BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Guadalupe was hunched over with abdominal pain and heavy bleeding one afternoon in October 2007.
The 18-year-old domestic worker went to a public hospital in El Salvador’s capital San Salvador where she went into premature labour. Her baby died.
A year later, another young woman, 22-year-old Salvadora, got pregnant as a result of rape. She gave birth at home. Her baby was stillborn.
In both cases, hospital staff went to police and accused the two women of inducing abortions. Police interrogated the women while they still lay recovering in their hospital beds.
In separate trials, both were found guilty of killing their babies, sentenced to 30 years in prison and sent to the overcrowded Ilopango women’s prison on the outskirts of the capital.
Guadalupe and Salvadora have each served nearly seven years of their prison sentences, but they may soon be released if the state grants them a pardon that was requested by rights groups last month.
TOTAL ABORTION BAN
In El Salvador, abortion is a crime. The procedure has been illegal under all circumstances since 1998 - even in cases of rape, incest, a severely deformed foetus or when the woman's life is in danger.
However, El Salvador’s ban on abortion has led to the wrongful imprisonment of hundreds of women and girls falsely convicted of inducing an abortion, when in fact they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or complications during pregnancy or birth, a local rights group says.
From 2000 to June 2011, 129 women in El Salvador were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes, of which more than half ended up being convicted for aggravated murder, according to local rights organisation, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion (CFDA).
Of those 129 women, 34 remain in jail today, and of that figure 17 women, including Guadalupe and Salvadora, are part of a group that CFDA and international rights groups are campaigning to set free. One woman in the group of 17 has been in prison for 13 years.
“For these 17 women, who have been unjustly imprisoned, we’ve exhausted all other judicial and appeal processes. The only hope for them is a state pardon,” said Morena Herrera, the head of CFDA. “If they don’t get a pardon, these women will rot in jail. Their last option is a humanitarian response.”
The request for pardon, submitted by the rights group to lawmakers last month, marks the first time such a mechanism has been used in El Salvador to get women imprisoned for these crimes released.
If members of the congress and senate agree to a pardon, the request is passed to the Supreme Court to decide if a pardon should be granted or not. Then the president has to sign off.
TREATED AS MURDERERS
El Salvador is one of seven countries in Latin America where abortion is completely banned, with no explicit exception written in law made to save the life of a woman.
But the Central American nation stands out in its rigour and zeal in going after women accused of inducing an abortion, Herrera says.
“Not only does El Salvador have some of the harshest abortion laws in the Americas but it’s the country with the highest numbers of prosecutions against women accused of carrying out an abortion in the region,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from San Salvador.
“Some women have been raped. Others have had obstetric complications. But they’ve been treated as murderers. They shouldn’t have to ask the state for a pardon. It should be the other way around,” Herrera said.
“The newspaper headlines say: Woman charged with murder. But people in El Salvador don’t know what’s behind the headline and what’s really happened to these women. It’s a hidden tragedy.”
POWERFUL CATHOLIC CHURCH
Like much of Latin America, El Salvador is predominantly Catholic. The country’s influential Catholic Church, evangelical groups and conservative lawmakers argue that abortion infringes on the rights of an unborn child, which is enshrined in El Salvador’s constitution and should be protected by law at all costs.
Most women convicted of abortion-related crimes, like Guadalupe and Salvadora, were already young mothers, from poor backgrounds and with only primary school education.
“Another feature most of the 17 women share is that they were denied adequate legal defence. The judge’s decision to send them to jail was based on circumstantial evidence without any real proof that they killed their unborn babies or newborns," Herrera said.
El Salvador’s outgoing president, leftist Mauricio Funes, has only days left in power. So far he has not made any announcement on the case of the 17 women up for pardon, Herrera said.
It is uncertain if El Salvador’s lawmakers and highest court will decide to pardon the 17 women before Funes’s term ends on June 1.
If not, their fate will ultimately rest with his successor and president-elect Salvador Sanchez.