El Salvador’s Feminist Leaders Want the Nation’s “Candidate of Change” to Expand Abortion Rights

Nayib Bukele, the self-titled “candidate of change,” put an end to 30 years of tradition in El Salvador last February when he became the youngest president in the nation’s history and across contemporary Latin America. The 37-year-old president-elect ran as an outsider, attacking corruption in his campaign and rallying support on social media. He won with over 53 percent of the vote. 

Bukele now has the opportunity to write another new chapter for his country—one in which women have safe, legal access to abortion.

In Mexico City in 2018, activists demonstrated in support of the legal, free and safe abortion in Argentina. Women across Latin America have been uniting to fight for advancing reproductive justice—and women in El Salvador, who face a draconian ban on all abortion, are hopeful that the current political moment will usher in their own victory. (Protoplasma K / Creative Commons)

“The women of El Salvador deserve justice now,” Morena Herrera, feminist leader and president of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, said in a statement after the election. “The bleak reality of women in El Salvador must no longer be ignored. We urge Nayib Bukele to deliver change and justice for the country’s women and girls.”

El Salvador is one of the few countries in the world where abortion is banned in all cases, but Herrera and CGDA are hopeful that conversations around abortion policy soon begin in the legislature. “I believe Bukele can guarantee rights for women,” she said recently, “but we must stay vigilant.”

Bukele’s election came less than two months after the dismissal of such charges against Imelda Cortez, a rape survivor who was imprisoned for two years. Since the election, three more Salvadoran women wrongly imprisoned after a miscarriage have had their sentences commuted—but the nation still has far to go in the fight for reproductive justice.

“[Cortez’s case] was a recognition, for the first time in El Salvador’s judicial system, that obstetrical emergency is not a crime,” Paula Avila Guillen, director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, told Ms. “However, more than 20 women are still serving time in Salvadoran prisons after a miscarriage, accused of crimes they did not commit.”

Bukele has called himself “pro-life,” but he has also publicly endorsed a woman’s right to end a pregnancy when her life and health are at risk. Even this slight change would mark a major shift for women in the nation, especially for poor women living in rural areas

“We need to stop the criminalization of poor women,” Guillen said. “It just needs to stop.”


Ana Muñoz Padrós is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.