Despite the fierce struggle of feminist and human rights groups against extremely strict anti-abortion laws, most of Central America continues to imprison women for interrupting their pregnancies.
Little El Salvador, in particular, has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Operation is prohibited in all circumstances. Women suspected of having sex face the most severe punishments.
For example, Leslie Ramirez, 21, was sentenced in June to 50 years in prison after being charged with premeditated murder – the harshest sentence ever given to a woman for terminating a pregnancy. She herself confirms that she had a miscarriage.
A month ago, the young woman known as Esme was sentenced to 30 years in prison after an involuntary interruption of her pregnancy in 2019. She sought emergency medical care and was reported by hospital staff.
Salvadoran Zulema Beltran (40) bears witness to the nightmare that a Salvadoran woman goes through during the interruption of pregnancy. Beltran had an emergency in childbirth and went to the hospital. ‘I woke up in a hospital bed tied up, it was really hard for me. I think I was the third person to go to prison in El Salvador for something like this.”
She was 17 years old when she was arrested and imprisoned in August 1999. In February 2000, she was sentenced to 26 years in prison, but was released in 2010 for good behaviour. Beltran says she had a miscarriage and her brother called 911, but the police arrived instead of the ambulance.
Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are among the few countries in the world that maintain a comprehensive ban on abortion, even if a child is conceived through rape. The Dominican Republic also falls into this category. Guatemala allows one exception: when a woman’s life is in danger if the pregnancy continues.
“However, it is very rare for a life-threatening situation to be recognized,” said Carmen Martinez, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights in Latin America, an international organization of lawyers and lawyers working on women’s rights and the right to terminate a pregnancy. “This condemns countless women and girls in Central America to forced pregnancy and often forced motherhood.”
According to Martinez, Central America is at odds with the trend in Latin America, where other countries have taken steps toward greater tolerance of reproductive rights.
For example, Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina, as well as several states in Mexico, have banned abortions up to a certain number of weeks of pregnancy. They joined Cuba, the country where the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy has been guaranteed for decades.
There are also a handful of countries that have allowed exceptions to the abortion ban, including when there is a risk to a pregnant woman’s health, fetal abnormalities, or rape. “Then there are highly restrictive countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala,” said Carmen Martinez.
a lot of criticism
El Salvador has been the most criticized domestically and internationally for its violent oppression of women in the country of six million people.
In those countries with strict anti-abortion laws, health professionals fear they will be accused of complicity and sentenced to prison, often the first link in the criminalization of women.
However, in a landmark ruling in November 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that health workers in Latin America and the Caribbean should refrain from reporting suspected abortions. However, the application of the provision varies from state to state.
Not even the morning after the pill
Honduras is the only country in Latin America that bans so-called birth control pills, birth control pills readily available at any drugstore in other countries, including El Salvador.
The morning-after pill was available in Honduras, but it was demonized by conservative groups, after which Parliament prohibited not only its use, but also its sale, purchase and promotion.
President Manuel Zelaya rejected the ban, but was overthrown in a coup in June 2009. “With this, the pill was removed from the package of basic health care for survivors of sexual violence,” says Nissa Medina of Somos Mucha in Honduras (“We Are Many”). Since then, Honduras has had the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America.
Controversial Salvadoran President Nepe Bukele, who took office in 2019, has promised to decriminalize abortion but has failed to deliver on that promise. Meanwhile, many women, having been released from prison after ending their pregnancy convictions, are trying to build a better future for themselves and their families.
“What we’re going through here in El Salvador is not easy,” said El Salvador Zulema Beltran, who spent ten years in prison. It is part of the recently established Mojris Libres, a group of about 25 women who have served prison sentences for abortion.
The organization maintains a “meeting house” in the capital, San Salvador, that provides shelter to women who need it. “I realize now that the more I talk about it, the less pain I feel,” Beltran said.
In Mujeres Libres (“Free Woman”), women share their experiences and help each other. They try to give place to their pain. In addition, the organization provides psychosocial support and helps women move forward by training them to become entrepreneurs. “The idea is that we heal our wounds by thinking about the future,” says Beltran, who founded a perfume company.
Marilyn Pons, 31, has the same outlook on life. When she was 18, pregnant Ponce ended up in the hospital with severe bleeding. After she was fired, she was arrested. Prosecutors demanded 50 years in prison for her.
She spent a year in pretrial detention, and was released in January 2010 for lack of evidence. After her release, she graduated as a kindergarten teacher, but since then, like Beltran, has found shelter in the home of Mujeres Libres and is also committed to entrepreneurship. “The Salvadoran state owes us a lot. We were tried and convicted without evidence.