As we entered the austere prison of Ilopango in El Salvador, we were searched thoroughly and all personal items confiscated. It felt like we were being prepared to visit some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. In reality, we were about to meet the vulnerable women who have been imprisoned, who have had their lives stolen, simply because of unwanted pregnancies—in some cases because they had suffered miscarriage or been raped. That was where we met Teodora.
Rather than receiving the support of friends and family after her stillbirth, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez found herself surrounded by police officers. She could not afford a defense attorney. Her guilt was presumed on the basis that her baby did not survive.
Like Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz, a teen who faced charges and jail time after a stillbirth, Teodora was convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in jail. Like several of the women we met in Ilopango, she already had another child—one who has now had to face life without a mother.
Since 1998, abortion has been criminalized under all circumstances in El Salvador, even when continuing the pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant woman or when the fetus is not viable. This law creates an atmosphere of fear, and in response women are afraid to seek medical services when they are pregnant—leading to high rates of maternal mortality. Between 2011 and 2015, 14 women in El Salvador died of complications related to abortion.
As a member of the delegation to Latin America from the European Parliament, I felt that it was important to show solidarity with these women on behalf of all of us who believe that sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. Along with my colleagues in the European Parliament, I have since been working to raise the profile of this tragedy. Just this month, a court rejected Teodora’s appeal; on the same day, we brought forward a Resolution in the European Parliament calling for the immediate release of Teodora, Evelyn and all of those in El Salvador who have been convicted under the same unjust law and condemning the criminalization of abortion.
It is important to understand that the situation in El Salvador is part of a wider context where women and girls are deprived of sexual and reproductive rights, femicide is a part of daily life and a woman is sexually assaulted every three hours. Our Resolution also condemns all violence against women, and particularly the persecution of women in El Salvador. We do not see this as a criticism of El Salvador’s government—among which many members are battling to empower women and improve their conditions of life and legal protections. Civil society organizations such as the Centre for Reproductive Rights have also been campaigning on this issue for years, and many brave women’s rights activists in El Salvador put themselves on the front line to campaign for justice in a society that so often drowns them out or threatens their safety.
A draft bill to reform the Penal Code in El Salvador would decriminalize abortion, at a minimum, in cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to life or the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman or girl, where there is severe impairment of the fetus or where pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest. Currently, the bill is blocked in Congress—but there is a hope that the new administration will revive it after the national election in March 2018.
When we call for justice for women in El Salvador, we are also calling for justice for women around the world who face similar challenges. El Salvador is not alone, and women across the globe live in societies in which their experiences are invisible and their bodies and lives seen as disposable. When we fight for women like Teodora in El Salvador, we are fighting for women in Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, Africa and the rest of Central and South America.
In a world where women and girls’ bodies are still treated as an ideological battleground, justice for women like Evelyn and Teodora would be a small step along the long and painful path toward female emancipation.