Activists seek release of women charged with murder on suspicions of abortion
Since 1998, El Salvador has had an absolute ban on all abortions without exceptions, and has prosecuted women suspected of having abortions. At least 628 women have been imprisoned since the law was passed. It is a system which disproportionately impacts impoverished and poorly educated women.
The data indicates that a majority of the 129 women were impoverished. They were
women who had, throughout their lives, been excluded from educational opportunities,
access to basic health care services, and conditions that would have allowed them to
change their social status. As a result, these women were extremely vulnerable and
lacked the necessary tools to confront the state’s authority.
Moreover, as revealed in our interviews, criminal convictions and sentences are being
given to women who, facing obstetric emergencies that lead to the loss of the fetus, do
not understand the legal risks of the situations they faced, lack the means to access
private health care services that will not report them, and cannot afford adequate legal
Looking at this situation, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN CESCR) in a report dated June 19, 2014 found that El Salvador's criminal prosecution of women for suspected abortions routinely violated their human rights:
The Committee reiterates its concern at the continuing complete ban on abortion,In El Salvador, activists are now focusing on the cases of 17 women imprisoned on charges including aggravated murder:
which affects poor and less educated women in particular, with no allowance for
exceptional circumstances, which has given rise to grave situations of distress and injustice
(E/C.12/SLV/CO/2, paras. 25 and 44). The Committee is particularly concerned at cases in
which women whose health was seriously at risk have turned to the health system and been
reported on suspicion of having had an abortion. In some cases disproportionate criminal
penalties have been imposed with no regard for due process. The Committee is also
concerned at the high number of unsafe and illegal abortions, which have serious
consequences for health and are still one of the main causes of maternal mortality
On April 1, the Citizen Group filed documents with the Salvadoran National Legislature to petition the government to grant pardons to these 17 women who are serving sentences of 12 to 40 years. Under the Special Law for Appeals of Grace, each pardon must be reviewed and approved by each of the three branches of government. The process begins in the legislature, and then goes to the judicial branch. Finally, the president must ratify the decisions. By law, the three branches of government should complete the process within three months, by July 1, but responses to previous pardons, even when favorable, have taken much longer.
In the petitions, the Citizen Group asserts that the errors and violations of human rights committed by the Salvadoran state can be repaired by granting pardons. Herrera pointed out that all the women “had an inadequate defense” and that the convictions “are not based on direct evidence, but rather on the interpretations of judges and in many cases exculpatory evidence was not even taken into account.” Therefore, “[t]his is violence on the part of the Salvadoran State against the women.”RH Reality Check described protests in El Salvador designed to place pressure for pardons for the 17 women:
[T]he plaza in front of the Legislative Assembly in El Salvador blazed with sun and the energy of 200 women and men gathered to demand from the state an accounting of progress made on petitions to pardon 17 women unjustly imprisoned for up to 40 years for what amount to miscarriages, stillbirths, and other obstetric complications.
Various Salvadoran human rights groups submitted the petitions to the government on April 1. By law, it must respond within three months. The law on pardons created a convoluted process, but feminists insist that the three branches of government comply, and quickly. The earliest steps have been completed, but the most fundamentalist-influenced body, the El Salvador Supreme Court of Justice, provides the next major challenge.
The chants shouted through the plaza reflected the larger issues at play:
If the 17 were female legislators?
They never would have been charged!
If the 17 were daughters of male legislators?
The pardons would have been granted by now!