Jailed in El Salvador after losing their pregnancies

26 Nov 2014, San Salvador, El Salvador --- (141126) -- SAN SALVADOR, Nov. 26, 2014 (Xinhua) -- Women of different feminist organizations take part in a march asking for the freedom of 17 women accused of abortion, on the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, Nov. 25, 2014. United Nations figures showed that 35 percent of the women and children in the world suffer from physical or sexual violence throughout their life. And in some countries and regions, the figure goes up --- Image by © [e]LUIS GALDAMEZ/Xinhua Press/Corbis

(Xinhua Press/Corbis)

For many of us around the world, Mother’s Day falls on May 8th this year, which also marks Teodora’s 36th birthday. Teodora has spent eight years in prison, and will spend yet another birthday and another Mother’s Day, which comes just two days after ours, without her family. 

Amnesty campaigner Karen Javorski takes us inside one of El Salvador’s most notorious prisons to meet Teodora del Carmen Vásquez and María Teresa Rivera, women jailed after pregnancy complications.

Teodora shares a cell with 70 other women. For María Teresa, it is 250. Cramped together like this, the women often have to sleep on the floor under the building’s hot tin roofs.

This is Ilopango prison on the outskirts of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. I’m here with my Amnesty colleagues, and our local partners, to visit Teodora del Carmen Vásquez and others from “Las 17”, a group of Salvadoran women who are in prison after suffering pregnancy-related complications.

The women speak to us in an outdoor area just beyond the prison patio– the only place we are allowed to enter. The heat is intense and the mosquitos swarm, but at least we can catch the breeze outside. Inside, as Teodora and María Teresa tell us, it’s a different story: severe overcrowding, intense heat and strict rules that are both impractical and cruel. And yet you wouldn’t know it from the building’s fairly nondescript exterior.

“Everything here is something to be treasured and saved, even an old crumpled tissue.” -Karen Javorski
Outside Ilopongo prison - the only women’s prison in El Salvador. © Amnesty International

Outside Ilopongo prison – the only women’s prison in El Salvador. © Amnesty International

Teodora has been imprisoned since 2007 after she suffered a stillbirth. She was later charged with “aggravated homicide”, accused of having had an abortion which is banned in El Salvador. Coming from a poor, rural family, she could not afford a good lawyer. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

María Teresa Rivera is serving a 40-year sentence for the same charge after having a miscarriage. Both women have young sons who have only seen their mothers a handful of times in the intervening years.

Few family visits

Teodora’s parents, María Elena and Juan, have not been able to visit their daughter since June 2015. Their home is nowhere near the prison, and the personal and economic burden of leaving their family behind to travel to the prison is very high. Added to this is the convoluted paperwork that family members must complete just to request a visit with their daughters.

Even once a request is granted, there are more restrictions. María Elena described her last visit to Teodora. “The prison authorities told us that we cannot bring anything for her, she says. “We can only come to see her. We cannot bring anything – money, food, clothing – absolutely nothing.”

“What we want is for her to be free. It is the biggest wish that we have.” -Juan, Teodora’s father
Juan and María Elena Sánchez, parents of Teodora. © Amnesty International

Juan and María Elena Sánchez, parents of Teodora. © Amnesty International

Modest treasures

Teodora and the other women depend on their visitors bringing these supplies since it’s the only way they can get them. María Teresa relies on the kindness of other inmates to share things like shampoo, toilet paper, and tampons because her son is too young to visit her alone and she has no other immediate family members. She tells us that she feels lucky to count some of these women as her friends.

It suddenly occurs to me that until her son comes of age, María Teresa will have no visitors except for people like us. As we speak she cries and my colleague hands her the only thing the authorities did not confiscate – a crumpled tissue from her back pocket. Rather than use it to wipe her eyes, María Teresa carefully smooths the paper out on her knee and keeps it. Everything here is something to be treasured and saved, even an old crumpled tissue.

Later that afternoon we meet Teodora’s older sister, Cecilia, and her father Juan. Father of 11 children, Juan is calm and composed, even as he expresses his grief. “I feel very sad because there is nothing [I can] do to get her out,” he says. “What we want is for her to be free. It is the biggest wish that we have. That they tell us one day that they are going to free her.”

Teodora had always supported her family financially, but the family’s loss goes much further than just this. As Cecilia, who has regularly visited her sister in prison for the past eight years, explains: “It’s not just my sister who is being punished, but the whole family. All of us. Because the heart [of our family] is not free.”

Now 12 years old, Teodora’s son Ángel feels her absence keenly. Whenever his aunt or grandparents return from visiting Teodora, his first question is always: “When is my mom going to get out?”

“It’s not just my sister who is being punished, but the whole family. Because the heart [of our family] is not free.”-
Cecilia, Teodora’s sister
Teodora’s sister, Cecilia Vásquez Sánchez. © Amnesty International

Teodora’s sister, Cecilia Vásquez Sánchez. © Amnesty International

A thank you message

Despite not being able to see their daughter on the day we visit her, the prison authorities allow María Elena and Juan to visit a few days later.

“The happiness I feel today is knowing that Teodora will be with us very soon,” María Elena tells us on the day. “And I thank Amnesty because you are fighting for her… and this process will continue until she gets out of there. And this motivates me, it motivates me with great joy in my own heart, and I thank you in the name of God.”

Teodora is positive about the future. She tells us she is healthy and well, and has been taking classes inside the prison so that she can continue studying when she is released. She hopes to one day go to university and get a job. But her biggest wish for the future is simple: to be reunited with her son and loved ones.

8 May marks Teodora’s 36th birthday. Call on the Minister of Justice to release her immediately so she doesn’t spend another birthday behind bars.

“I thank Amnesty because you are fighting for her. And this motivates me with great joy in my own heart, and I thank you in the name of God.”-
María Elena, Teodora’s mother
Solidarity letters for Teodora from Amnesty activists. Teodora was not allowed to receive them, so we sent them to her sister Cecilia. © Amnesty International

Solidarity letters for Teodora from Amnesty activists. Teodora was not allowed to receive them, so we sent them to her sister Cecilia. © Amnesty International

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13 thoughts on “Jailed in El Salvador after losing their pregnancies

  1. These women are being used to have children…like slaves…more people mean more taxes and more sales of commodities…

  2. With some exceptions (e.g., the PRD municipal government in Mexico City), the left in Latin American areas with which I am familiar does little to advance a woman's right to choose. The situation in El Salvador, though, is something that no social conservative I know of in the United States (nor even Donald Trump in an unguarded moment) would endorse. It's simply unbelievable.

  3. Free all this women! NOW!! They have suffered more than enough! They should not even been in prison, but with their families! They were in a desperat situation when the miscarriage happend! They are poore, and I know for sure that rich women are able to fix this without any trouble at all! And what about the men/boys that made them pregnant? Can they continue without any responsibilities? Women/girls boddy belongs to themselves, and it must be respected! In scool, the pupils must, as early as possible, learn about birthcontroll, to avoid unexpected pregnancy. The lawmakers shood/must care about this instead of making it worse, and putting them in jail for 30 years!!!
    It is a shame to the government i El Salvadore to still keep them in prison, and to have such laws! FREE ALL THIS WOMEN NOW!

  4. These women should not be jailed for the cause of a miscarriage, or stillbirth nor abortion due to natural causes. Please free them.

  5. This is outrageous… How can this be happening in this century?. What kind of government this country has…

  6. This is insane ! Estas nujeres sufrieron mucho al ver perdido sus hijos y no merecen carcel y menos en ese tipo de condicion!!!