How much hope is there for the criminalised women of El Salvador?

A pro-life advocate protesting against the alleged 'abortion' that saw Guadelupe imprisoned for up to 30 years.

A recent ‘victory for justice’ has been announced following the pardoning of Guadalupe, an El Salvadorian woman who has spent seven years in jail after she gave birth to a stillborn baby in 2007. Domestic worker, Guadalupe, was 18 years old at the time she was questioned in her hospital bed without a lawyer and then imprisoned.

Guadalupe initially faced abortion charges, which carry a sentence of eight years. However these charges were dropped and replaced with aggravated murder charges, leading to a sentence of 30 years. While El Salvador’s leftist party, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had voted in favour of her pardoning in 2007, the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) voted against it. The conservative party had passed the law to ban abortion in 1997, leading to 127 women jailed for breaking the ban. At least 17 cases of women suffering pregnancy complications and being wrongly jailed under this law have been reported. After 7 years in jail spent by Guadalupe and four years of campaigning by Amnesty International and local activists in the area, Parliamentary Assembly in El Salvador convened on Wednesday the 21st of January to vote on pardoning Guadalupe.

Her case has brought to light the extreme justice system in El Salvador, which criminalises abortion on all grounds, even when a woman’s life is in danger and in cases of rape. Here we can see how the worrying collateral damage presents itself when a law like this fails to distinguish between women who face circumstances beyond their control as in the event of a miscarriage and women who actively partake in abortion. The law demonstrates a failure to protect women who have lost babies without intention; thus sending the message that women will be criminalised for lacking control over their bodies. The government has thus failed these women on a number of levels. Women in El Salvador face prosecution if they seek medical attention after a miscarriage, leading to unnecessary suffering and a fear of seeking basic medical care in a serious situation. It’s time for a review of this type of criminalisation, which punishes women and girls for suffering events beyond their control.

El Salvador has in recent years seen great political changes after two decades of conservative rule following the bitter civil war of the 1980s. The current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, former rebel leader and presidential candidate for FMLN, a centre left to left-wing party, won a recent 2014 election by a marginal victory. This precarious victory, which narrowly won in opposition to a right-wing party, indicates scope for change in an area ravaged with inequality and lack of basic human rights in its justice system. They have so far enforced popular social changes, which hope to improve standard of living; these include an adult illiteracy program, free school uniforms and a daily glass of milk for schoolchildren.  The healthcare system has seen great progression with the government’s introduction of the Ministry of Health subsidies, which covers 80 per cent of the population’s healthcare. Perhaps these reforms alongside the recent pardon for Guadalupe signals the FMLN government’s capacity to be progressive.  The recent update on Guadalupe’s pardon certainly suggests there is hope for the further 17 cases of women who are wrongly jailed under the ambiguous abortion law.


by Rhiannon Tapp