Analysis Human Rights

What’s Next for the Rest of the Salvadoran Women Imprisoned on Abortion-Related Charges?

Kathy Bougher

Last week, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador voted to grant a pardon to Guadalupe, who was charged with aggravated homicide after an obstetrical complication she suffered in 2007. But 15 of the women known as “Las 17” are still in prison—and activists hope increased international attention will spur the Salvadoran government into taking just action.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

The Legislative Assembly of El Salvador voted in a “ground-breaking” decision last week to grant its first-ever pardon to a woman imprisoned on abortion-related charges. Guadalupe, who has served seven years of her 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide after an obstetrical complication she suffered in 2007, is expected to be released within four-to-six weeks. But 15 of the women known as “Las 17” are still in prison—and activists hope increased international attention will spur the Salvadoran government into taking just action.

On January 28, experts from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) joined in the conversation, releasing a statement declaring that the legislative action in Guadalupe’s favor must not be the end of progress on this matter. The decision, wrote the OHCHR representatives, “must mark a turning point for the authorities to review the sentences against all women jailed for pregnancy-related complications.” These experts included Emna Aouij, chair-rapporteur of the working group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, and Mads Andenas, chair-rapporteur on the working group on arbitrary detention, as well as several other human rights specialists.

This was only the second time in the past few years, activists say, that the OHCHR has explicitly called the Salvadoran government to action on matters of sexual and reproductive rights—the first being for Beatriz, a then-22-year-old woman whose pregnancy was putting her life in danger. Given the fact that El Salvador became a member of the UN Human Rights Commission last year, many feminists hope statements like these will demonstrate the disconnect between passing judgment on other countries’ practices and not observing internationally recognized treaties at home. In fact, the OHCHR did not limit its response to Las 17 alone. The agency’s release also pointed out that its representatives had urged El Salvador to rescind its blanket abortion ban more than a decade ago:

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“We further urge the authorities to repeal legislation which criminalises abortion in all circumstances,” they added. … The experts noted that they had previously communicated their concern to the Government of El Salvador that the 1997 abortion law violates the right of women to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, in particular the need to ensure equitable access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly to therapeutic abortion. … “El Salvador must comply with its international obligations and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including maternal health care and access to all methods of modern contraception,” the experts stressed.

For activists, the OHCHR’s statement displays how heavily Las 17’s story is beginning to resonate with influential figures and the general public on a global scale.

“The news about Guadalupe has reached many corners and made a striking impact,” Alejandra Burgos, coordinator of the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, told Rewire. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, she continued, “was here on January 16 for the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords … and we met with him and discussed these matters.” In addition, Burgos pointed out that last October, the Costa Rican lawyer Alda Facio, an expert on human rights, women’s rights, and international law, “made an unofficial visit to El Salvador and met with us. She came in her capacity as a legal expert, but she also serves as a member of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women, which was represented in this group of experts.”

Overall, Burgos was heartened by the broad view the OHCHR took on the impact banning abortion care has on marginalized populations. “It seems they have listened to us. Even their language reflects a feminist perspective when the experts say, ‘The total ban on abortion disproportionately affects women who are poor. Furthermore, matters relating to an obstetric complication can sometimes mistakenly be considered as abortion,’” she said. “These experts are recognizing that the absolute prohibition on abortion not only affects poor women, but it ties the hands of health providers.”

The statement also affects the petitions for pardon that have not yet been decided by the Supreme Court. As Morena Herrera, president of the feminist group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), explained, euphoria over Guadalupe’s pardon comes coupled with the knowledge that decisions for many of the rest of Las 17 are still pending. Six other petitions for pardoning have been denied so far by the Supreme Court; nine remain. If the Court makes a positive recommendation, then the petition will go to the legislature, as did Guadalupe’s.

The fact that the vote in favor of Guadalupe was the bare minimum of 43 shows the reluctance and fear many legislators have around being labeled “pro-abortion,” especially with national legislative elections coming up on March 1. Agrupación recognizes that even if more petitions reach the legislature in the next few weeks, they may well be set aside until after the elections.

However, Burgos sees the OHCHR statement providing strong support to those legislators who have voted in favor of a pardon. “This lets them know that what they are doing has international backing,” she said. “It supports other public officials too.”

“I interpret the UN statement as saying, ‘So go step-by-step. First, free the women who are in prison. Then, stop judging every obstetrical problem as an abortion. Then work on changing the law,” she continued.

These priorities, in fact, reflect the strategy of local activists working on behalf of women throughout El Salvador. For those whose petitions were denied, Agrupación is looking into other legal pathways toward justice. Now that the realities of the groundless legal cases the state mounted against the women have started to be revealed through the details of the Supreme Court hearings and media coverage, Agrupación will have clearer legal arguments and more national and international support as they explore and exercise other options.

Bolstered by international statements of support, organizations including Agrupación also intend to continue exploring potential avenues for reforming the country’s abortion laws. One possibility would be to try to reintroduce into law one or more of the three legal grounds for abortion that existed before the 1997 prohibition passed: when a woman’s life is at risk, when the pregnancy is the result of a rape or incest, and when there is a fetal anomaly incompatible with life outside the uterus.

Currently, the Salvadoran legal system has no way of tracking how many women have been sentenced on abortion-related charges, or what has happened to them. Part of pushing for broader measures to release women means having the data on who they are. To that end, Agrapución members plan to go to every jurisdiction in the country and search court records in order to update their 2012 report From the Hospital to the Jail. For now, the group will continue to work with the rest of Las 17, as well as other women who face abortion-related charges who are at various stages of the legal process. And in a month or so, Guadalupe will regain her freedom—a potential glimmer of hope for the more than a dozen women who still await justice.

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