Latin America & Caribbean

The mothers being criminalised in El Salvador

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Media captionWomen in El Salvador say they are being jailed for having miscarriages

Twenty-five-year old Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana laughs when she tells me she does not want to leave it too late to become a mother.

It would be an unremarkable statement for a woman of her age in conservative El Salvador, were it not for the story she has just told me.

At the age of 17, Ms Vazquez was raped by the neighbour of the family which she worked for as a maid.

The crime went unreported because she was scared of his threats.

Handcuffed in hospital

When the baby was due, she started bleeding heavily.

Image caption Rights group Amnesty International is campaigning for a change in El Salvador's abortion laws

Not allowed to go home to her family to give birth, she had the baby in the house where she worked.

Her baby died.

She was eventually taken to hospital after her employer saw the poor state she was in and said she did not want two deaths to occur in her house.

Ms Vasquez woke up the next day handcuffed to her hospital bed and accused of murdering her baby.

She recalled how in the weeks that followed she was given no chance to explain what had happened.

"A policeman said to me that if I had been his wife he would have blown my head off," she recalled.

She was sentenced to 30 years in jail for aggravated homicide.

Strict abortion laws

Women in El Salvador used to be allowed to have abortions in cases of rape, or if the health of the baby or the mother were at risk.

Image caption Many Salvadoreans are deeply religious and follow church teachings on abortion

But in 1998, a new law enacted under a conservative government completely outlawed it.

El Salvador is not the only country in Latin America to have such strict laws, but it is particularly strict in enforcing it.

Doctors have to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy. If they fail to report such cases, they, too, could face long sentences in jail.

The result is what human rights groups are calling a criminalisation of miscarriages and medical emergencies.

The punishment for abortion is up to eight years in jail.

But in many cases in which the foetus has died, the charge is changed to one of aggravated homicide, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years.

According to the Citizens' Coalition for the Legalisation of Abortion, 129 women were convicted of abortion-related crimes between 2000 and 2011.

Twenty-six are facing charges of murder.

Pardoned

Ms Vasquez is one of the lucky ones - if you can call her that.

Earlier this year, she walked free after seven years and three months in jail.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ms Vasquez was released in February after spending years in jail

She was pardoned after authorities recognised "judicial errors" in her original prosecution.

Maria Teresa Rivera did not have such "luck".

Her nightmare began in November 2011 when she woke up to go to the toilet and started bleeding heavily.

She told her mother-in-law to call the emergency services. A 911-call that she hoped could save her life instead landed her in jail.

When she got to hospital, the nurse said: "Where's the baby?".

"What baby?" Ms Rivera asked.

She said that was the first she knew of being pregnant.

Police found the baby at the bottom of the latrine at the back of her house. Ms Rivera was sentenced to 40 years in jail.

Legal uncertainty

Lawyer Dennis Munoz says that "an air of legal uncertainty has emerged" since hospitals started reporting miscarriages and stillbirths, leading to women being presumed "guilty from the start".

Image caption Salvadorean women say strict abortion laws mean they are presumed guilty from the start

"It threatens the rights to health, to life and to due process," he says.

The president of El Salvador's legislative assembly, Sigfrido Reyes, has called the legislation "medieval".

Speaking to Amnesty International last week, Mr Reyes said that it demonised women who were victims.

According to Amnesty International's Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas, the system discriminates against those who are poor.

"A woman who has access to financial resources to pay for a private doctor isn't going to be denounced by a private doctor," she said.

"This is really criminalising women who are from marginalised communities."

'Health issue'

Some medical professionals have decided to perform abortions despite the risks involved.

A doctor going by the pseudonym of Dr Hell said he carried out up to three abortions a month, charging those who can afford it as much as $1,000 (£660), but offering the procedure for free to those who do not have the means to pay.

"As a health professional, if a woman tells me, 'look I want to continue with my pregnancy,' I help her. But if she turns round to me and says: "This pregnancy is a problem for me," I can give another form of help, despite the laws that exist in this country," he said.

"It's a health issue and I have to respond to it, independently of my emotional and religious views."

Many in El Salvador hold deeply religious views, with a recent survey suggesting around 50% of Salvadoreans consider themselves Catholic and another 35% professing to be evangelical Christians.

San Salvador's auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez told me religious principles needed to be adhered to.

Image caption Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez argues that abortion is murder

"Every human life is sacred. To get rid of that is committing murder. If there are two lives in danger, you have to save the one that's most fragile and that's the child," he said.

But for many, that denies the rights of Salvadorean women who, after suffering the tragedy of miscarrying a baby, risk facing decades in prison for another miscarriage - a miscarriage of justice.

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