Published 9 March 2023 in News
Ahead of March 8, International Women Rights Day, Focus 2030 intends to provide a snapshot of women’s rights around the world and to highlight the actions of those who are mobilized on a daily basis for gender equality and, more broadly, for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Created in 2019, the Simone Veil Prize of the French Republic is awarded each year, to mark the celebrations of 8 March, to a person or group who works to further gender equality and to improve the situation for women and girls around the world. The winner of the Simone Veil Prize of the French Republic is awarded €100,000 to finance tangible action and projects.
Focus 2030 : Like six other countries in South America and the Caribbean, abortion has been illegal in El Salvador since 1998. The practice is punishable by heavy prison sentences for women who perform abortions and for health care professionals, which has led to the imprisonment of many women. Your organization, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, works for the release of women imprisoned for having or attempting to have an abortion. Since 2009, you have secured the release of 67 women and are working to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health. Can you tell us more about your work, including related to the "The 17" campaign ?
Morena Herrera : In El Salvador, since 1974, the Penal Code, although considering abortion a crime, provided some exceptions in case of therapeutic abortion, eugenics, or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape, which, although with limitations of access, allowed women to interrupt their pregnancy and medical staff to perform it. However, in 1997, as part of the Peace Accords, the Penal Code was reformed. The Commission that drafted the amendments proposed only a few adjustments on the issue of abortion in order to facilitate its authorization. However, conservative circles, under pressure from the Catholic Church hierarchy, suggested the absolute criminalization of abortion : this proposal was approved, despite the opposition of many feminists, making El Salvador one of the eight countries in the world where abortion is absolutely criminalized, even when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger.
This is a violation of the principle of non-regression of a right already guaranteed to women and health workers.
The law also considered a new Article 136, called "inducing or assisting abortion", with prison sentences of 2 to 5 years and without clearly delimiting the actions concerned. In addition to this threat, a circular from the Attorney General’s office was sent to all hospitals in the country urging medical staff to report any woman who came to the hospital suspected of having undergone an abortion, threatening that they would be considered accomplices if they did not. All this created an atmosphere of fear and misconception about the implementation of the new legislation.
In 2006, an investigative report in the New York Times revealed the interview in El Salvador of Karina, a woman serving a 30-year sentence for abortion. This news came as a wake-up call that made some of us become aware of the impact of this legislation. After obtaining and studying the case file, we were able to understand why she had been sentenced to 30 years when the maximum sentence for abortion was 8 years in prison. Karina, despite having undergone sterilization at the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS), became pregnant without knowing it, gave birth prematurely and the baby died. At the ISSS hospital where she was admitted, she was reported to the authorities, accused of having had an abortion. The prosecution found that the pregnancy was at an advanced stage and therefore could not legally be considered an abortion, which, according to the Salvadoran Ministry of Health and the WHO, can take place up to 22 months of pregnancy. Rather than rectify the situation and consider it an obstetric emergency, i.e. a health problem, they changed the qualification of the crime and accused her of having murdered the child, sentencing her to 30 years for for aggravated homicide of a blood relative. This was the beginning of the legal defense of women convicted as a result of the law criminalizing abortion. It was very difficult to define a strategy, as lawyers and human rights organizations were telling us that "the case was closed and nothing more could be done", but in the end, thanks to a reconsideration of the conviction, a legal procedure rarely used because due to its difficulty, Karina was acquitted and released in 2009.
Karina’s release, although it took us three years to obtain it, gave us a glimpse of our ability to fight such an unfair law and its consequences. It gave us a lot of strength. When Karina got out of prison, she told us : "I am not the only one, there are other women convicted for similar reasons, but they are afraid to speak up". So we started investigating in all the courts in the country, until we managed to identify how many women had been prosecuted and how many had been convicted of aggravated homicide against their own children. We looked for them in the prisons, started talking to them, collecting their stories and found out that in most cases they had suffered obstetric emergencies. They were all women living in poverty, with little schooling and from marginalized communities. We began to study each case in order to have their convictions re-examined, but although we succeeded in some cases, this required effort and resources that we did not have. Consequently, we decided to prioritize that their freedom be achieved through the request for a pardon, presented individually, albeit in a joint procedure, before the Legislative Assembly in April 2014.
Seventeen women met the necessary requirements to apply for a pardon at that time. That’s how the name "The 17" was born, because we wanted them to be the subject of the request, we wanted to give them a name, a face, to show who they were, what their lives were, their dreams, and that’s why we organised this campaign that lasted for 7 years with the campaign slogan "Freedom for the 17, let’s not let their lives wither", symbolizing this group of women with a 17-petal flower.
Throughout these years, it has been necessary to find new legal and penal strategies to obtain their freedom : to explain their cases to the officials of the penal system and the Ministry of Justice, arranging collaborations to provide them with some support inside the prison, working with their families, encouraging them to support each other in prison, celebrate the freedom of each one of them, inform the media, contributing to change the vision that society has of these women.
On 9 June 2022, we celebrated in Cuscatlán Park the fact that not only had "the 17" been freed, but also because we had secured the release of 65 women who had been prosecuted and convicted under this legislation that criminalizes abortion.
The defence of these women was a central process. International litigation before the Inter-American Human Rights System has also been very important, with the case of Manuela and her family being the subject of an important resolution by the Court in November 2021, the terms of which are being progressively implemented by the State of El Salvador. Manuela was criminalized for an obstetric emergency, sentenced to 30 years in prison, and died in prison due to a cancer she suffered from that was not properly treated.
The next scheduled case in the Inter-American Human Rights System is ’Beatriz v El Salvador’ : the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has convened a hearing on March 22 and 23, 2023. The resolution could be of great importance to Beatriz’s family and also to advance Salvadoran legislation with greater recognition of women’s rights. Beatriz, aged 22, was refused the interruption of her pregnancy, even though 15 specialists from the National Central Maternity Hospital recommended it, because she suffered from lupus with kidney damage and was carrying a foetus with anencephaly (no brain) and no vital viability outside the womb. She had to wait 81 days in great pain. Beatriz, with our support, filed a lawsuit, with the wish that "no other woman would go through what she did".
Focus 2030 : This year, the Citizen Group for the Decriminialization of Abortion received the "Simone Veil Prize of the French Republic for Equality between Women and Men", rewarding personalities and organisations that fight for women’s rights in the world. What does this prize mean to you ? What do you expect from the international community, and in particular from countries like France, which promotes a "feminist diplomacy" on the international scene, to support organisations like yours ?
Morena Herrera : This award is very important and significant for those of us who defend the right of women to make autonomous decisions about their bodies and their lives.
It is a prize awarded by the French government to individuals or groups working around the world for women’s rights, in memory of Simone Veil, a woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps, served as France’s Minister of Health, and through her tenacious struggle and ability to build consensus, secured the adoption of legalized abortion in France in 1975. She is also known for having dedicated her life to the fight against intolerance, becoming the first woman to be elected President of the European Parliament.
This is why for the Citizen Group for the Decriminialization of Abortion and for me on its behalf, this award strengthens us, because it is the recognition of the tenacious work we have been doing for more than 10 years, the recognition that we are on the side of justice, and of the importance of progressing to guarantee such a fundamental right for women, such as the ability to decide freely and autonomously whether or not to continue a pregnancy that endangers their life, their health, their integrity and their dignity.
The fact that this collective effort is being seen and recognized by the governments of other countries gives us strength and encourages us to continue to fight. The progress in the recognition of women’s rights at the international level becomes references and support points for our fight to ensure that these rights are guaranteed in El Salvador. More and more governments are committing themselves to the feminist agenda and, in this sense, they are promoting feminist foreign policy as political, symbolic and material support for women’s demands in other countries. For us, the dialogue we establish with these governments is important, both through their diplomatic representation in El Salvador and through the collaborative links with their institutions and with civil society in these countries. We hope to continue to benefit from this support and backing, as well as the support of the organisations that carry out this work in El Salvador.
Focus 2030 : In 2017, the international community, through the CEDAW Committee, called on the Salvadoran government to amend the penal code to decriminalise abortion and allow it under certain circumstances. The issue of abortion is progressing in some South American countries, such as Colombia and Argentina, which have recently legalized abortion following unprecedented mobilizations of the feminist movements in these countries. Can we imagine the emergence of a regional feminist movement capable of advancing women’s rights in the coming years ? What obstacles and opportunities do you think need to be taken into account ?
Morena Herrera : The capacity to mobilize, advocate and persevere on the part of women and feminist movements in different Latin American and Caribbean countries has led to very important concrete progress in recent years. In Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador, concrete changes have been achieved regarding the right of women to terminate their pregnancies under certain circumstances that threaten their lives, health and personal integrity. However, in Central America, despite the work done by feminist and women’s organizations to advance the recognition of this right, these countries continue to have the most restrictive legislation on abortion, not only in the continent but in the world.
We believe that for the international movements that oppose women’s and LGBTI+ rights, our region is seen as a testing ground for a more authoritarian model of government, less respectful of these rights, where people’s attachment to religion is instrumentalized to impose an agenda and norms of conduct that do not respond to public health and rights recognition criteria, but rather to the visions and mandates of church hierarchies.
In our region, there are spaces for dialogue such as La Sombrilla Centroamericana, where we coordinate sexual and reproductive rights organisations from all the countries of Central America, exchanging experiences and supporting the advocacy processes taking place in the different countries. We know that our region is undergoing a process of de-democratization and a rise of populist governments with little respect for human rights, but we also know that the conquest of our rights has not been easy and has taken a long time : the right to vote, divorce, access university, sexual and reproductive health services, have been achievements that in some cases have taken decades.
Today, in our region, there is a broad social fabric of women’s organisations, young people are playing an important role in defending their rights and, likewise, LGBTI people and organizations have joined forces to obtain recognition of their rights and, very pertinently, sexual and reproductive rights. Therefore, without ignoring the difficulties we face, we are convinced that we will make progress in recognizing and guaranteeing the right to legal, safe and free abortion.
The night the penal code was changed in the Legislative Assembly, there were five feminists protesting, today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of us mobilizing, most of them young and very young. This is what makes us feel confident that we are making progress. And with the example of Simone Veil, who fought against intolerance, we are sure that we will succeed.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Focus 2030.