Jailed for abortion, freed Salvadoran women struggle to rebuild
Women participate in a protest to mark the International Safe Abortion Day in San Salvador, El Salvador September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
What’s the context?
Salvadoran women imprisoned under abortion ban face discrimination as they try to get back on their feet after years behind bars
- Women convicted of abortion crime struggle to work
- Poor Salvadoran women bear brunt
- Criminal record adds an extra burden, taboo
BOGOTA - When convicted murderer Teodora Vásquez was freed after more than a decade in prison, the Salvadoran single mother faced a whole new challenge - a teenage son she barely recognized, a wall of rejection and a digital world she didn't get.
Plus no way to make ends meet.
"I had to start with nothing," Vásquez recalled.
She is among the hundreds of women whose lives were upended by one of the world's most restrictive abortion laws and highest conviction rates, then upended again on resuming real life.
For Vásquez, now aged 39, the ordeal began in 2008 when she was handed a 30-year sentence for intentionally inducing an abortion, a crime under any circumstances in El Salvador.
Vásquez denies having an abortion, saying she went into labor in a bathroom at work in 2007 and that her baby was stillborn.
She was freed in 2018 after El Salvador's Supreme Court commuted her sentence.
Then her problems really began.
"I had to leave my son when he was four, he was 14 when I was released .... and I was poorer when I came out of prison," Vásquez told Context.
Abortion has been banned in El Salvador since 1998 - even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformities or when the woman's health is in danger.
Since then, more than 180 women have been jailed for abortion-related crimes in a country of 6.5 million, according to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion (CFDA), which has campaigned for their release.
After jail, they struggle to fit back in, find work or cope with the stigma of abortion in their majority Catholic country.
It is what Vásquez considers a second sentence handed down to wholly innocent women - one she is on a mission to tackle.
"The state abandoned us," she said. "And sometimes a woman's family also abandons them and kicks them out."
Criminal records and discrimination
So Vásquez has launched a non-profit - Free Women El Salvador - which is currently supporting 26 women released from jail and helping them find a new footing in life.
All 26 say they were accused of inducing their own abortions and wrongfully jailed for murder, when instead they suffered miscarriage, stillbirth or pregnancy complications.
Vásquez's organization eases women back into society by helping them find jobs, providing study grants and skills training, or offering therapy and legal advice.
Like Vásquez, most of the women went to jail as young, poor single mothers with little education and a rural background.
This means they struggle more than most to find decent jobs in a country where women are anyway more likely to be unemployed than men and often have to make do with informal work.
Last year, El Salvador's unemployment rate was 6.3%; the percentage of women without work was double that.
Women are also more likely to get paid less. According to a 2021 government survey, the average monthly salary among men was $379, while the average woman earned $54 less.
Having a criminal record only makes it harder, said Vásquez.
"When women came home they faced a critical situation, they were in poor health and faced a difficult reality without job opportunities and skills .... I didn't know about technology and didn't have access to a computer in jail," she said.
"When you don't have all the paperwork, and employers ask for a criminal background check, it's very difficult to find work .. a criminal record really affects our job opportunities."
For the past few years, Vásquez has knocked on the doors of local businesses and used word of mouth to get her women into work, be it as cashiers or bartenders.
Business owners know about their criminal record and are asked to keep it quiet to avoid any backlash from colleagues.
"Some people have refused to give women jobs, saying they (are) not interested. There's a lot of discrimination," Vásquez said.
Several women also faced discrimination at home and were kicked out, said Vásquez, who has earned a diploma in computer studies and a university degree since her release.
Backed by funding from European organizations, Vásquez has helped some of the women set up small businesses of their own, including a bakery, cosmetics firm and a clothing line.
Or they can get up to $100 a month to study at college, learning nursing, accounting, tourism or computer studies.
But with scant opportunity at home, the American Dream also beckons.
Vásquez said two of her women had decided to join the tens of thousands of Salvadorans who migrate to the United States every year, making the long trek north on foot and by bus.
Begin from zero
María del Tránsito Orellana, 36, was released in 2019 after serving nine years of a 30-year sentence for an abortion-related crime.
"I had to begin from zero. I had nothing, no money, no clothes ... I had lost everything," said Orellana, who was a domestic worker before jail intervened.
"There are no rich women in jail," she said.
Finding work post-prison has been impossible.
She landed five job interviews and tried for openings at a funeral home and a textile factory.
"When I told them about my criminal record, they said, 'There's no point in applying'," said Orellana.
However with funds from Vásquez's organization, Orellana built a pen that holds 100 chickens on farmland owned by her parents just outside the capital of San Salvador.
Orellana sells chickens to neighbors and locals, earning about $200 a month.
"We survive on the bare minimum," she said. "I tell other women to keep going. We can't give up."
Five women remain in prison under El Salvador's abortion law, said Vásquez, serving up to 30 years for aggravated murder.
While five other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have blanket abortion bans, El Salvador stands out for its high number of convictions and long prison sentences, according to reproductive rights activists.
In 2018, the United Nations urged El Salvador to issue a moratorium on applying its law and to review past cases.
Pressure from the U.N. and legal action by activists has helped secure the early release of five women in the past year.
Multiple attempts to ease the ban have failed though, with public opinion widely supportive of the tough line, even if a pregnancy follows rape.
"Abortion is a complex and closed issue in El Salvador," Vásquez said. "We are all innocent."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)
Part of:Abortion restrictions around the world
Updated: March 17, 2023
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