Exclusive: Salvadorian Women Imprisoned for Abortion Celebrate Freedom and Renewed Hope
In 2015, Karen was home with her grandmother when she suffered a miscarriage, losing consciousness. When she woke up, she was handcuffed to a hospital bed surrounded by police officers.
"I couldn't understand why I was handcuffed when I hadn't committed a crime," she tells People Chica. "I tried to speak and ask them to explain what was going on, but no one said anything, they just accused me, criticized me and told me I had committed a crime. I was never awarded an explanation."
At 22 years old, Karen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for her obstetric emergency, leaving behind her two-year-old son. It took six years for her to be reunited with her family.
In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Karen, Cinthya and Imelda shared their stories of redemption after being wrongfully convicted, their hopes for the future of Salvadorian women and the activism behind the liberation of 17 women that are still incarcerated for obstetric emergencies.
We Celebrate Freedom
Over the last two decades, a total of 181 women who suffered obstetric emergencies were incarcerated for abortion or aggravated homicide, serving a time of up to 50 years in El Salvador.
On June 8, activists and representatives from local and international organizations gathered to celebrate the women who have regained their freedom at the "We Celebrate Freedom" event in San Salvador.
With the help of local and international activists including the Citizens' Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, Feminist Collective for Local Development, Ipas CAM, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), Women's Link Worldwide (WLW), the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Amnesty International (AI) and Women's Equality Center (WEC), 65 women have been liberated since 2009.
"Eight years ago, when I started working on the cases of the women that were unjustly imprisoned for suffering obstetric emergencies in El Salvador, the possibility of freeing them seemed impossible," Paula Avila-Guillen, an international human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Women's Equality Center, said. "Today, with full hearts, we celebrate the freedom of 65 innocent women who were wrongfully detained, deprived of their liberty, and separated from their children and families for far too long."
Despite the freedom of the 65, stories like Karen's are far too common in the Central American country.
"I was accused by a doctor. I was handcuffed to the bed and tried to explain to her what had happened," explains Imelda, one of the liberated women who suffered an obstetric emergency when she was 24 years old. Her daughter survived, but she was still convicted to 30 years in prison.
"When I arrived at the prison I met other women who had gone through the same thing and were also serving 30 years. I was in shock. I thought 'no, I can't wait 30 years, I haven't done anything.' My family abandoned me during that time, the only people I call family now is the Agrupación Ciudadana who were with me during the most difficult times in my life," she added.
El Salvador's Reproductive Laws
El Salvador has one of the most restrictive and notorious abortion and reproductive laws globally, with no exceptions. Obstetric emergencies, miscarriages and stillbirths are often considered intentional abortions.
"We are the 65 that are free, but we are also missing many women that are still in prison and deserve to be with their children and families," said Cinthya, who served 10 years in prison after being convicted for aggravated homicide in 2009 after suffering an obstetric emergency.
"I want to thank the organizations and people who have supported us. I know with all of my heart that we must all unite...so that our voices are heard around the world, and so they see the injustice that is being committed in El Salvador. Women in this country have so many of our rights violated, and we know that we are worth more than they think," Cinthya concluded.
Free the 17
With restrictions on abortion on the rise globally, activist groups continue to fight for the liberation of women who continue to be incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
Although thirteen women were released this year alone through the long-standing campaign, Nos Faltan Las 17 or Free the 17, that calls on El Salvador's president Nayib Bukele to release them from prison.
Celebrities such as America Ferrera, Mila Jovovich, Kathryn Hahn, Paola Mendoza and Reshma Saujani have joined the campaign.
"With this celebration of freedom, we want to recognize the contribution to this fight by activists, organizations, national and international institutions, all of whom have expressed their indignation at the injustice and their solidarity with those who have suffered," said Morena Herrera, President of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la despenalización del aborto (Citizen's Group for the Depenalization of Abortion).
"We are taking steps to close this awful page in El Salvador's history so that young women who live in poverty are no longer persecuted, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. This is a celebration and an act of gratitude," Herrera affirmed.