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“When El Salvador put us in jail, it made its biggest mistake”

Teodora Vasquez’s fight against the world’s harshest abortion laws

This is the latest edition of the Impact newsletter, a weekly dispatch of feminist journalism, delivered straight to your inbox. 

Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:

  • 🇸🇻 El Salvador is one of the few countries to enact a total ban on abortion in all circumstances.
  • ❌ More than 180 women have been jailed for abortions and pregnancy loss under these laws since 2000.
  • 💚 Teodora Vasquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison when she lost her pregnancy in 2007. Now she supports women like her to find their feet after they are released from prison.

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Teodora Vasquez was one day out from her due date in July 2007, and was finishing up at work before giving birth, when she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. She called an ambulance from the school kitchen where she worked, then passed out as she began to haemorrhage. When the paramedics woke her up, they told her the baby was dead. She was still lying on the kitchen floor.

“Having already had my son, I dreamed of raising two children and being there for them,” Vasquez says. “From the moment my daughter died, my life was destroyed.”

But this traumatic miscarriage was more than a personal tragedy. Still in desperate need of medical assistance, Vazquez was taken away in a police car.

“At first I was accused of abortion, then of aggravated murder,” she says.

El Salvador is one of the few countries in the world where abortion is totally prohibited in all circumstances and punishable by imprisonment. The law makes no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, nor does it account for cases in which the patient’s health is in danger, if the foetus is unviable or if there has been an obstetric emergency like Vasquez’s. Between 2000 and 2019, at least 181 women have been prosecuted for having an abortion or suffering an obstetric emergency, with sentences ranging from eight to 50 years in prison. Teodora Vasquez was sentenced to 30 years.

Vasquez was released from prison five years ago, following intense international pressure on El Salvador over her case. As she speaks to the Impact newsletter via Zoom, she is sitting at her desk at Mujeres Libres El Salvador, the NGO she founded in 2018 to support women who have been imprisoned under her country’s abortion ban. Mujeres Libres supports women who have been jailed for abortion as soon as they are released, gets them medical treatment and helps them find training and job opportunities. They also give them shelter in the Casa del Encuentro, a rented house in the capital San Salvador with room for 12 people.

“We called ourselves Mujeres Libres because we believe that’s what we should be: free,” she says.

The beginnings of change could be stirring in El Salvador. In 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the state responsible for the death of a woman known as Manuela, who also received a 30 year prison sentence after an obstetric emergency. She died in prison from cancer two years later. The court ruled that El Salvador should enact reforms to prevent patients from being criminalised for pregnancy loss. The same court has since begun hearing the case of Beatriz, a 22-year-old woman who was denied an abortion in 2013, who later died in a car accident. Activists hope a ruling in favour of Beatriz’s family will set the precedent for liberalising abortion laws in El Salvador.

Vasquez spoke to the Impact newsletter about her quest for justice and the prospects for change in El Salvador. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Agustina Ordoqui: Why are women imprisoned in El Salvador for having abortions or obstetric emergencies?

Teodora Vasquez: In 1998, the criminal code was reformed to consider life to begin at the moment of conception and condemn abortion in all circumstances. Since then, many women like me have gone to prison for crimes we did not commit. This happens particularly among poor women with no education or from rural areas, because wealthy women can travel to another country or go to a private clinic [for an abortion] without consequences. This also happens to women who have an obstetric emergency. We are condemned without an investigation to determine the newborn’s cause of death.

Agustina Ordoqui: How did you survive your time in prison?

Teodora Vasquez: When the judge gave me the sentence, I said to myself that I would rather die. But my son wrote me a letter telling me that he missed me, and those words had an impact on me. I decided that I was going to get through this, that even though I was in prison, prison would never be inside me and that I would fight to overcome this nightmare. When I entered prison, I wasn’t educated beyond the fourth grade. So I studied and finished high school. But when you get out of prison, nobody gives you any preparation to find a job. So when I got out, I felt the need to do something to change my story.

Agustina Ordoqui:  Why did you decide to create Mujeres Libres?

Teodora Vasquez: In prison, I met 24 other women jailed for cases similar to mine. After I left, I told myself that I had to help them. But when I was released, I was alone, without work, without money, without anything, and I didn’t know what to do. So I searched for those women who were already released to get to know their situation. They were also living precariously, without work, without access to health care. A few months later, we managed to gather a large group of women. We talked about our needs and how we could work together.

Agustina Ordoqui: What kind of assistance does Mujeres Libres provide?

Teodora Vasquez: It provides physical and mental health assistance, legal advice, education, work preparation and shelter, because many of the women that leave prison don’t know where to go. First, we offer them a medical examination and psychological therapy to prepare them for social reintegration. We provide them home and food, and contact them with employers. While they are training for a full-time job position, they start doing an internship. We also look for options for women who cannot work or study, for example, mentoring them or providing them with the tools for entrepreneurship. We want to transform a woman who has gone through a difficult situation like prison, loss and pain, into an empowered, optimistic woman with the capacity to recover.

Agustina Ordoqui: Has anything changed in El Salvador after the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Manuela case, and is there any expectation that there will be a change in legislation following the Beatriz case?

Teodora Vasquez: We don’t see that the government or deputies want to change our country’s legislation. In the Manuela case the government has responded in a certain way, but not completely, and the Beatriz ruling has been postponed, and so far nothing has happened. Laws in El Salvador are very closed, and society judges you as well: without knowing what happened, some people treat you as guilty or as a murderer. I really think it is not enough to change the penal code, we need a cultural change. In El Salvador you can’t talk freely about abortion. It is a taboo, people have fear of being oppressed, discriminated against or imprisoned. Other people don’t know what is happening with the women who have an abortion or an obstetric emergency. If there is no information, there is no change. After what I experienced, I have tried to rewrite my story and turn it into something different, but my case will be repeated if we don’t do something to change the story for women.

Agustina Ordoqui: We ask this question of the people we interview for the newsletter: how do you maintain hope in your activism?

Teodora Vasquez: I know I could have come out of prison and done nothing for anybody else. But that would have meant that everything that had happened to me would have been meaningless. I feel joy and satisfaction because most of the women criminalised for abortion are out of prison, and that is motivating. But today I am no longer doing it for me, nor for those women. I do it because if things don’t change, women will continue to go to prison. Maybe I won’t see those changes, because as life comes it goes, but thanks to our efforts there is already a seed in my country. When the Salvadoran state took us to prison, it made its biggest mistake: prison turned us into restless women, women who are not satisfied with what we have, and who seek justice for all women.

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