The miscarriage of justice in El Salvador’s abortion law

Women face many barriers to justice, including a patriarchal culture, weak justice system, and lack of economic resources, which contribute to a culture of impunity for gender-based crimes.
Photo: Robert Easton/ CC BY-NC 2.0/ Source:Flickr

El Salvador, along with Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Suriname, Andorra and Malta are the only countries in the world that maintain an absolute ban on abortion. In fact, El Salvador has the world’s most severe ban on abortion.

Violence and insecurity for women in El Salvador

El Salvador, the smallest Central American nation, has the world’s highest rate of femicide. Gangs use sexual violence as a tool to terrorize women and communities, according to InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The bodies of women and girls pulled from clandestine graves, raped, battered and sometimes cut to pieces, attests to the abuse committed by members of street gangs who take girlfriends, discard them when they know too much, and then deliver them to be gang-raped and eventually murdered.

Violence against women in El Salvador, in all its manifestations, occurs within the framework of a patriarchal culture that, by extolling masculine values over feminine values, hinders social awareness about the problem and the provision of assistance to victims. Only 1% of violent crimes against women in El Salvador result in a conviction.

Women face many barriers to justice, including a patriarchal culture, weak justice system, and lack of economic resources, which contribute to a culture of impunity for gender-based crimes, according to Miriam Bandes, director of the UN Women’s office in El Salvador.

Abortion In El Salvador

In July 2017, Evelyn, a 19-year-old rape survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison in El Salvador after she suffered a spontaneous abortion due to complications during her pregnancy.

Evelyn’s 30-year sentence  – on charges of ‘aggravated homicide’ after she suffered pregnancy-related complications – is a terrifying example of the need for El Salvador to urgently repeal its retrograde anti-abortion law, according to Amnesty International.

Unfortunately, Evelyn’s case is not uncommon in El Salvador. In 2005 Sonia Tabora was sentenced to 30 years in prison; in 2008 Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison; in 2012 Maria Teresa Rivera was sentenced for 40 years in prison – all these women suffered obstetrical complications in which the baby died.

They, like Evelyn, came with a serious health condition to hospital centres due to obstetric complications of pregnancy and the absence of medical assistance, but it was in the hospitals that these women were reported as having “had an induced abortion.” In the beds where they were recovering, they were handcuffed and later transferred to the jail awaiting trial.

Another issue with the judiciary system is the violation of patient confidentiality. Although ethical and human rights standards oblige providers to respect patients’ privacy, medical personnel have to report incidents in order not be implicated in the alleged crime – this reporting violates professional confidentiality.

On the other hand, physicians and nurses are also unable to perform their professional duty to assist women with labour complications, fearing they will be prosecuted as accomplices to the crime of abortion or homicide.

Sexual and reproductive rights of women

The implementation of sexual and reproductive rights of Salvadoran women face a series of obstacles that prevent them from enjoying safe reproductive sexual health.

Women in El Salvador can fall victim to the violence that characterizes the country in many ways. They are victims of the health system, especially in rural and more impoverished areas, where access to hospital centers requires a lot of effort for the population.

Many women who experience spontaneous abortions due to complications in adolescent pregnancy or a lack of medical attention are reported for completed abortions. They are denounced and imprisoned for aggravated homicide and given 30 to 50-year jail sentences.

Within the Salvadoran justice system, these women become ‘aggressors’ because they are considered murderers of their own children. The justice system does not accept the complications and difficulties experienced during pregnancy and childbirth, in most cases, this is due to a lack of medical attention resulting in spontaneous abortions which culminate with the birth of dead babies or those which die after birth.

Women are convicted of ‘induced abortion’ and in most cases, prosecutors fail to show sufficient evidence to prove and validate these arguments of induced abortion, nevertheless, they are sentenced to prison.

Some organizations consider this type of sentence as a case of misogyny. In El Salvador, women are condemned because they are required to give birth without medical assistance, and must monitor not only their own health but also the health of the newborn who does not receive any health care.

Cases like Evelyn, Sonia, Teodora and Marìa Teresa reflect the fragility of the judicial system in El Salvador, which does not afford any kind of procedural guarantees to women since they are judged on the basis of prejudice and the application of gender stereotypes without solid evidence supporting the allegations of induced abortion are sentenced. In other words, they are accused of assaulting the lives of their own children and in this way, the women – the victims –  become the ‘aggressors’.

GenderHuman RightsUncategorized
Ligia Andrea Mendoza Mejia

Ligia is from Nicaragua, PhD Candidate in Sociology from Salamanca University (Spain) - Oldenburg University (Germany). She has a Master's degree in Public Services and Social Policies from Salamanca`s University. She is graduated in Business Administration Degree from Centroamericana`s University and systems engineering from Polytechnic University of Nicaragua. Passionate about human rights, social justice and social responsibility, poverty fighting, global warming and environmental issues, she is a person against all kind of discriminations, type of violence and animal mistreatment. Ligia has been a steadfast advocate of Gender equality and women's empowerment.
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