Imelda and the plight of the Salvadoran woman

The judge of the case of Imelda Cortez, accused of intent of homicide after giving birth on the toilet in her home, has declared her innocent. However, many challenges remain for reproductive freedom in El Salvador. Español

Ester Vargas Ramirez
18 December 2018

Justice for Imelda. Image: CEJIL. All Rights Reserved.

Standing on the hot asphalt, beneath the piercing light of the September sun in Usulután, El Salvador, one felt the fervor of women who sang:

“What do we want for Imelda?!”


“What do we Salvadoran women want for Imelda?!”


Meanwhile, inside a heavily guarded room, sat Imelda. Motionless and undaunted, she standed in front of a group of people who would decide her fate.

Due to an obstetric emergency she suffered while using the latrine, she now sits on the bench reserved for the accused and awaits a decision from a system that ignores that the pregnancy was a result of the sexual abuse her stepfather subjected her to, year after year.

At 20 years of age, Imelda has been in prison for 20 months. Charges against her included aggravated homicide. The maximum sentence for this crime: 20 years.

Outside of the room, in the streets of Jiquilisco, protesters stood anxiously, with a sense of excitement and anger as they waited for words from the judge.

However, these adjectives cannot accurately convey what they were feeling. That Imelda deserved freedom, that she deserved justice, that they deserved a positive outcome, were among the conversations muttered among these female defenders. 

Unfortunately, in El Salvador, justice for women seldom arrives on time, if at all. September 3rd was hardly an exception. It was announced that Imelda will have to wait until November 12th to hear her verdict. (The decision was then postponed once again, and only in December 17th the verdict was pronounced).

On that Monday, a public debate should have had to decide whether her obstetric emergency and the existing test results were proof of an alleged crime. 

There is no news about the rest: Imelda remained in preventive detention. She remained at the mercy of the Salvadoran justice system, which considered her a danger to society since April of 2017. Imelda continued to suffer in a country where vulnerable women are born to suffer. 

Houses that become prisons

But, let’s go back to the beginning. In 2017, Imelda felt very sick. In her case, this was not an extraordinary event, because she suffers from discomfort of the colon. On April 17th, at 17:00 hours, this condition began provoking her severe stomach pains and made her want to use the bathroom.

This meant she had to walk to the shack that houses the latrine: a hole in the ground, several meters long, used to dispose of human waste. In that moment when, in her words, she was "doing number two", she felt something slide out. Then she realized she was bleeding.

Immediately, she cried out, desperately trying to warn her mother, and fainted.

"I had no idea I was pregnant," she confessed later at a hospital, once she regained consciousness. But no one believed Imelda. The first thing they asked her was where the baby, whose placenta had been brought in by her mother in a towel to the hospital, was currently located.

Imelda, on the other hand, maintained her disbelief. She simply could not have been pregnant. She insisted, over and over again, that she had menstruated as usual, for two days each month, during the 9 months of her pregnancy.

Moreover, she stated that she couldn’t possibly pregnant because the father of her daughter - her rapist - had told her repeatedly that he could not have children.

Her rapist, the father of her daughter, was her stepfather.

Imelda was 10 years old when Pablo Henriquez became his mother's partner and they moved to his home. After two years of coexistence, the closeness became the constant abuse of the girl. For 6 years, when Imelda was between the ages of 12 to 18, he sexually abused and raped her.

Henriquez, by that point a sexagenarian man, had told her he could no longer have children. Additionally, Henriquez used fear to keep her quiet and prevent her from telling anyone that he sexually abused her at least three times a week, during all those years. Specifically threats against her mother, threats against her brothers, and threats against her own life.

This would be Imelda’s life until that fateful April, when she found herself in unbearable pain. The day Imelda went from her latrine to a cell in a Salvadoran prison.

Where was justice for Imelda?

Today, a victim and victimizer receive equal treatment by Salvadoran justice administrators. Both Henriquez and Imelda awaited their respective trials in the San Miguel Penal Center.

The difference: Imelda, aged 19, a victim of continuous abuse, was imprisoned a year before Henriquez, who remained free, until 2018.

After the Office of the Prosecutor for several months rejected the demand presented by Imelda's defense to conduct a paternity test, on March 16th, 2018, a trial against Henriquez finally began.

However, during the course of the proceedings, the reason for denying the paternity test was presented and stemmed from the disbelief of Imelda's accusation, going against international standards that cite that a victim’s testimony in a case of this nature, is a key element. 

Moreover, other concerns soon appeared. Several organizations indicated that due process is not being followed in the Henríquez trial for his crimes of aggravated and continued rape of a minor.

These suspicions were aggravated when the acting judge stated his reservations about the process against Imelda’s stepfather, without grounds.It is worth noting that this same judge was also publicly appointed to hear the trial against Imelda. In that sense, the fate of a victim and her victimizer are in the hands of the same judicial officer, underscoring the "impartial nature of justice" in El Salvador. 

Thus far, the process had been tortuous. Imelda’s hearing was rescheduled seven times due to a absence of psychological experts. Additionally,  the prosecution obstructed Imelda’s psychological evaluation another nine times.

Furthermore, the very same Ministry that accused her of attempted murder, doing next to nothing to thoroughly investigate the facts and, even worse, calling her a liar for saying that her stepfather abused her, was in charge of providing Imelda’s defense for her rape case.

Contradictions to the State’s rights to the body

ART. 1: El Salvador recognizes the human person as the origin and purpose of the activity of the State, which is organized to achieve justice, for legal security and the common good. Likewise, the State recognizes every human being as a human person from the moment of conception.

Political Constitution of El Salvador.

Read aloud as gospel, the representatives of the Family Prosecutor's Office and the Public Ministry read these words found in the Political Constitution of El Salvador, during the preliminary hearing on September 3rd, over and over again.

In this ultra-conservative environment, the most vulnerable women of this society are those who live in a situation of poverty, with limited access to education.

They are the ones that become targets  of a justice system, which imprisons them for obstetric emergencies and accuses them of murder; of being "bad mothers"; or of voluntarily interrupting their pregnancy. Many of these women will show up at a public assistance center seeking help,  where they will bear the burden of a State that seeks to punish them for being poor.

It is the obligation of the State to ensure its inhabitants enjoy the rights to freedom, health, culture, economic well-being and social justice.

This phrase, however, is the second part of Article 1 of the Salvadoran Constitution and highlights a fundamental contradiction. Just as the State has power over a woman’s body, it also has a duty to protect it.

Therein, of course, a series of contradictions arise: Where was the State when Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather? What would happen now to the child the State is bound to defend? Did they not once stop to think that she would share a house with her mother’s rapist?

This last question, thankfully, is resolved for the moment: today, that child lives with her grandmother, who can barely make ends meet. Her parents are both in prison.

But will the State protect the rights of this child better than it protected the rights of her mother? Or will that child only serve as evidence to punish the mother?

While these questions wait for answers, Imelda has been in jail for a year and a half. The Salvadoran State transferred from a hospital bed to a prison cell, where other women are being held.

Unfortunately, Imelda did not hear her fate on November 12th. There was nothing to do but wait for December 17th, when El Salvador´s justice system was put to the test and needed to answer to how a girl so young, who was abused for so long, posed a threat to the State.

After half a life of being marginalized and attacked, Imelda - at 20 years of age- faced a new victimizer head on: the Court in Usulután. Thankfully, freedom and justice finally prevailed in a space where all odds and rules were stacked against her and the majority of Salvadoran women. 

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData