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El Salvador’s Shameful Treatment of Women Who Miscarry

Jeannette Urquilla is executive director of Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (ORMUSA), the Salvadoran partner of Donor Direct Action, an international women's group.

A low middle-income country with half the population below the age of 25, El Salvador suffers from high socioeconomic and gender inequity. Credit: UNFPA

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 28 2018 (IPS) - Mayra Veronica Figueroa Marroquin (34) was released from prison earlier this month after serving time for what she argued was a miscarriage. Her sentence was reduced from 30 years to the 15 years she had already spent behind bars.

At age 19, she had been working as a housekeeper in 2003 when she was raped and subsequently suffered a miscarriage. She was convicted under El Salvador’s abortion ban – one of the most extreme in the world.

Figueroa Marroquin is the second woman this year to have been freed from jail under such circumstances. Last month Teodora del Carmen Vasquez was also released 11 years into her 30 year sentence for what she stated was a stillbirth. Del Carmen Vasquez was waiting at the gates to meet the other woman this week.

Since 1998 under Article 133 of our Penal Code abortion has been completely illegal in El Salvador in all circumstances. Women have been sentenced to up to eight years in more typical cases, but if a judge decides that the abortion was in fact an “aggravated homicide” then a much higher sentence – up to 50 years – is passed down. And when a miscarriage takes place a woman is often at severe risk of being charged with this.

Pregnant women are often abandoned by the country’s public hospitals and are often at severe risk of being arrested following a miscarriage. More often than not these women are also from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, which makes it difficult for them to pay for private medical care.

This means that instead of getting proper treatment if anything goes wrong during pregnancy they either do nothing at all and hope for the best – or they turn to unofficial covert channels, thereby putting themselves in serious physical danger.

The Alliance for Women’s Health and Life previously reported that, between 2000 and 2014, 147 women from El Salvador were charged with abortion-related crimes. This year the Citizens’ Association for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, of which my organization ORMUSA is a member, found that there are still 24 women in prison for what have been categorized as “homicidal” abortions. These women were all convicted in similar scenarios to the two that were released this year and many have already sent many years behind bars.

Not only do we need to ensure that these women are all released but also that the law on abortion is urgently changed. The Ministry of Health estimates that almost 20,000 abortions took place from 2005 to 2008. Regardless of whether abortion is legal or illegal it still takes place.

The only difference is the level of women’s safety who undergo the procedure. The WHO confirms that 68,000 women die every year because of illegal and unsafe abortions. It is likely that a significant number of these deaths can be prevented.

El Salvador is one of only four countries in Latin America which bans abortion in all instances – including after rape and when a mother’s health is at risk. It is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman.

We have the highest rate of femicide globally – 15.9 homicides for every 100,000 women. Between 2010 and 2017 we found that 3,138 women were murdered. This is not a country where the basic human rights of women are held in high regard.

We are hopeful though that things may be starting to change. The Supreme Court’s decision to free these two women is encouraging. Last year the United Nations also urged El Salvador to review the discriminatory and harmful abortion law – at least in instances of any risk to the life and health of the pregnant woman, after rape, incest or where there is severe fetal impairment.

We are still waiting to see if a 2016 parliamentary bill on reproductive rights will be debated and passed – a proposed reform of Article 133. In this bill abortion would be decriminalized in the following instances: after rape, statutory rape, or when the woman has been trafficked; where the fetus is likely to die, or when the pregnant woman’s life is put at risk.

Despite having many allies such as the Ministry of Health as well as parliamentarians, resistance by many religious groups and politicians means that we still have a long way to go.

 
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