My Body My Rights: El Salvador’s Perpetual Denial of Women’s Rights to their Own Bodies

By Deepa Mahadevan The issue of international women’s rights and equality has risen to the forefront of the global human rights arena. Many advances have been made - Morocco banned its heinous Article 475 earlier this year, which had previously allowed rapists to avoid charges if they married their victims, and countries like Tunisia and Mozambique show signs of following along the same path. [1][2] However, despite these recent advances, women and girls in El Salvador remain trapped by innumerable socio-political, economic, and cultural obstructions to the full realization of their human right, specifically with respect to their sexual and reproductive choices.

The El Salvadoran government stands behind an incredibly repressive and outdated total ban on abortion that was passed in 1998. This law made it a criminal offense for a woman to have an abortion, or for anyone to assist her in procuring or carrying out an abortion. If a woman is found to have terminated her pregnancy, she is at high risk of being sentenced to harsh prison terms. Women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face a prison sentence ranging between two to eight years. Health care providers who are found to have assisted them face a risk of serving up to twelve years in prison. Women who have had miscarriages face up to fifty years in prison with charges of aggravated homicide. Conviction of these women is often based on evidence in flawed trials. This ban is negatively affecting women and girls in El Salvador. The El Salvadoran government is denying the women access to safe and legal abortions for women and girls who want to terminate their pregnancies. Every year, thousands of women and girls are denied their rights, solely as a result of this criminalization of abortion. Regardless of their reason for seeking an abortion – for health reasons or otherwise - they are unable to attain one, which only puts their lives further at risk. [3]

El Salvador has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. In fact, other countries ban abortion in all circumstances. The law criminalizes the medical procedure, and prohibits termination under any circumstances without any exceptions, even if the pregnancy occurred at a result of rape or puts a woman’s life in danger. [4] A 33-year-old Salvadoran mother of two, Manuela was convicted of murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison after having severe complications during birth. When she arrived at the hospital seeking emergency medical care, the doctors treated her as if she had attempted to give herself an abortion, and was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder. She was sentenced to 30 years of prison without even having access to a lawyer. After spending months in prison, it was discovered that tumors that were present on her neck for a significant amount of time but never accurately diagnosed were actually advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The disease was probably the main cause of her obstetric issues. Unfortunately, Manuela was unable to receive the treatment that she needed, and passed away in prison in 2010. [5]

In July 2012, a woman named Maria Teresa Rivera, a mother of one, was not aware that she was pregnant again until she fell ill at the garment factory where she worked. She was found by her mother-in-law bleeding on the bathroom floor and was then taken to a hospital where she was arrested and questioned without a lawyer present. She was found guilty of aggravated homicide and is currently serving out a forty-year prison sentence. Her son will be forty-five years old by the time she is released. [6]

Despite advancements within human rights institutions in El Salvador, including a new law on violence against women, sex discrimination still remains a prominent issue. The problem of gender inequality seems to be deeply associated with extreme patriarchal attitudes. [7] Women and girls in El Salvador typically have lower levels of education, and twice the illiteracy rate compared to males. [8] They also tend to work in poorly paid positions and earn considerably less than men. [9] This contributes to women and girls’ vulnerability to exploitation.

Some opponents of abortion make the claim that right to life protections that are explained in various international human rights treaties are rendered before birth, therefore prohibiting states from allowing abortions. However, sometimes an abortion is the only option to save a woman’s life. In late 2012, a 22-year-old woman from a rural area in El Salvador became pregnant. She has a history of lupus; a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks a person’s own tissue, and other diseases, such as a kidney disorder that was directly related to the lupus. It became clear eventually that the child she was carrying was anencephalic, a condition in which a fetus lacks a large part of the brain. The baby would not survive more than a few hours after birth. As Beatriz’s health began to deteriorate, the doctors involved with her case understood that her symptoms indicated the need for a therapeutic abortion. However, she was only permitted to have an “early caesarean section after she had passed 20 weeks of pregnancy. As expected, her child passed away hours after birth, but Beatriz survived. However, it is not clear what the long-term effects of the delay of treatment will have on her health. [10]

The Salvadoran authorities need to take legislative and educational measures towards eliminating harmful gender stereotypes in society, and need to ensure access to safe and legal abortion so women can receive the health care they need without having the fear of being imprisoned.

  1. "Morocco Repeals 'Rape Marriage Law'" Al Jazeera. January 23, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2014.
  2. "Mozambique Activists Protest against Rape Law." Al Jazeera. Accessed October 29, 2014.
  3. "News." El Salvador: Total Ban on Abortion Is Killing Women and Girls and Condemning Others to Decades behind Bars. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  4. "The World's Abortion Laws 2014." The World's Abortion Laws 2014. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "News." El Salvador: Total Ban on Abortion Is Killing Women and Girls and Condemning Others to Decades behind Bars. Accessed November 1, 2014.

7.Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Rashida Manjo       Addendum, Follow-up mission to El Salvador, 2011, UN Doc. A/HRC/17/26/Add.2, para. 11

8.Economy Ministry, General Directorate of Statistics and Census, Multipurpose Home Survey (2012).

  1. Economy Ministry, General Directorate of Statistics and Census, Multipurpose Home Survey (2012).
  2. "On the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador." Amnesty International. Accessed November 1, 2014.

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