Rape, danger to the life of the mother, malformation of the fetus or impossibility of extrauterine life: no reason is sufficient to have an abortion safely and legally in El Salvador. In 1998, a reform of the Penal Code promoted by the ARENA party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Catholic NGO ‘Yes to Life’ and the Salvadoran ecclesiastical hierarchy, criminalized abortion in all cases and criminalized public officials – including health workers – not to raise awareness of the situation. And yesterday, after seven years without convictions for abortion or obstetric emergencies, this reform fell like a slab on the shoulders of some Salvadoran women.

Esme, who had been in preventive detention for two years – separated from her seven-year-old daughter – after suffering an obstetric emergency, has been sentenced by a court in El Salvador to 30 years in prison. It is the first sentence of this type that takes place during the government of the current president, Nayib Bukele.

Manuela was pregnant in 2008. She suffered a fall and after severe pain and bleeding, her father took her to the San Francisco Gotera hospital. After her diagnosis (severe postpartum preeclampsia), the doctor who treated her was questioned by the police, who also investigated Manuela’s house. She was handcuffed to the hospital bed she was in and eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison for felony aggravated murder. In 2009, Manuela was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease that led her to die in prison in 2010. Years later, in 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Manuela and against the State of El Salvador for violating their rights, a sentence that activists such as Morena Herrera received with some relief.

Manuela’s or Esme’s case are no exception. Investigations carried out by the NGO Feminist Collective for Local Development (CFDL), of which Herrera is the spokesperson and co-founder, show how from 2000 to 2019, 181 women have been penalized for abortions or obstetric emergencies in the country.

Morena Herrera, also president of the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, has been fighting for women’s rights for years, marked by her past as a guerrilla in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that fought against the government of El Salvador during the civil war. The activist herself was last week at Casa América in Barcelona talking about the situation of women in her country in terms of reproductive rights.

From the age of 15 participating in social movements, Herrera realized, when sharing testimonies with other women, that “the experiences we had had, even within the guerrilla, facing machismo, violence, rape, abortions… were not facts isolated, but had a common thread among all women: subordination, secondary position, discrimination. And so her fight began.

Using different legal channels, the CFDL has managed to get 64 women who had been prosecuted and criminalized out of jail. In 2014, they launched a campaign, “Freedom for the 17”, which sought to obtain pardons for 17 women who met the requirements to obtain them. That campaign was expanded and became a symbol of the cause. “After getting 64 out of jail, we have 4 convicted women left,” Herrera said. Yesterday, these four women became five.

Bukele does not represent hope for change. Despite giving an image of a modern, millennial president, of a cool dictator who attends meetings and rallies with a hat, the leader is deeply religious and conservative. “In his government, they have continued to denounce women living in poverty who come to public hospitals,” says Herrera. Women with more money can go to Mexico or the United States to have an abortion, or pay very high amounts to private clinics that offer them the possibility of having an abortion at a gold price.

But the United States also seems to want to roll back reproductive rights. Morena Herrera emphasizes her concern, although she adds a positive point to the recent situation: now the feminist movements of the North American country are looking towards Latin America, where some countries have advanced more than the United States in terms of abortion. “Roe vs. Wide, the judicial decree that has allowed the right to abortion in US women, is based on the principle of privacy and intimacy, and the legislation in some Latin American countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, have a more focused on autonomy and reproductive justice for women,” she points out.

In El Salvador, according to the 2019 National Survey of Sexual Violence against Women, two out of three women have suffered sexual violence at some point in their lives. As Herrera explains, there are 9-, 10-year-old pregnant girls who cannot abort. Around 30% of the annual births are of adolescents or girls and only 18% have access to education, the rest stay at home, dedicating themselves to domestic and care work. “This criminalization of women (…) is a measure of social control. If you have half of the population subject, subordinated by the most important thing that we have as people, which is our body, in this way, with the level of influence that women can have in their families… you control all families and you control to the whole society”, declares Herrera. For the activist, criminalizing abortion is a policy of social discipline: if women suffer, everyone suffers.