Nobel Peace Prize Candidate Patricia Pérez shares her personal story of living with HIV in Argentina, founding the International Community of Women living with HIV/AIDS and their work around the world. (In Spanish/En Español)
En 1986 me enteré que tenía el virus del VIH y fue un balde de agua fría, yo tenía 24 años. Por aquellos tiempos no era lo mismo que ahora recibir un resultado positivo. En ese momento no tenías a quien preguntarle nada. Estaba muy angustiada y lloraba sin saber que hacer, pensaba que me moría.
Por entonces el SIDA era considerado indefectiblemente una enfermedad mortal y esa era la realidad. Veías un día a una persona en el Hospital y a lasemana siguiente te enterabas que se había muerto. ¿Por qué yo no me iba a ver reflejada en esa situación? Los médicos tampoco nos daban muchaexpectativa porque ellos no la tenían, te decían "… tienes que cuidarte, pero igual tu expectativa de vida es de dos años…" No era fácil enfrentarlo. Me pronosticaban dos años de vida como quien dice "…mañana va a llover…" Durante algún tiempo no lograba proyectar. Estuve meses sinpoder pensar de acá a una semana. Nunca hablaba de meses y menos de añosporque me angustiaba.
Entonces me dije "… si me voy a morir no será esperando sentada que llegue ese momento…" En ese instante dejé de darme lástima, me planteé no aceptar cosas que me lastimasen, no discutir por banalidades con mis afectos, disfrutar todo, valorar momentos insignificantes como sentarte a tomar sol.
Uno de los problemas más difíciles para las mujeres que vivimos con VIH/SIDA es la formación de una familia. En muchos casos, la irrupción del VIH desintegra una familia, aún hoy impregna de prejuicios y discriminaciones al modelo familiar. Se hace una tarea muy pesada explicar cómo se contrajo el VIH. Las preguntas más frecuentes que nos hacemos son: ¿hablo con mi pareja? ¿qué hago con mis hijos? ¿y en el trabajo lo digo y afronto las consecuencias o tomo a escondidas las pastillas?… En mi caso mi pareja y mi hijo me ayudaron a comprender que la fortaleza sale de las situaciones límites. Han soportado muchas cosas, muchos miedos, pero entre los tres fuimos avanzando.
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Como les conté anteriormente, los médicos me dieron dos años de vida, entonces en lugar de instalarme en la queja y la autocompasión, fui conectándome con otras personas en mi misma situación en el Hospital Muñiz de Buenos Aires, donde armé un grupo de voluntarios que durante 10 años funcionó semanalmente atendiendo ad honorem las angustias y necesidades de información de mis pares. Allí pude darme cuenta que todas las PVVS teníamos las mismas angustias y necesidades. Esta idea inicial me fue conectando con distintas organizaciones, en el Hospital Muñiz tomé contacto con familiares de personas detenidas e iniciamos en 1987 el primer grupo de atención a personas privadas de libertad en la Argentina, recorriendo las cárceles, con el cual colaboro hasta hoy.
En 1991 concurrí a un Congreso de Personas Viviendo con VIH (PVVS) en Londres y allí participé de una manifestación con 10.000 desconocidos que luchábamos por la misma causa, los derechos de las PVVS. Fue muy fuerte. Después de esto comencé lentamente a proyectar, no lograba hablar de años pero ya podía pensar en qué hacer en los próximos meses.
Allí mi vida tomó el rumbo definitivo de abrazar apasionadamente esta causa por el empoderamiento de las mujeres positivas para lograr que nuestra voz se escuche en todo el mundo y sea más fuerte que las injusticias, el estigma y la discriminación a las que somos sometidas a diario.
Hoy más de 8.000 mujeres en 57 países del mundo nos acompañamos y alentamos mutuamente, para lograr que estos objetivos cubran a las 19.000.000 de mujeres que vivimos con VIH en todo el mundo y que nosotras a diario convocamos a la lucha e intentamos representar con mucho esfuerzo con aciertos y errores, pero definitivamente con profundo e inalterable amor.
En Argentina, trabajamos desde hace más de 15 años en distintos frentes que le posibiliten a las mujeres, niñas y adolescentes viviendo con VIH, defender sus derechos. Hacemos voluntariado de consejería y asesoramiento en Hospitales Públicos, llevamos adelante desde hace 8 años un curso de formación de operadores sociales en el impacto del SIDA, hemos creado un observatorio social sobre la problemática del SIDA que desarrollo investigación en Argentina y otros lugares de la región y hacemos Encuentros Nacionales de formación y capacitación y elaboración de estrategias con mujeres positivas de todo el país, así como también una relación permanente de articulación y debate con otras ONG, el Estado y las Agencias del Sistema de Naciones Unidas.
In El Salvador, Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide after experiencing an obstetrical emergency. She is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial.
In November 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera unexpectedly went into labor, giving birth in the latrine of her home. The birth was dangerous and unattended by any medical professionals; the fetus died. Like many women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera’s medical crisis led to her being charged with and convicted of aggravated homicide; she was sentenced in 2012 to 40 years in prison.
Rivera’s sentence is the most extreme of “Las 17,” a group of women who have been imprisoned after obstetrical emergencies. Now, she is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial. If the judge rules in her favor, she will be freed from prison. Advocates say that her case could influence public sentiment about other similar cases around the country.
With the support of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, a Salvadoran feminist organization, Rivera has been fighting her case for several years, as reported earlier in Rewire. Along with the rest of Las 17, she requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government in 2014, but her request was denied.
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“Rivera represents the maximum will of the state to criminalize women in this country,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire. “Her sentence is the longest of any of the women with similar convictions; at 40 years, it is practically a life sentence.”
Fortunate To Be Alive
Maria Teresa Rivera, who shared her story on camera from prison in 2013, was a 28-year-old factory worker in 2011. She was living with her young son and his grandparents, her ex in-laws, in a very modest home in the outskirts of San Salvador. Rivera, the sole provider for the family, supplemented her factory work with house-cleaning in order to pay $13 a month to keep her son in a neighborhood Catholic school and purchase his asthma medication.
One night, according to court documents, Rivera said she awoke with intense thirst. But when she arose from her bed, she felt dizzy and then fainted. When she regained consciousness, she felt a strong urge to defecate and went to the latrine outside the house. As she sat in the latrine, she had intense cramping and “felt as if a little ball fell from her body.” Then she fainted and fell to the ground, where her mother-in-law found her in a pool of blood and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. No one at the scene—family or paramedics—reported hearing any sounds of a baby, and no one realized she had given birth.
Rivera told doctors, attorneys, and others that did not know she was pregnant. She had been experiencing bleeding during the time of the pregnancy, which she interpreted as her menstrual cycle. Neither she nor any friends, relatives, or co-workers noted any physical changes that would indicate a pregnancy. She had also had two doctor visits for other complaints during those months, and no doctor had diagnosed her pregnancy. According to her own estimations, the last sexual contact she’d had that could have resulted in pregnancy had been six months earlier.
She arrived at the hospital in a severe state of shock from extreme blood loss, fortunate to still be alive. Doctors told her she had given birth and wanted to know where the baby was. Medical personnel contacted police, who went to her home to locate the deceased fetus. Rivera was detained by police at the hospital and has been imprisoned since that time.
Interrogation While Hospitalized
Multiple national and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with numerous medical, legal, human rights, and academic experts, have analyzed Rivera’s case in the years since her conviction. Harvard University sociologist Jocelyn Viterna and Salvadoran lawyer Jose Santos Guardado Bautista, for example, used parts of Rivera’s story and court documents in their 2014 analysis of systematic gender discrimination toward Las 17 within the judicial system.
Viterna and Bautista noted, for example, that the only witness testimony the judge considered credible was a supervisor from human resources at the factory where Rivera worked. Contrary to Rivera’s testimony, the supervisor testified that Rivera asked for time off for doctor appointments in January 2011 because she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow testimony from neighbors and friends who stated that they had never seen Rivera show any signs of pregnancy.
“Had Maria Teresa truly reported a pregnancy to her employer in January of 2011, she would have been 11 months pregnant when the birth occurred in November,” Viterna and Bautista observed. “This testimony is nothing short of preposterous. Nevertheless, this is the only witness testimony that the judge deems ‘credible’ in the final sentencing.”
According to Viterna and Bautista’s report, “The judge admitted that there was no evidence that Maria Teresa had done anything to hurt her baby. The judge also admitted that there was no evidence of any motive for why she would want to kill her baby.” However, he still convicted her of aggravated homicide.
A 2015 resolution from the Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría Para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH in Spanish), which provided a formal opinion on violations of Rivera’s human rights, supports Viterna and Bautista’s findings.
The PDDH resolution observed that Rivera faced a slanted system even before she got to court:
At the First of May Hospital where Rivera was taken, the criminal investigation was prioritized over her right to health. She was subjected to interrogation when she was still in Intensive Care and without legal representation. In addition, the medical personnel did not seek information about her health history; they limited themselves to examining the birth canal, carrying out the extraction of the remaining placenta, and discharging her the following day, without attending to her overall health.
Both the PDDH and Viterna-Bautista reports noted that the judge relied on shoddy, unscientific evidence to convict Rivera. According to court records, the autopsy report for the fetus said its cause of death was “perinatal asphyxia.”
“It is perhaps worth reiterating that there were no signs of trauma on the [fetus], either externally or internally. It is perhaps worth reiterating that, despite the judge’s conclusion that the [fetus] died from suffocating within the latrine, the fetal lungs were clean with no sign of fecal matter or other materials inside them. Rather, the autopsy concluded that the [fetus] died of a medical condition—perinatal asphyxiation—that could have occurred before, during, or after the birth. Clearly, there is no evidence in these documents proving homicide,” Viterna and Bautista wrote. “Perinatal asphyxiation,” they said, “is a medical condition.”
Still, the judge interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act. He also ignored the portion of the autopsy report stating that the umbilical cord could have been separated by its fall into the latrine. As quoted by the PDDH resolution, he wrote:
There is no doubt that the baby was born alive and was full-term and that the detached umbilical cord was cut by the mother …. This judge does not give credibility to what the accused says when she states she did not know she was pregnant …. She knew she was pregnant and that brought with it the obligation to care for and protect this young person she carried in her womb. In this sense, the fact that she went to the latrine, she did it with the intention of violently expelling [it] so that inside the latrine there would be no opportunity to breathe and in that way cause its death and then be able to say it was a [spontaneous] abortion.”
The judge also based his conviction, the PDDH resolution said, on the results of a DNA test showing the fetus was genetically related to Rivera.
“No evidence was introduced to show that Rivera had taken any intentional action to cause the death,” the PDDH resolution concluded.
Convicted by Patriarchy
Rivera’s legal representatives will likely use many of these inconsistencies as evidence for procedural judicial error in court this week. A favorable outcome in her trial can represent a significant step forward for women’s human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador. The country’s 1997 absolute ban on abortion, along with a 1998 constitutional modification to declare that life begins at conception, created the social, cultural, and legal environment that has justified courts sending women such as Rivera to prison for documented obstetrical emergencies, not even attempted abortion. According to the global organization Ipas, more than 600 women were incarcerated between 1998 and 2013 under the abortion law.
As the PDDH resolution noted, “in El Salvador, there exists a culture of the promotion of motherhood as the only form of self-realization for women, and the creation of the binomial ‘woman-mother,’ which locates women as instinctive and not rational. This imposes upon women [duties of] sacrifice, abnegation, and the prioritization of children over their own human conditions, behaviors that are not demanded in equal proportions from men.
“Women find themselves with a social expectation to comply with the role ‘woman-mother,’ even in the health system where women should be assured of conditions free of discrimination and obstetric violence,” it continued.
Advocates and researchers have argued that this sexist framework contributed to Rivera’s conviction. As Viterna and Bautista wrote, the trial judge claimed that Rivera “‘decided to carry out her criminal plan within the area of her household, looking for a moment during which there weren’t any other persons around to carry out this homicide,’ as if a woman has complete control over when, where and how her body will give birth.”
The PDDH concluded that “the judge convicted Rivera under subjective criteria with a heavily sexist ideology,” saying that Rivera’s rights to the presumption of innocence were overruled by such an ideology, unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.
Rivera’s case, along with that of Carmen Guadalupe Vazquez (who was one of Las 17 granted a pardon in 2015 when the Salvadoran Supreme Court recognized judicial errors in her case), is representative of a consistent pattern toward this group of women that the Agrupación has been documenting.
“Correcting these judicial errors is very important, first of all for Rivera and her young son, so that she can go free, but also for all the other women in similar circumstances. It’s also necessary for those who work for justice in this country, particularly women’s reproductive justice, to see that the work has concrete results,” Herrera said.
Herrera hopes that a positive outcome will continue to make visible this pattern of judicial error and “move other cases [of Las 17] forward more rapidly and bring greater justice to the judicial system.”
According to IThe Agrupación is currently representing more than 25 women imprisoned with similar convictions: the original 17, two of whom received pardons, and others who have entered the system more recently.
“Maria Teresa’s story illustrates the systematic ways that women’s rights are violated: the right to health, the right to privacy in one’s life, the right to doctor-patient confidentiality, along with all the judicial procedural rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Herrera said in an interview with Rewire.
“The judicial system in El Salvador is the part of the state that has changed least since the signing of the 1992 peace accords” that ended the Salvadoran civil war, Herrera said. “Not just in how it deals with women, but how little sensitivity it demonstrates overall with regard to human rights.”
Clinton and Sanders Tweet Criticisms of Anti-Choice Legislation
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) took to Twitter this week to speak out against anti-choice legislation and to urge Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to veto legislation targeting reproductive rights.
In a seriesoftweets signed “-H,” indicating that they come from the candidate herself, Clinton wrote that “States like Ohio, Utah, and Florida that attack Planned Parenthood are attacking women’s health, and they’re part of a dangerous trend.” The Democratic presidential candidate noted that if “efforts to roll back women’s rights seem relentless, you’re right: States have enacted 282 abortion restrictions since 2010.”
Clinton called on Scott to “do the right thing and protect a woman’s right to make her own health decisions,” referring to an opportunity to veto anti-choice legislation passed Wednesday by the Florida’s GOP-majority state senate. The measure would force doctors who offer abortion care to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and ban abortion clinics from receiving state funding for cancer screenings, HIV testing, and other forms of preventative care.
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The medical community has called admitting privileges laws medically unnecessary. Anti-choice legislators and activists characterize these laws as safety measures for pregnant people, though an anti-choice leader outside the Supreme Court this month said that admitting privilege laws are designed to destroy abortion care access.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ campaign in a Wednesday tweet flatly called on Scott to “veto this bill. Don’t play politics with abortion.”
“This is not about abortion services,” Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said of the bill, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “This is about contraception, STD diagnosis and treatment, cancer screening, pap smears. They’re taking that all away.”
Trump: ‘”I Think Islam Hates Us”
Donald Trump doubled down on the comments he made about Islam earlier this week during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, charging that Americans should be wary of Muslim “hatred” of the United States.
“I think Islam hates us. There’s something there—it’s a tremendous hatred,” Trump said Wednesday, speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. When pressed by Cooper to clarify whether that hatred was “in Islam itself,” Trump replied that, “you’re gonna have to figure that out, OK?”
CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper again pressed the issue with the leading Republican candidate, asking if his comments referred to “all 1.6 billion Muslims.”
“I mean a lot of them,” Trump replied.“There’s something going on that maybe you don’t know about, maybe a lot of other people don’t know about, but there’s tremendous hatred. And I will stick with exactly what I said to Anderson Cooper.”
Trump returned to the topic after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) criticized his comments, asserting once again that “there is a tremendous hate” in Islam.
“There is tremendous hate. Where large portions of a group of people, Islam, large portions want to use very, very harsh means,” Trump said. “Let me go a step further. Women are treated horribly. You know that. You do know that. Women are treated horribly, and other things are happening that are very, very bad. … The question was asked, what do you think? I said, there is hatred. Now it would be very easy for me to say something differently. And everybody would say, oh, isn’t that wonderful.”
Trump’s assertion comes months after he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in the aftermath of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Trump justified his stance by similarly claiming that there is a “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
What Else We’re Reading
Mother Jonesanalyzes the Democratic presidential candidates’ positions on abortion rights later in pregnancy, finding that although Sanders is against restrictions on abortion access, Clinton’s position isn’t as clear.
Meet Lucia Quiej: The Guatemalan immigrant mother who questioned Democrats about family reunification during Wednesday night’s debate.
The Washington Postprofiles Donald Trump’s sister, the “tough, respected federal judge Ted Cruz called a ‘radical pro-abortion extremist.’”
Bernie Sanders lent his support to destigmatizing breastfeeding this week. After a photo showing a Sanders supporter breastfeeding at a campaign rally gained attention, the Sanders campaign tweeted that “As a society, we should never stigmatize women for breastfeeding in public.” The woman in the photo wrote on Facebook that after the rally, “Bernie and Jane O’Meara Sanders both thanked me for doing what mothers do and taking care of my daughter when she needed her mom, even if that meant nursing in public!”