A risky business: Stories of women human rights defenders in the Americas

Sara García, El Salvador: “They label us as murders and terrorists”

Sara is a member of the Citizens´ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto en El Salvador), where abortion is banned in all circumstances, even when the pregnancy is the result of rape or puts the life of a woman in danger. At least nineteen women are currently in prison accused of having illegal abortions after suffering miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies.

Since the Penal Code was changed in 1998, the issue of abortion in El Salvador has been taboo. There is a lot of stigma and self-censorship around those who work on this issue. These laws not only control our bodies but our lives.

The Agrupacion Ciudadana was formed in 2009 to respond to these issues. We started working on Karina´s case. She is a woman who arrived in a public hospital in 2002 with an obstetric emergency that she had at home. In the hospital, staff called the police who immediately accused her of having an abortion and arrested her. She was later sentenced to 30 years in prison. She spent several years behind bars until she was finally released but she still carries the stigma for life.

What inspires me to continue working are the stories of women like Katrina. Many others have suffered the same dreadful persecution as a result of these oppressive laws. Generally, they are women of few economic resources who don’t have the means to get efficient defense teams.

Even human rights activists who work on issues of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador are not immune from attack. We are labelled as murderers and terrorists, they say we promote crimes.

People from the government and fundamentalist groups have slurred and stigmatized us with vicious lies in the press and in social media. People from fundamentalist groups put a picture of me and other colleagues online saying: “These are the abortion leaders who use money from organ trafficking.”

They want to silence you to the point where you cannot do anything. They want to make you invisible, to make you completely useless. They want to ensure no one wants to talk to us. By stigmatizing one of us, they make an example to incite fear in other women and activists.

The message is: ´Be careful as this can happen to you too’.

It frightens me to think that at any time I could come face to face with a fanatic who could do anything to me. Remember, these are similar groups to those in the United States that have killed doctors. The situation is very serious.

But it is the strength of our movement that gives me the strength to move forward and continue. When I talk to women who were affected by these issues and have problems reintegrating in society and receiving reparations, they give me strength to continue.”

Lilián Abracinskas, Uruguay: “You are always under suspicion and you always have to show your legitimacy”

For more than 30 years, Lilián has been working defending the sexual and reproductive rights of thousands of women in Uruguay. Despite huge advances in legislative measures on the issue and inspired by a tragic personal experience and as leader of the organization “Woman and Health” (Mujer y Salud), she continues to promote access to sexual education and safe abortions, amongst other rights.

One of the reasons why I got involved in this work is because I’m a survivor of an unsafe abortion I had when I was 17 years old. The experience marked me for life. I spent five years not talking about it, but now I work to ensure that no other woman has to go through situations that are unnecessarily unsafe and intolerably unfair.

Abortion is legal in Uruguay in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in all circumstances. Women have to face a team of professionals offering alternatives, including adoption. Only after five mandatory days of reflection are they entitled to have an abortion.

Women who have been raped are allowed to have an abortion up to 14 weeks. After this, women can access abortions only if the fetus has a malformation incompatible with life or if there is a risk to the life or health of the woman.

The net effect is that abortion is still a crime in Uruguay (except in the circumstances detailed above) as it has all the weight of the law and social stigma associated with it.
And it’s the poorest people in the country that are hardest hit.

Many women do not have all the information about their rights and that they can access abortions. Women who have financial resources do not have many problems facing these barriers because they can go to a private doctor and to get an abortion. But those who don’t have financial resources end up in a very vulnerable situation.

One of the first cases we worked on was in 2004 (before the current legislative framework). A 16 year old girl, living in extreme poverty in the countryside, had her first child when she was just 14. She suspected she had become pregnant again as a result of an abusive relationship and feared her family was going to kick her out of the house. In desperation she took rat poison to try and abort. The girl died intoxicated and tragically, when doctors performed an autopsy, they found out she was not pregnant. No one had told her about her rights. The failure of the state to provide decent education and information about her rights resulted in her death. Her young son without a mother, is cared for by his grandfather who was already struggling to make ends meet.

What happens in Uruguay is not comparable to what happens in El Salvador or in Nicaragua (where abortion is illegal in all circumstances), yet the hostility against activists who work on this issue is becoming the norm.

Religious and ultra conservative groups attack us constantly, they say we defend abortion because we make money from it or that the fetuses are sold to the pharmaceutical industry for research. They accuse us of corruption to smear us.

Anti-abortion groups are always following us. Once, in 2004 one of them called me a murderer in the news. Many people heard that. It was then that I realized that my children and my family are also at risk.

I will continue with my work despite the threats. The deep satisfaction I feel every night knowing that I’m working to improve many women’s lives means there is no other option for me.