador” which generated an important impact in the country.

Group of women with a sign calling for a pardon The purpose of our visit to El Salvador was to join the advocacy and awareness raising activities that had been going on for months demanding the pardoning (indulto) of 17 women imprisoned in the dilapidated and overcrowded women´s prison on charges of abortion. These women are currently facing sentences between thirty and forty years in prison. Initially they were arrested for the crime of abortion, but during the legal proceedings they were charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced accordingly. 

On October 2, we visited the women’s prison and met some of these seventeen women. We spoke with Teresa, a thirty one year old woman with big black sad eyes who has been in prison for three years. Teresa is a single mother with a nine year old son whom she hasn´t seen since her arrest. He now lives with his illiterate and extremely poor grandmother in a rural area far from the prison, only because a judge decided to make an example out of Teresa for all Salvadoran women. Whether a woman suffers a miscarriage, or decides she doesn’t want to continue with her pregnancy, in El Salvador, women will be punished by law, and not for abortion, but for murder.

Before being detained, Teresa´s mother had sent her to the hospital unconscious and hemorrhaging. Now, accused of the crime of aggravated homicide, she has been sentenced to forty years in prison. She sleeps on the floor in an insect infested room with two hundred other women, and washes clothes for the richer inmates to earn some cash in order to be able to buy soap and sanitary napkins from the prison store. For each item she washes, Teresa makes 75 cents. A bar of soap costs $1.75 and toilet paper $3.50. These are the conditions of Teresa’s life now.

According to her legal representatives, Teresa’s case presents various irregularities. In Amnesty International’s report they indicate that, “…Teresa was rushed to the hospital where a member of the hospital’s staff reported her to the police. Teresa was immediately arrested, accused and sentenced. Although the District Attorney presented weak scientific evidence proving the murder/abortion, the judge accepted it as sufficient in order to convict her.”

None of the 17 women had a fair trial and all were presumed guilty. The District Attorney didn’t present witnesses or direct evidence that these women had ever had the intention or actually attempted to abort their pregnancies, much less to kill their children. The reason behind this gross injustice is the total disregard for women´s rights in a country that not only penalizes abortion, but goes much further by charging any woman suspected of aborting with aggravated homicide. But in the case of these seventeen women, their long sentences are directly related to their lack of economic resources which prevented them from initially accessing adequate legal representation. Later investigation into the women’s cases has demonstrated that they were convicted based on inconsistent technical evidence.

Various organizations, including the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic Abortion, and the Feminist Collective for Local Development, have been tirelessly trying to highlight this fact. In order to prove that the these women never intentionally sought out abortions, these groups got forensics on their side. A few renowned forensic experts from the United States reviewed the women’s files in order to analyze and provide their recommendations. Their conclusions supported the petition to free the seventeen women. “Poor women, especially those who could be malnourished or anemic, often have high-risk pregnancies.  This means that they are prone to suffering premature or complicated births…There are many scenarios of fetal or neonatal death without homicide.”

Teresa is one of many women who arrived at a hospital seeking help when faced with an obstetric emergency. Instead, hospital staff turned her over to the police.  We heard the sad story of a mother of a young woman who died rather than risk going to the hospital. “She was bleeding profusely but kept telling me not to take her to the hospital where she feared she would end up with charges of abortion.”  Other women in similar situations choose to take their own lives feeling they have no other option. In El Salvador, an unwanted pregnancy is the first cause of suicide for young women between the ages of 10 and 19. Teresa didn’t decide to end her life but instead, she faces a disproportionate prison sentence.

Based on our conversations with individuals who are defending the seventeen women, we were able to better understand that the legal system condemns women whenever possible. In order to face this situation head on with limited financial resources, the women’s defense has petitioned for pardons. Nevertheless, one fear remains: even if in the end the Supreme Court grants all of the seventeen pardons, El Salvador’s Congress could overturn the decision. On the other hand, if the Court denies the pardons, Congress can’t do anything.

This fear has come true. Recently, El Salvador’s Congress has blocked a favorable ruling from the country’s National Criminology Council as well as by the Supreme Court in the case of one of these women. Congress argues that at this point in time, it doesn’t make sense to grant this particular woman a pardon since she is about to fulfill her sentence. This is the case of Mirna, who was sentenced to twelve years in prison even though her “abortion” was clearly never an abortion. Her child is alive today. In the past weeks, efforts to pardon Mirna have intensified for the painfully obvious injustice against her - and her son who has never seen her.

During the visit we had the opportunity to meet with representatives from government and civil society. In meetings with some congresswomen we learned there are several female representatives (we didn’t meet any male representatives) who are looking for alternatives. Many of them told us in private that what is happening is not fair, and they admitted that poverty and misogyny is what is sending these women to jail, but they are afraid to raise their voices because they too can become the target of the Christian fundamentalists.

This is why for JASS Mesoamerica, one of our priorities has been standing by the women human rights defenders to highlight their work, especially the work of those dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive rights in the context of a sexist total ban on abortion. The misogynistic culture which has promoted and maintained this total ban has contributed to an increase in threats, defamation, and violence against women human rights defenders and organizations.

However, it is very clear to us that if the media doesn’t support the seventeen women’s demands, if civil society doesn’t back women’s human rights, if doctors don’t respect confidentiality, and if lawmakers and judges make decisions based on prejudgment without taking obstetric complications into consideration, in El Salvador in the 21st century, women will continue to go to prison for the “crime” of being women whose bodies could not carry a pregnancy to term. This is a very real Handmaid´s tale.

The case of these women in El Salvador has shone a light on the intersection of gender and poverty resulting in gross human rights violations. The weak legal cases against the seventeen women, in contrast with their harsh sentences, forces us to critically think about the root causes of this injustice.  In a country like El Salvador with a total ban on abortion, being a woman and being in control of your reproductive rights are at complete odds with one another.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

About the authors

Alda Facio is a lawyer, scholar, and feminist activist. She is a member of Just Associates (JASS), and a member of the Group of Experts on the Issue of Discrimination against women in the UN Human Rights Council. She is a founder and first Director of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice at the International Criminal Court.

Cristina Hardaga Fernández is Coordinator of Strategic and Political engagement for JASS Mesoamerica. Before joining JASS, she  worked as the International Area Coordinator with Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña "Tlachinollan" in the state of Guerrero, Mexico


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