Manuela, mother of two in rural El Salvador, couldn’t even go to the hospital.
In February 2008, her relatives had to wrap her in a hammock and transport her as best they could to the health center two hours away after a pregnant Manuela experienced severe pelvic pain, bleeding, expelled her fetus and passed out.
A day later, still bleeding, she was interrogated by a doctor at the hospital who concluded that Manuela did not have an obstetric emergency but had an abortion. Manuela, who had a visible mass on her neck, was handcuffed for days, then arrested and charged with murder on charges of killing her fetus. The masses in her body turned out to be cancer, but she did not receive timely and adequate chemotherapy in the prison, where she was serving a 30-year prison sentence. She died in April 2010.
Manuela’s story, described in detail in a report of the Center for Reproductive Rights, was argued last week at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Group and the Feminist Collective for Local Development demand that “the court make a decision on behalf of Manuela’s family so that the Salvadoran state can take public responsibility for failing to guarantee her right to life and health and her family for their loss to compensate and suffer. “
Manuela’s last name was withheld by human rights organizations for privacy reasons, as they do with other women in El Salvador in similar cases.
El Salvador has a total ban on abortion – one of the most restrictive in the world – and sentences can be up to 50 years. It is estimated that 181 women suffered obstetric emergencies between 2000 and 2019, but were convicted of alleged abortions or charged with serious murders.
The Inter-American Court opened an investigation into the case in 2012 after Manuela’s relatives failed to get justice in the El Salvador courts.
“Your case reached the Inter-American Court because there was no justice in El Salvador. It is not recognized that she died in prison without getting the medical care she needs, “Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the New York City-based Women’s Equality Center, said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.
The 2019 report on Manuela’s case listed the numerous abuses that had been committed, from her illegal imprisonment to violations of her fundamental rights, such as: B. the presumption of innocence, legal protection and health.
“I can’t understand when a medical emergency like Manuela’s case turns into a crime. I can’t connect it,” said Dr. Guillermo Ortiz, a gynecologist who testified at the IACHR hearing. How can you create a criminal connection with a woman who was very, very sick – and even passed out? “
Lawyer Laura Clérico said Manuela’s verdict “reached the level of torture in that it was intentional and motivated, motivated by her gender.”
Stand up for a woman who is still in prison
Human rights groups also draw attention to the case of Sara, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder after miscarriage after slipping and injuring herself washing clothes. She was home alone and lost a lot of blood before she could get help.
A hearing was due to be held in a Salvadoran court in Cojutepeque on March 15 to see if new evidence was sufficient to convict and release her. However, their hearing has been postponed indefinitely, and groups are calling on the court to announce a new hearing date.
“Manuela’s story could be Sara if we don’t try to get her out of prison – it’s the same story as the rest of the women who are still in prison. She’s been in prison for nine years and the last time we were Seeing them She wasn’t in the best physical, emotional, or health condition, “Avila-Guillen said. “Your sad case shows us why we must keep fighting for the women who are in prison and it can be a call to El Salvador to do the right thing.”
Criminalization is “gender-based violence”.
Catalina Martínez Coral, executive director of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, hopes the IACHR will highlight that “the absolute criminalization of abortion is a form of discrimination, gender-based violence, that disproportionately affects women who are vulnerable and in need of protection facilitate the criminalization or justice of reproductive processes, including obstetric emergencies. “
Salvadoran government officials said that Manuela’s rights were respected and that the simple fact that she received medical treatment is a sign that there was no negligence in her case.
The Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women, an arm of the government, did not respond to Noticias Telemundo’s request for comment.
An opportunity to “fix the damage”
During the IACHR hearing, Santos de Jesús, Manuela’s eldest son, said in a video: “It is painful to grow up without a mother because this love is unmatched. I ask the state not to do these things because they left us without a mother. “
The court is expected to make a decision on Manuela’s case in the next month or two.
Martínez Coral said she was optimistic about the verdict and believes the court should take this opportunity to point out El Salvador’s responsibility. This would be a valuable regional precedent as the Inter-American Human Rights System is recognized by at least 25 countries.
“States must stop the prosecution of women suffering from obstetric emergencies and work to repair the damage to those incarcerated and arbitrarily convicted of such complications,” she said.
From prison to human rights crusader
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, a Salvadoran woman who sustained a stillbirth in the last month of her pregnancy, was also sentenced to 30 years in prison. But her well-respected story had a different result.
Vásquez was released in 2018 after almost 11 years in prison and is now committed to the fight for women’s rights and their social reintegration after their release from prison.
“They don’t give us work because of our criminal record, it’s very difficult,” she said of life after our release. “There are also health complications and mental health problems as family members often think that when you get out of prison all problems are over, but that’s when other important things really begin.”
At 37, Vásquez said she felt “born again”. She studies communication and advertising and is an activist with Mujeres Libres El Salvador, an organization that works for the liberation of women jailed for abortion after a criminal conviction. The group helped release 44 women; There are 20 left in the system.
During her long stay in prison, Vásquez met Manuela. “Like any woman who goes to prison, she hoped to be freed,” said Vasquez. “She always showed love and affection for her children. Unfortunately, she died, but she has become a symbol for us.”
On March 7, more than 5,000 women marched in San Salvador, the country’s capital, in honor of International Women’s Day. According to NGO statistics and news reports from 2020, the country registered at least 130 femicides and 541 missing women. It is estimated that a woman disappears every 18 hours in El Salvador.
“My dream is that through our struggle we will change the law and that women will no longer be punished for abortions. We are sure that we have sown a seed and while this is not being seen now, future generations will benefit. ” another time. And for me that’s the most important thing, “said Vásquez.
Avila-Guillen said the “way to keep Manuela’s story from happening again” is to release women who have been criminalized for obstetric emergencies, adding that United Nations committees have determined that this ” Arbitrary Detention “are.
She also called on the President of El Salvador to press ahead with the necessary changes.
“Nayib Bukele has no excuse for not moving forward in El Salvador. On May 1, the president will have a qualified majority in Congress. If his party’s will is to protect the lives and health of women, he has them all Tools in his hands to admit at least some [abortion] Exceptions in El Salvador and to stop the criminalization of women in obstetric emergencies, ”Avila-Guillen said. “In contrast to other past moments or in other contexts, it’s only up to him – he can coordinate his party politically.”