The hidden war in El Salvador

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Marlene was accused and charged with having an abortion after she had a miscarriage when she was 18 years old © Amnesty International
Marlene was accused and charged with having an abortion after she had a miscarriage when she was 18 years old © Amnesty International

There is no doubt El Salvador has had a troubled past. The country suffered 12 years of internal armed conflict from 1980 to 1992, during which many horrific human rights abuses were committed.

Since then, political dialogue has resulted peace and major progress has been made, with the country signing up to numerous human rights treaties promising to protect the rights of its people.

I was heartened to hear that during his inauguration in June, President Sanchez Ceren announced that he will govern “for all” with an “absolute commitment to social justice”.

But my visit to El Salvador last week – the first in my role as Secretary General of Amnesty International – showed me just how far away the country is from this commitment to justice for all.

Scratch beneath the surface of apparent peace in El Salvador and you will find a hidden war being waged. A war that does not involve guns or troops but one that has still resulted in the unnecessary deaths and disability of thousands and the incarceration of others. A war being waged against women and girls.

It is the reason traveled to El Salvador to launch Amnesty International’s new report On the brink of death: Violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador.

The report documents how a change to the law 16 years ago criminalized abortion in all circumstances and how the country now has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world.

This means that women and girls in El Salvador cannot access an abortion even if carrying on with their pregnancy will kill them, or if the foetus is not viable and will not live itself.

They cannot get an abortion even if they are a nine-year-old girl who has fallen pregnant after years of rape.

These are not abstract examples, we know of thousands of cases where Salvadoran women and girls have suffered. One case is too many.

Those that defy the law and seek out an unsafe, clandestine abortion are often punished severely. More than 11 per cent of maternal deaths are due to clandestine, unsafe abortion, these deaths are completely preventable. Those that survive face the possibility of prison sentences of two to eight years.

What is more, our report found that women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide after being suspected of terminating their pregnancies, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to 50 years in prison.

The cases highlighted in our report are stark enough, but last week I was fortunate enough to speak to some of the women who have encountered this brutal ban.

Last week I flew from meetings with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to San Salvador. Within hours I went from talking to the world’s most powerful men, to some of the world’s most forgotten women. Women who were fighting for their rights in the face of adversity. It was a truly humbling experience.

Through them I heard the story of Cristina. She was 18 years old when she miscarried. She passed out and was rushed to hospital where, instead of care and kindness she was accused of actively terminating the pregnancy. In August 2005 she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

It is not only women fighting this injustice, but men too. Concerned doctors and lawyers are working to support these women through their struggles.

One such man is Dennis Muñoz, a lawyer who heard Cristina’s story and was so shocked he tracked her down to the prison she was being held. Together they fought a two year legal battle to get her sentence reduced. They won her release, but not before she had spent four years in prison.

He describes the country’s abortion ban as a “witch hunt against poor women”.

At Amnesty International we believe that El Salvador’s total ban on abortion is a form of torture. It pushes women and girls to the brink of death.

The ban violates women’s and girls’ right to life by forcing them to seek unsafe abortions, putting their health and lives at risk. It also denies them their right to health, privacy and to non-discrimination.

It is a shame to see El Salvador trailing behind the rest of the world in its legislation on abortion. It is one of seven Latin American countries with a ban on abortion in all cases. One country, Chile, is now making positive steps to rectify its laws. El Salvador and the others should follow suit.

We are now calling on President Sanchez Cerén to decriminalize abortion in all circumstances and ensure women and girls have access to abortion particularly in cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to the life or physical or mental health, where there is fatal foetal impairment, and in cases of rape or incest.

It is only by doing this that women like Cristina can be spared the heartbreak and cruelty of being punished for having a miscarriage. Or that other women and girls can take control of their bodies and decide how and when to carry a pregnancy to term.

And it is only by rectifying these heartless, out-dated and discriminatory laws that President Sanchez Cerén’s promise to provide social justice for “all” will include every woman and girl in El Salvador.

This op-ed originally appeared in The World Post.

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