In El Sal­vador, women jailed for mis­car­riages

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son re­port­ing from san sal­vador

When Guadalupe Vasquez be­came preg­nant at 17 af­ter be­ing raped by a neigh­bor of the house where she worked as a maid, she de­cided she wanted the baby. She even picked out a name: Gabriel.

Then, on a day in late 2007, pain shot through her back and ab­domen. Vasquez says she started bleed­ing, but her em­ployer wouldn’t let her leave the house to get med­i­cal care. Sick in her room and alone, she went into la­bor.

She heard the baby cry briefly, and then he was dead.

Only then did the em­ployer send her to the hos­pi­tal, say­ing she did not want to “deal with two dead in my house,” Vasquez re­calls. She passed out, and when she came to, she was hand­cuffed to the bed at a state hos­pi­tal.

The rapist was free, but now it would be Vasquez who would go to pri­son — for seven years and three months.

Vasquez is one of sev­eral women in El Sal­vador who have been sen­tenced to as long as 50 years be­hind bars — not for hav­ing an abor­tion, which is il­le­gal in the coun­try, but as a re­sult of mis­car­riages or still­born births. In th­ese cases, pros­e­cu­tors have ac­cused the women of caus­ing the death of their fe­tus or in­fant.

El Sal­vador, along with neigh­bor­ing Nicaragua and three other coun­tries, has the strictest abor­tion laws in the hemi­sphere. Vir­tu­ally no ex­cep­tion is al­lowed for the ter­mi­na­tion of preg-

nancy, not for rape, in­cest, mal­formed fe­tus or dan­ger to the woman’s life.

Yet the law is be­ing taken to an­other ex­treme: im­pris­on­ing women who say the loss of their fe­tus or child was not their do­ing.

Four days af­ter Vasquez awoke in hand­cuffs, she was whisked to a court­room. Af­ter two brief hear­ings, she says, she re­ceived a 30-year pri­son sen­tence for homi­cide.

“I didn’t un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing,” said the re­cently freed Vasquez, who is from a ru­ral vil­lage and never made it past third grade. A court-ap­pointed at­tor­ney “barely spoke to me. He didn’t de­fend me in any­thing.”

Sal­vado­ran ac­tivists who have taken up the cause of Vasquez and other women have iden­ti­fied 17 sim­i­lar cases and be­lieve at least 15 more such pris­on­ers lan­guish in over­crowded Sal­vado­ran prisons, along­side gang­sters and mur­der­ers.

The Sal­vado­ran Cit­i­zens’ Coali­tion for the De­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Abor­tion of­fers even bleaker statis­tics: 129 women pros­e­cuted be­tween 2000 and 2011 for “abor­tion” crimes, 23 con­victed for hav­ing re­ceived an il­le­gal abor­tion and 26 con­victed of homi­cide.

Ac­tivist Sara Garcia said Sal­vado­ran laws dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm women who are poor and un­e­d­u­cated, but also re­flect a gen­eral “ha­tred of women.”

“We live in a misog­y­nist, machista so­ci­ety … with prej­u­dices about how a woman should be­have and the pun­ish­ment she should re­ceive for not ful­fill­ing those ex­pec­ta­tions,” Garcia said. “There is no pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence.”

The ac­tivists and a team of de­fense lawyers are de­mand­ing free­dom for the women. Un­der the ban­ner of an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Las 17, they have filed pe­ti­tions for par­dons for the 17 women.

Vasquez, now 25, was granted the first par­don by a bit­terly di­vided leg­is­la­ture. The legal underpinning was that Vasquez was de­nied due process in her orig­i­nal hear­ings. Her at­tor­ney, Den­nis Muñoz, has said she was a vic­tim of a “witch hunt on women.”

Vasquez stepped out of the Ilopango women’s pri­son on the out­skirts of San Sal­vador in late Fe­bru­ary.

Cristina Quin­tanilla, sen­tenced to 30 years af­ter she had a mis­car­riage, was re­leased last year by a court, which com­muted her sen­tence to three years, amount­ing to time served.

An­other prisoner, iden­ti­fied pub­licly only as Mirna, was or­dered re­leased by the Supreme Court af­ter 12 years be­hind bars. The court ruled that her sen­tence for at­tempted mur­der was ex­ces­sive. In her case, the baby had sur­vived.

In­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and the United Na­tions have asked El Sal­vador to re­lax its abor­tion laws, which also re­sult in the jail­ing of doc­tors who per­form the pro­ce­dure.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates that more than 35,000 women in El Sal­vador ob­tain un­safe, clan­des­tine abor­tions ev­ery year.

The irony for some is that two coun­tries with such strict laws, El Sal­vador and Nicaragua, are run by left­ist gov­ern­ments.

In the case of Nicaragua, the ex­pla­na­tion is rooted in po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency. San­din­ista leader Daniel Ortega, strug­gling to re­gain the pres­i­dency af­ter a se­ries of elec­toral de­feats, needed Nicaragua’s pow­er­ful Ro­man Catholic Church on his side. He struck a deal with erst­while en­emy Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the man who had ve­he­mently op­posed him when Ortega was a fiery rev­o­lu­tion­ary co­man­dante in the 1970s and ’80s.

With the church’s help, Ortega won the pres­i­dency in late 2006, was in­au­gu­rated in Jan­uary 2007, and a year later, a congress con­trolled by Ortega strength­ened Nicaragua’s 100-yearold abor­tion law to make the pro­ce­dure il­le­gal in all cases.

In El Sal­vador, the abor­tion ban dates to the twodecade reign of the con­ser­va­tive Arena party. In 1998, when the coun­try had only re­cently emerged from a dev­as­tat­ing civil war, con­ser­va­tive sec­tors of the Catholic Church, in­clud­ing the ul­tra-right-wing Opus Dei, cam­paigned suc­cess­fully for a change in the con­sti­tu­tion that de­clared life be­gan with con­cep­tion.

An ab­so­lute prohibition of abor­tion has stayed in place even though the left­ist Farabundo Marti Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front won the pres­i­dency in 2009 and has gov­erned since. Only in the last months has Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Sanchez Ceren said the mat­ter “needed dis­cus­sion.”

El Sal­vador’s abor­tion law gained in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion in 2013 with the case of a woman iden­ti­fied pub­licly as Beatriz.

Beatriz, a 22-year-old peas­ant, suf­fered from lu­pus and was sev­eral months preg­nant with her sec­ond child when the fe­tus was di­ag­nosed with anen­cephaly, mean­ing it would be born with­out part of the brain and could not sur­vive. Doc­tors determined that her own med­i­cal con­di­tion made car­ry­ing the baby to term a threat to Beatriz’s life.

She ap­pealed all the way to the Supreme Court to be al­lowed to ter­mi­nate her preg­nancy, but her pe­ti­tion was de­nied, in ef­fect order­ing her to carry to term a baby that would not live and might in­stead kill her. Ul­ti­mately, in a de facto com­pro­mise, she was given a cae­sarean sec­tion in June 2013, when the fe­tus was 27 weeks. The baby died five hours later. Beatriz to­day con­tin­ues to re­cover.

As for Guadalupe Vasquez, her seven years and three months in pri­son changed her world, for good and for bad.

Vi­o­lent gangs that she stead­fastly avoided tan­gling with in pri­son now con­trol the ru­ral neigh­bor­hood where she lives, as is the case in much of El Sal­vador — so egre­giously that she was afraid to have jour­nal­ists call on her at home.

At one point, af­ter at­ten­tion in lo­cal me­dia last month, gang­sters came to her house ask­ing for her. She had to hide. “It wasn’t like that be­fore,” she said.

On the bright side, Vasquez earned a high school de­gree while in pri­son and can aspire to do more with her life than work as maid in po­ten­tially abu­sive house­holds. She is not sure yet what she will do.

“The lawyers helped me a lot, but they can only do so much,” she said. “Now it’s up to God.”

Tracy Wilkin­son Los An­ge­les Times

GUADALUPE VASQUEZ, left, was sent to pri­son af­ter her baby died at birth. Sara Garcia is a Sal­vado­ran ac­tivist work­ing to free women like Vasquez.

Jose Cabezas AFP/Getty Images

IN SAN SAL­VADOR, a woman marches in a protest call­ing for the gov­ern­ment to de­crim­i­nal­ize abor­tion. The law against abor­tion is used to im­prison women who say the loss of their fe­tus or child was not their do­ing.

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