Commentary Sexual Health

Poderosa Profile: Dian Alarcón

NLIRH

With my Director Maria Azuri, I’ve been able to better understand women and our needs. I understand my job more, and why despite the difficulties we face we must continue to strengthen education and leadership among women.

Written by Dian Alarcón and cross-posted in partnership with the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health as part of the 2012 Latina Week of Action.

This profile of Dian Alarcón is one of several of powerful Latina women advocates throughout the United States.

I consider myself a powerful woman every time I give sexual and reproductive health education to women in a parking lot, or in a Laundromat, and see the expression on their faces – like they’ve never spoken about their own bodies before. When I, or one of the promotoras of the Lifting Latina Voices initiative, help women to discover their potential for leadership, women realize that over the years that others have had more say in their life decisions than they have had themselves – how many children to have, when and where to have them – regardless of their individual future. They then discover their power, or realize they’ve been in abusive relationships where their own pleasure has been put on hold and their partner has never cared about what they feel and want. When we’re able to work with women as they come to these conclusions for themselves, I feel powerful. I feel powerful when I see women demand Health to be able to protect themselves, Dignity to be respected for who they are and their decisions, and Justiceto condemn anything they consider a personal attack. 

With my Director Maria Azuri, I’ve been able to better understand women and our needs. I understand my job more, and why despite the difficulties we face we must continue to strengthen education and leadership among women. Mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, LGBT or straight, it doesn’t matter, we just have to discover our potential and put it in service to others.

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Me considero una mujer Poderosa cada vez que le doy educación sexual y reproductiva a alguna mujer en un parqueadero o en una lavandería pública y veo en sus caras la expresión de que jamás habían oído hablar de su propio cuerpo. A medida que yo o alguna de las promotoras de la iniciativa Levantando las Voces Latinas ayudamos que descubran todo su potencial de liderazgo, las mujeres se dan cuenta que en todos estos años ha sido otra persona la que ha tomado las decisiones respecto a cuantos hijos tener, cuando y donde tenerlos, sin importarles su futuro individual. Entonces descubren su poder, y que además han tenido relaciones abusivas donde su propio placer ha pasado a un segundo plano y realmente a su pareja jamás le ha importado lo que sienten y quieren. Cuando logramos que las mujeres lleguen por si solas a estas conclusiones me hace sentir poderosa. Me siento poderosa cuando logro que cada mujer exija Salud para poder protegerse, Dignidad para que las respeten por lo que son y decidan para su futuro y Justicia para poder condenar lo que consideren un atropello para cada una de ellas.

Con mi Directora María Azuri cada vez logro entender mejor como somos las mujeres y que necesidades tenemos, entiendo más mi trabajo y por qué a pesar de las dificultades debemos seguir fortaleciendo la educación y el liderazgo entre las mujeres. Madres, hermanas, hijas, amigas, LGBT o no, no importa, solo tenemos que descubrir nuestro potencial y ponerlo al servicio de otros.

– Dian Alarcón

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

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The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

Analysis Human Rights

Zika Increases the Already Grave Dangers of Being Young and Female in El Salvador

Kathy Bougher

The Zika virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the threats girls and women already face in the country.

Read more of our articles on the Zika virus here.

The arrival of the Zika virus is not the only threat to young women’s health and human rights in El Salvador. The virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the grave situation girls and women already face in the country. Such danger, highlighted in both government reports and the work of activists on the ground, includes sexual violence, a lack of access to medical care, and gang activity.

El Salvador’s health ministry recently recommended that because of the virus, women contemplating pregnancies should take measures to postpone their pregnancies for at least two years. However, as Rewire reported, feminists responded that the recommendation is inadequate. It does not address the realities in El Salvador, they said, a country where 31 percent of all pregnancies registered with the El Salvador Ministry of Health in 2014 occurred among girls and women ages 10 to 19. Because of a number of societal restrictions, many of these girls may not have a choice in whether to put off pregnancy. 

A November 2015 report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health (MINSAL) gives the most up-to-date details so far about this large segment of the population, especially where issues of relationships, pregnancies, and reproductive rights are concerned. Although the report was released before news of Zika became widely recognized, it describes interconnected systems of coercion and abuse any strategies to address the virus must take into account.

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The UNFPA and MINSAL report stemmed from two stark figures in a National Health Survey in 2014: One out of every three women ages 20 to 49 in the survey had a pregnancy before the age of 18. One out of four lived in a relationship with a man, married or unmarried, before the age of 18.

These numbers, notes Minister of Health Violeta Menjívar in the 2015 report’s introduction, reflect the environment young women must often navigate in El Salvador:

The relationships as well as the early pregnancies are the result of circumstances beyond the control of the girl and the adolescent, and they impede her from making key decisions about her life adequately. The situation of violence in the family and in the society places girls and adolescents in situations in which their rights are violated. The relationships and pregnancies before age 17 are a product of the social violence that they suffer daily, and which is not taken on as such by the society or the State. 

Using interviews with girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who had a live birth in 2012 at a Ministry of Health facility, the authors of the 2015 report attempted to flesh out the stories behind those statistics. The majority of the relationships, it found, were “not among peers,” meaning an age difference of three years or less. Rather, two-thirds of the girls had a male partner at least four years older at the time they gave birth, and 18 percent had a partner at least 10 years older.

This, the report states, creates “very unequal power” in the relationships, which leaves the girls and young women with “very little margin with which to make decisions about their lives.”

The study recognizes the problematic and conflicting laws in the country that criminalize some of these relationships but legalize others. For unmarried individuals, for example, any sexual relation with a minor younger than 15 years old is a crime. But there are still laws in effect in the penal code, it says, that “permit marriage under the condition that the girl or adolescent is pregnant or [they] have children in common, and there exists the express permission of the parents or guardians.”  

The study also shows that “one of every ten relationships was formalized through marriage, including some with girls ages 10 to 12.”

The report also highlighted the inadequate medical services many of the girls received. In the case of the 10-to-12-year-old group, 20 percent had no postpartum care, even though, as the report says, they are the most vulnerable to obstetric complications. Half the girls and young women who gave birth in 2012 were not using contraceptives at the time of the study in 2015. By that time, 29 percent had already had a second pregnancy or were pregnant.

Girls and adolescents with histories of sexual violence, as self-reported in the interviews, comprised 37 percent of the interviewees overall, but two-thirds of girls ages 10 to 12 in 2012. One out of five of the girls who were 10 to 12 years old in 2012 had their first sexual relation with a family member, which constitutes the crime of aggravated sexual aggression. Though the report did not discuss individuals’ experience with the justice system, feminist groups that collect data on violence against women say that few police reports are ever filed of crimes like these—and if they are, there is rarely any follow-up.

“Sexual aggressions committed against girls and adolescents take place in an environment of social permissiveness around assaults, abuse and deception, fed by neglect, violence and poverty,” wrote Menjívar in her introduction.

“The fact that a girl of 10, 11 or 12 years of age is pregnant or finds herself in a relationship, that she leaves school, that she does not have access to services to protect her, et cetera, should be considered a national priority especially, when the persons who should protect them, and the institutions that should guarantee their rights, permit that these rights be violated,” she continued.

Right now, local health educators say that combating this problem is not a national government priority—and their own community-based work reinforces the report’s conclusions. Zuleyma Lovo, psychology student and leader from the activist group Jóvenes Voceras y Voceros en Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, gave workshops in rural communities and in middle schools on sexual and reproductive health—until increasing gang violence caused the program to be suspended in late 2015.

In an interview with Rewire, she affirmed the frequent incidents of violence and sexual abuse among the students she knew, and the many young girls who lived with older men:

At the school we asked for anonymous written comments, and in addition to questions about our talks, the girls would tell us about the physical, sexual, and emotional violence they experienced at home. Many think they can escape it by leaving home and living with a man, almost always a man who is older. But, the same dynamics repeat themselves, the violence, the abuse, the control.

This coercion extends to the control of pregnancy planning. “The men decide whether or not the women can use contraceptives. The men almost never agree to use condoms,” she said.

“Then the Ministry of Health arrives and tells women to abstain or to keep from getting pregnant,” she added.  

This is not the only situation, advocates say, in which adolescents have difficulty accessing contraceptives. Lovo, and Noel Gonzalez, health educator and national director of Voceros y Voceras, described the difficulties the young people they serve face when attempting to obtain birth control available at no cost from local health centers operated by the government. Such clinics are the providers for the majority of poor people, both urban and rural; those who can pay for private pharmacies tend to have more options.

Gonzalez explained that the centers are directed to offer “youth-friendly” services, but that is rarely the case. Frequently, Gonzalez said, the young people he’s interacted with are met with “judgmental, prejudice-laden treatment and a lack of confidentiality” from the time they walk in the door. When young people do request contraceptives, he said, they are often told, “You’re too young. It won’t matter. You’re just going to get pregnant, anyway.” As a result, Gonzalez said, “many never go back.”

Clinics, Gonzalez said, often have limited supplies of certain kinds of birth control. “They only have the three-month injections, which have more side effects for young women,” noted Gonzalez. In its 2014 report On the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador, Amnesty International found that “these clinics have … been associated with provision of fewer options and poorer levels of service for young women including denial of services and discriminatory treatment.”

And if that contraception fails, Lovo noted, women have few options: Abortion is 100 percent illegal in all cases in El Salvador. “Pregnant women who are abused or whose partners deserted them might be considering interrupting their pregnancies, but they are afraid to talk about it because of the strong religious biases against abortion,” she said.

All this is worsened, Lovo explained, by the threat of gang violence, which shut down her project in 2015. “They murdered a woman leader in one community, and we can’t go back there,” she said.  

El Salvador, by many rankings, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Contributing factors are complex, but gangs and organized crime play large roles.

Gangs claim territories, which makes access to some health clinics a dangerous matter. Gonzalez elaborated, “The gangs stop you and ask you for your [identification], and if you live in the area of a rival gang, they won’t let you into their area. That can be where the clinic is.” A young person with the resources can take a bus to a distant clinic, but most don’t have that option.  

Working as a health promoter is also dangerous: Some, Gonzalez said, have been murdered by gangs as they move from one community to another. He also explained that gangs kidnap or threaten to kidnap young women from their families and rape them, which has caused families to relocate within the country or to leave the country in order to protect their daughters. Some health clinics are reluctant to report rapes when women come to them for fear of reprisals from gangs.  

Violence and poverty work together to curtail school attendance, including access to sexual education. Rates of students who leave their school out of fear have doubled in the past five years. In some cases, schools have closed as families flee to other regions of the country or leave the country altogether. Lovo noted that independently run sexual education programs such as hers have been effective but small, and limited by safety concerns.

Various projects and programs to improve matters have been written at the ministerial level and partially implemented, but have not met their goals. A proposed law on sex education in the schools has stalled in various committees.

The potential risks and impacts of the Zika virus interact with and exacerbate the chronic dangers of being young and female in El Salvador. Any efforts to deal with Zika need to recognize those contexts, and to work on making the country safer for girls and women beyond the threat of the virus alone.