United together with women and girls in El Salvador

“There’s a saying in El Salvador,” said Vicky Knox, Co-Director of the Central American Women’s Network (CAWN). “The rich abort, the poor bleed.”

And with that, everyone in the room understood the deep disadvantages that women and girls from poor backgrounds in El Salvador must face when it comes to making decisions about having sex or having children.

Abortion is banned in all cases in El Salvador. It doesn’t matter if you’re pregnant as a result of being raped, if your life is at risk, or if the foetus is not going to survive: abortion is always a crime in El Salvador.

This injustice – this scandal – is what brought us to Amnesty’s international headquarters in London last night. Whether Amnesty staff, like me, or activists from CAWN or My Belly is Mine, we were there to show our solidarity with the thousands of women and girls in El Salvador who are denied the right to control their own lives and fates by a law that has no place in the modern world.

Vicky Knox of CAWN (centre) with Guadaloupe Marengo (right), Deputy Director of the Americas at Amnesty International. © Amnesty International

As Vicky and Amnesty’s Guadalupe Marengo spoke about the harrowing cases of “Las 17” – 17 women who have been jailed for having abortions or miscarriages and other pregnancy-related “offences” – the insidious impact of the ban grew ever clearer.

Many of their cases are included in Amnesty’s report On the brink of death: Violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador.

40 years for having a miscarriage

Take María Teresa Rivera. She didn’t know she was pregnant when she was found, one morning in November 2011, bleeding on the bathroom floor. She had had a miscarriage. But when she went to hospital, staff there reported her to the police for having a suspected abortion. Despite no credible evidence against her, María Teresa was charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 40 years in jail.

Alma encourages a passerby to sign the petition for “Las 17″. © Amnesty International

She’s still there. Only a few days ago, Amnesty staff visited her in the only women’s prison in El Salvador, before launching Amnesty’s report on Thursday morning. The launch took place alongside events with local activists, including Agrupaçion – the NGO that has been pushing for a pardon for the 17 women.

What María Teresa has in common with the other 16 women is her poverty. The women that get reported, tried and jailed are poor. As Almá from El Salvador said: “To get an abortion, it costs an entire salary. Or, you have to sell something to be able to afford it.” Commenting on a justice system that has allowed these women to be convicted on flimsy “evidence” she added: “The legal profession… responds to political interest.”

People power

But as Marge Berer, editor of the journal Reproductive Health Matters, pointed out, there is hope when enough people take action. She cited Spain’s recent decision to quash an anti-abortion bill as the result of people power.

And so, buoyed by this possibility, we fanned out into the corridors, pausing to sign petitions, and to hold flowers aloft while having our photos taken as a message of solidarity and hope with the 17 women.

It was people power in action with the ultimate aim of convincing El Salvador’s authorities to end this scourge once and for all. Sign our petition today.

This event was part of the Festival of Choice, and was organized in partnership with CAWN andReproductive Health Matters. Our work on El Salvador is the latest project in My Body My Rights, Amnesty’s global campaign for sexual and reproductive rights. Join us on Facebook as we prepare for 28 September, the International Day of Action for the Decriminalization of Abortion.