SAN SALVADOR – The four women all had sought medical help for obstetric emergencies, and each ended up in prison sentenced to 30 years on aggravated homicide convictions for allegedly terminating their pregnancies.
After spending a combined four decades behind bars in El Salvador, one of the four countries in the Western Hemisphere with total bans on abortions, they were recently released thanks to a campaign by human rights activists .
They sat down in front of journalists Tuesday to tell their stories and assert they were wrongly charged and unfairly convicted in a country where even a miscarriage carries the risk of a long prison sentence for women who are young and poor.
“I had just turned 17 years old and they locked me up,” said Kenia, who like the other three women gave only her first name. “It was unjust, I lost my youth, I lost my family, all of my dreams came crashing down.”
Kenia said she had called the local equivalent of 911, lost consciousness and woke up in a public hospital surrounded by police officers.
“One told me that he would make sure I rotted in prison and that’s how it was,” Kenia said. “He was the main witness against me. It was his version against mine. It was hard.”
Now, 26, Kenia wants to make up for lost time. “I got my family back and I don’t want to stall. I want to keep studying, study English, perfect my cosmetology to be able to help my family,” she said.
Kenia was released Jan. 17, after serving almost nine years of her sentence. She was one of five women serving 30-year aggravated homicide sentences who President Nayib Bukele ordered released since Dec. 23 under pressure from the online human rights campaign.
Morena Herrera, director of the nonprofit Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which has been working to free women since 2009, said El Salvador’s abortion ban doesn’t punish all women, just those who are poor and can’t afford good legal representation.
Poor women, often with lower levels of education, have less access to health care and end up in the public health system where doctors and nurses are compelled to report suspected abortions.
El Salvador has criminally prosecuted 181 women who experienced obstetric emergencies in recent decades. Since 2009, 62 women have been freed from prison with the help of women’s rights collectives. Twelve remain in prison.
The women spoke one day after Colombia's Constitutional Court legalized abortion up to 24 weeks. A number of Latin American countries have loosened restrictions in recent years under pressure from organized women's movements pushing the issue through their countries' courts.
“With an unjust law they criminalize us for being women, for being poor women,” said Evelyn, a 34-year-old who spent 13 years in prison. “I, like my friends, am innocent.”
Karen was 21 when she fainted alone in her grandmother’s house while pregnant. She woke up in the hospital “handcuffed to a gurney” and was interrogated by police.
Even in prison she felt the stigma as other inmates judged her for what she had been accused of doing. She spent seven years locked up and now yearns to make it up to her now 14-year-old son.
Elsy was a 28-year-old single mother working as a housekeeper when something went wrong with her pregnancy and she sought medical attention. Instead she was arrested on suspicion of having an abortion, tried and convicted of aggravated homicide.
“They were 10 difficult years I spent in prison,” Elsy said. “I was far from my son, from my family. Now I want to continue forward to see my son grow.”