By Shiromi Pinto ; translated by CAWN
Interview of Morena Herrera, the ex guerrillera, the feminist, and the defender of women’s rights in El Salvador
Recently, the Salvadoran authorities have denied a pardon to Guadalupe, a young incarcerated woman that has been sentenced to 30 years of prison for having an abortion. Morena Herrera is one of her greatest defenders. The ex-combatant for freedom, an ardent feminist, activist and defender of sexual and reproductive rights, tells us here why the ban on abortion in El Salvador needs to end.
‘’I was a guerrillera. I have been an activist for social change since I was young’’, says Morena Herrera. When the civil war ended in 1992 and the Peace Agreements were signed, she knew that her fight was far from over.
‘’Those agreements left a huge empty space when it comes to women’s rights’’, she explains. ‘’I realized that I had to fight differently. Women’s rights are human rights and have to be a priority’’.
Since 2009, Morena has been fighting in a different manner through the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico, a group she is currently the leader of.
Among the women she has defended, the case of Beatriz is sadly famous. Beatriz almost died because she was denied an abortion to a life threatening pregnancy with an anencephalic foetus. Also well known is the case of the 17 women, including Guadalupe, who are currently launching appeals against convictions for ‘’crimes’’ related to a pregnancy and to obstetric complications.
All those women have seen their lives destroyed by the brutal ban on abortion in El Salvador.
Photo: Amnesty International
Acids and Hooks
It was not always this way. Before 1997, abortion was permitted in three exceptional cases: if a woman’s life was at risk, in case of rape, and in the case of a fatal abnormality.
‘’In those days,’’ recalls Morena, ‘’women had secret abortions but nobody would prosecute or persecute them. Some women would use acids and hooks to abort because abortion was still illegal outside exceptional cases. But, when things went wrong, they could go to the hospital and receive treatment without the fear of being arrested’’.
However, after 1997, when El Salvador’s penal code was amended, abortion was totally prohibited, and a culture incriminating women grew steadily.
‘’Today, women who go to the hospital bleeding are directly accused’’, explains Morena. ‘’Even without any investigation or fact checking, they are accused and prosecuted. And the sentences are draconian. They go from 30 to 50 years in jail’’.
In this context, Morena admits that the work that she does with the Agrupación Ciudadana is difficult.
‘’One day I received a phone call. A student had been losing blood in her school bathroom ‘’, she recalls. ‘’I asked a colleague to bring her to a private hospital. She had been raped outside the university (and impregnated), but had not said anything to anyone. She then got pills made of caustic soda. The pills destroyed the walls of her arteries – but she still was pregnant. For us, the dilemma is: Do we prefer seeing this person dead or in jail? This is our every day reality. It is heartbreaking’’.
Unwanted pregnancy is a distressing reality for too many women and girls in El Salvador. As Morena points out, girls aged 9 to 18 represent 36% of the total of people giving birth in a hospital. With an insufficient sexual education, a limited access to contraceptives and a total ban on abortion, these young girls find themselves with no way out –apart from the clandestine abortion (35.000 each year) or suicide (which amounts for 57% of pregnant teenagers’ deaths).
‘’I am the mother of four daughters, three of whom have different fathers,’’ Morena explains. ‘’I know personally the anguish that someone feels when she has an unwanted pregnancy. Only with my fourth daughter was it a conscious choice of mine. All children should be born this way’’.
Morena and her colleagues not only face legal challenges, but also social ones.
‘’People say that we are committing a crime (by raising awareness, supporting women and advocating on their behalf) and we answer them that we are fighting to change an unjust law. This cannot be legal. We do not accept it’’, she states.
‘’We have received threats and there have been comments in the press and on TV that were very stigmatizing’’.
It is here that Amnesty International can play a positive role. ‘’When Amnesty came in El Salvador and launched its report, this gave us some peace of mind. We are not crazy! We have support. The most important thing is that Amnesty talks to other governments and asks them to put pressure on El Salvador because our voices are often not heard – this would help us a lot.’’
Among the many setbacks, there are also successes. Morena remembers the first woman that the Agrupación Ciudadana helped free.
‘’She was the mother of three children and had been sentenced to 30 years of jail’’, recalls Morena. ‘’We found out about the case in a New York Times article and began investigating. We have the same surname so I could enter the jail as if I were part of her family. She told me everything that had happened. We then examined the case files and, with the help of forensic doctors from Argentine, Guatemala and Spain, we were able to prove that there had been a judicial error. We spent four years campaigning for her liberation’’.
When she was finally released, Morena felt ecstatic. ‘’I spent three whole days just smiling’’, she says. ‘’It was very satisfying. And after some time, she started defending other women’s rights’’.