SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Since the late 1990s, El Salvador has had a complete ban on abortion including in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation or danger to a pregnant woman’s life.
Not only planned abortions but also miscarriages, stillbirths and other pregnancy complications can sometimes result in prosecution and lengthy prison terms. Often women who end up being targeted by authorities are poor and live in rural areas.
The Associated Press spoke with several women who served time in such cases. Some belong to Mujeres Libres — Spanish for “free women” — which offers support such as job assistance and small business workshops, and others to the nonprofit Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion.
Some asked to be identified by only their first names out of concerns over privacy, possible reprisals and the societal stigma surrounding abortion; one is a victim of sexual assault.
Here are their stories:
Cinthia Rodríguez, 33, had a stillbirth at home in 2008. Her family called an ambulance but instead a police patrol took her to a hospital, where she was handcuffed to a gurney. Officers told her she was under arrest for allegedly inducing an abortion. She was later charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“My dreams were to study, to work, to help my family, to take care of my baby,” she said. “All of that was thwarted when I heard, ‘30 years.’ My world stopped.”
In prison, guards advised her not to reveal why she had been convicted. When other inmates found out, they beat her up. “They used to call us the baby killers,” she recalled.
A tattoo on her hand reminds her of the date in 2014 when her father died while she was behind bars. She was released after 11 years when a court commuted her sentence in 2019.
Rodriguez hopes that telling her story publicly may help other women win their freedom and help bring about an end to the country's strict abortion policy.
As she spoke, two friends who also served time in similar cases played with her young daughter.
“I’m always going to be there supporting her,” Rodriguez said. “And I also hope she joins me and my friends in this struggle. I hope she’s a courageous, independent woman — like her mom.”
Zuleyma Beltrán was expecting a second child in 1999 when she felt an intense pain and fainted. She lost the pregnancy. Police suspected abortion and interrogated her aggressively. She was ultimately convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 26 years.
“It’s a lifetime,” she said. “I used to say to myself, ‘I’m never going to leave this place.’”
While in prison, one of her sisters took in her toddler daughter. The girl hardly recognized Beltrán when she was released more than a decade later.
Beltrán struggled to find a job at first and felt stigmatized, but her daughter encouraged her to persist. They fixed up a cart and sold hot dogs on the streets of the capital, San Salvador,
“She taught me a lot about how to face the world,” she said. The daughter recently died at age 22.
Beltrán joined Mujeres Libres years ago.
“We cry, we laugh, we talk about everything we’ve gone through,” she said.
Today she lives with another daughter, 8, at a house where the group meets. She sells perfume to get by, and dreams of owning a business.
“I want to show people that we can make it even though we've had a huge obstacle,” Beltrán said.
Mariana López was imprisoned in 2000 after losing her pregnancy and being arrested on suspicion of having an abortion. She was ultimately convicted of aggravated homicide and served 17 years before her 25-year sentence was commuted.
When she went to jail, she was already mother to a 4-year-old son. He is now 26. Since her release, she has been unable to repair their relationship.
“There’s resentment,” López said. “The fact that he didn’t live a normal life has been really tough.”
She lives with her mother and 7-year-old daughter in a modest home northwest of San Salvador. She learned how to bake bread in prison, and now earns a living selling baguettes that she prepares every day before dawn. One day she hopes to own her own bakery.
Her daughter takes violin lessons at Mujeres Libres. Recently the women and children in the group traveled to the beach in what has become an annual tradition.
“We see it as a family,” López said. “We see each other as sisters, because it was a family when our own blood was not around.”
Karen was 21 and pregnant when she fainted alone in her grandmother’s home. She woke up handcuffed to a hospital gurney. She was convicted in 2015 and given 30 years for aggravated homicide for allegedly terminating her pregnancy.
“They told me that I was a murderer and that I was going to pay for what I had done,” she said, “that I was going to rot in jail.”
In prison, other inmates told Karen she didn’t deserve to live. She served seven years before being released last December.
Today she tries to make up for lost time by playing soccer with her 14-year-old son and cooking his favorite meals, refried beans and fried plantains.
“I never lost faith in God that I would recover my freedom, because I was innocent,” Karen said. “And I asked God every day to reunite me with my son.”
Cindy’s son, Justin, was 4 when she was imprisoned in 2014 after a stillbirth in a shopping mall bathroom. It would be four years before she saw him again.
At the time she was studying tourism and taking English lessons. But all that was put on hold.
“What I reflect on the most is the losses,” she said. “Everything is lost. ... How are you going to start over? How are you going to recover time with your family?”
Today she lives with her son and parents and is back in school. She and her mother make piñatas for children's birthdays. She crafted one in the form of a dinosaur for Justin, who wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up.
Cindy hopes to work for a tourism agency and resume her English clashes. Mother and son dream of traveling abroad together.
“To forget everything,” Cindy said, “to start again in a new place.”
Imelda says she was repeatedly raped from age 8 to 18 by her mother’s partner and became pregnant by him. In 2017 she unexpectedly gave birth to the baby in a latrine and then lost consciousness.
The child survived, but Imelda was accused of attempted murder due to the circumstances of the birth. She was freed from prison in 2018 after a court determined that she had not tried to kill the baby.
Since her release she has been studying to become a nurse. She firmly believes that a woman should not be forced to carry to term a fetus conceived by rape.
“What young girl is going to want to be a mother? They’re innocent,” said Imelda, now 24. “Those 10-year-old girls who are raped, what they really want is to play, to study. I’ve always wanted to study, not be a mother."
Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman in San Salvador contributed to this report.
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