Women at Risk of COVID-19 After Inaction by Salvadoran Government
The Center for Reproductive Rights and its partners appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on December 3 and urged it to recommend that El Salvador free 12 women unjustly imprisoned in the country. Arrested for incidents related to obstetric emergencies during their pregnancies, the women were unjustly accused of illegal abortions and convicted of aggravated homicide or attempted homicide.
Abortion is illegal in El Salvador under all circumstances—even in cases of rape or incest or to save a woman’s life. As a result, women who have miscarriages or stillbirths are sometimes accused of illegal abortions and sentenced to long prison terms. The 12 women in this case have been sentenced to up to 30 years and one is being held with her three-year-old son.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), together with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, is entrusted by the Organization of American States with promoting and protecting human rights in the region.
Delays Put Women at Risk
The appeal to the IACHR was necessitated by a delay in the Salvadoran justice system. Five months ago, on July 8, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador named a judge to review the cases after determining there were grounds to review the detentions. Despite this ruling, the reviews have not been completed and the women remain imprisoned in unsafe conditions and at risk of COVID-19.
The July ruling was in response to a legal action filed on May 7 by the Center and its partners requesting the women’s release on the grounds that their deprivation of liberty has never been justified and is even less so during the COVID-19 pandemic. The action, known as habeas corpus, was filed in partnership with Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, la Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local, and the Women’s Equality Center (WEC).
According to El Salvador law, the women already qualify for early release because they have no previous criminal records, have served one-third of their sentences, and do not represent a danger to others.
In addition to being at risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the women are confined in a prison system with severe structural deficiencies including overcrowding, lack of potable water, restrictions on receiving personal hygiene items, and the absence of timely health services for inmates.
The Center and its partners urged the IACHR to recommend that the Salvadoran government:
- Adopt measures to guarantee the immediate freedom of the women who have been arbitrarily criminalized by obstetric emergencies, and any children confined with them. This would adhere to a recent decision by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that these are arbitrary detentions, and that the women should be immediately released because their imprisonment is a result of discrimination and gender stereotypes.
- Act swiftly on the Constitutional Chamber’s order to review the women’s detention.
- Guarantee that women who are deprived of liberty have contact and communication with their families, as well as free access to hygiene and basic necessities.