Imelda Cortez is free.
Cortez became pregnant at 19, after seven years of being raped by her stepfather. She gave birth in a latrine in April 2017. Shortly after, she was accused of attempted homicide, wrongly incarcerated and separated from her healthy daughter. A historic decision in December allowed Cortez to walk free, absolved of all charges, after 19 months in prison—and marked a milestone in the struggle for reproductive rights across Latin America.
Paula Avila Guillen, Director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, worked for the last year to raise awareness around Cortez’s case, and make sure women like her were no longer silenced. She spoke to Ms. about the decision which gave Cortez her life back—and what comes next in the fight to end El Salvador’s cruel, draconian ban on abortion.
Tell us about the day of Imelda Cortez’s release.
It was a very intense day. In different parts of the procedure we had different judges, and they have not been the best ones. However, when the hearing started, one of the judges who has not spoken before said he was going to proceed the entire hearing.
He seemed, from the beginning, very open. When the prosecutor decided to lower the charges—from attempted homicide to abandonment of a child—we saw it as a victory, because the only reason why the prosecutor would change the charges was all the pressure this case has had. We were optimistic: It would be a sentence of maximum one year and since she has already been in prison for over a year, we were feeling that at least it was going in the right direction.
We got a very big surprise when the judge came back. We were expecting him to accept the agreement, but then he goes through all the evidence and states that what happened to Imelda was very traumatic, and that under that trauma—after being raped and forced to hide her pregnancy because of the sexual violence situation she was suffering and arriving to the hospital in a situation where she was passed out after losing tones of blood—she could not be guilty. He was absolving her of any crime.
It was an amazing surprise. It was a recognition for the first time, El Salvador’s courts and judicial system [ruled] that obstetrical emergency is not a crime. He was so specific about making sure that Imelda was seen as the victim, and not as the perpetrator. That was a big change from what we have seen before.
Is this the first time that a woman incarcerated in El Salvador after an obstetrical emergency was not only freed, but absolved?
There was the case of María Teresa [Rivera], in which, in an extraordinary appeal, the court decided to review the evidence. However, this was after María Teresa had already served four years in prison. It was different, because it was more about procedural issues and evidence, not about her innocence. I think this is the first case about the innocence of a woman. It is really about the story of Imelda. That is just so incredible.
It is so hard to think that it takes so much effort to make the system to believe women.
Do you think Imelda’s case will help the over 20 women still in prison on similar charges in El Salvador?
That is what we are hoping. We want to wait for the written decision from the judge on January 10.
I definitely think that just what happened creates an enormous precedent for two reasons. First, the prosecutor willing to change the charges; they are starting to see these cases from a different light, which is already a victory. Second, the fact that the judge went beyond that, and actually declared her innocent—this sets some precedent, and we hope it will help us to free the rest of women still in prison.
We did not change the systematic policy of sending women to prison because of obstetrical emergency. I do not know if we will be ever able to catch up.
Do you foresee any change—in the policy, in the political direction, in the law?
None of these cases are abortion cases. These women did not want to have an abortion. However, under the doctor’s eyes and under the prosecutor’s eyes, there is so much stigma around abortion that any type of obstetrical emergency becomes as suspicious of having had an abortion. So what we are hoping is that the stigma around obstetrical emergencies will vanish, creating some cultural change.
Now, on the other side, I am one of those who believe that the only way to really end stigma is by decriminalizing abortion, at least in some cases. I think that would give doctors enough movement grounds to be able to act as doctors, without being afraid that if they do not report a woman then they may be facing criminal charges.
It is a combination of both factors: We do need to change the law, but also, the more we tell the stories of the women who are facing obstetrical emergencies charges, the more people will understand that not every obstetrical emergency is connected to abortion, and that not every woman who has had an obstetrical emergency has tried to terminate her pregnancy. I think that, itself, is going to help us a little bit—until we get the full reform.
How was Imelda reported to the police?
It was the doctors who called the police. Imelda goes to the latrine because she feels the pain, she feels–she described it even on trial–she felt the need to defecate. When she is in the latrine, she screams and says: “I threw something, something came out.” But she does not know what it is. She starts bleeding, and she passes out. Her mum comes and sees her bleeding, does not know what is happening, calls the neighbor and they take her to the hospital, which is very close by.
The moment she arrives to the hospital, the doctor says: “You had a baby or you had an abortion, where is the baby, what did you do.” They start blaming her. They send the police to her house.
There are a lot of misconceptions—and I think that some come from the stigma that comes out from the total abortion ban. Doctors have a duty to professional secrecy, and their duty to protect the women comes first, however, there is a general belief that if they do not report it they might face prosecution.
Was Imelda’s stepfather condemned for raping her?
He is in prison, but the judge put a “reserva,” like a gag order on his procedure, so the media has not had much information. What we know is: He is in prison, he is facing trial, but he has not been sentenced yet.
You were saying that Imelda’s release has to do with international pressure. How did the Women’s Equality Centre and other organizations work to free her?
The most important work has been by the organizations on the ground—like Agrupación Ciudadana, like La Colectiva—because, at the end of the day, they are the ones to stay there. The work these fighters do is just incredible. All my admiration and respect goes out for all of them.
There are many organizations involved. We all just do one little part, a little part that fits the piece of the puzzle that is missing. The Women’s Equality Centre [focused on] trying to tell Imelda’s story; we needed somebody to tell Imelda’s story for people really see it.
What happens when you discover the stories of El Salvador, is this becomes, in a sense, personal. When you hear these stories, and you meet these women in prison, it becomes personal.
It is a promise: I will do everything I can, and have, in my power, until all women are free and are believed, and no women are being sent to prison. The same was true of all of us working in El Salvador.
What do you expect from the other cases you are working in El Salvador in 2019?
How we use this precedent to free other women is going to be our number one priority—legally, but also in the media and politically, to put pressure on a solution for the women who are in prison. The other part is how to keep showing and demonstrating that the total abortion ban has a negative impact on women’s lives.
There are going to be presidential elections in El Salvador next year—and this topic should not be forgotten in the middle of the political debate. Eventually, [we want to] change the total abortion ban.
That is a great challenge.
We are many, and we are extremely passionate about what we do. It should not be this hard to try to free one woman. All the women who are in prison, they are poor women; Imelda was in prison because she was poor.
We need to stop the criminalization of poor women. It just needs to stop.