When Guadalupe took her first job as a domestic worker she had high hopes for her future. She was thrilled to be earning her own money, and often dreamed of the day she would become a mother.
Never did she imagine that in an instant her whole world would change so drastically.
When Guadalupe was just 18 years old, the owner of the house she cleaned raped and impregnated her. She decided to continue the pregnancy but one day while at work, in the very same house where she was raped, she fell unconscious and had a miscarriage.
The worst, however, was far from over.
When Guadalupe woke up in the hospital, she was surrounded by police and learned that medical staff had accused her of having an abortion, something that in El Salvador is prohibited under any circumstances—even in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life. Guadalupe was treated like a criminal and declared a murderer. Ultimately, she was wrongfully convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison for a crime that was not a crime at all, but rather a tragic medical emergency.
Unfortunately, Guadalupe is not alone.
El Salvador’s extreme abortion ban, one of the most inhumane abortion laws in the world, has resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of dozens of women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications, some serving sentences as long as 40 years.
Moved by the injustice of their stories, the Center launched a campaign in 2015 to free Guadalupe and other women like her nicknamed Las 17. After mounting significant international and local pressure demanding their freedom, four of Las 17—Guadalupe, Teresa, Mirna, and Sonia —have been set free.
Joining the Center’s campaign for justice for the remaining women behind bars, Guadalupe recently shared her story with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the principal international human rights body charged with ensuring the realization of women’s rights in states across the globe. Her powerful testimony painted a bleak picture of her time in prison:
Everything changed behind bars. There were 82 women sharing a cell with me. For over a year I slept on the floor, I was undernourished living in despicable conditions. Most of the time there was no water, we couldn’t bath ourselves. There were no doctors and if I needed them, there were no medicines either.
Guadalupe served seven years and three months of her sentence before being released, a harrowing experience that fuels her desire to help the women she left behind, women who like her suffered terrible losses and were treated like criminals. She closed her remarks at CEDAW paying tribute to them:
Just like me, there are more than 17 women with similar stories to tell who continue to pay for sins that are not their own. I came here to you today representing them, to tell you that the time has come for justice to be made.
Guadalupe’s testimony at CEDAW served as part of a review of El Salvador’s human rights record. Following the Geneva meeting the committee recommended that the country repeal its total abortion ban.
In their recommendations, they urged the Salvadoran government to expedite a proposed law that at minimum would give women access to safe and legal abortion services in cases of rape, severe fetal impairments, and when a pregnancy puts their health or life at risk. In the meantime, they pressed the government to introduce a moratorium on the enforcement of the existing law. They also recommend that El Salvador reform its Criminal Procedure Code in an effort to eliminate the practice of health professional and public officials reporting women to the police based merely on the suspicious of abortion.
CEDAW further called on El Salvador to immediately review the cases of Las 17—a victory that is all too personal to Guadalupe.
On the Center’s work in El Salvador, Catalina Martinez Coral, regional director for Latin America, said: “We hope that the government of El Salvador will take the recommendations from CEDAW seriously, and work quickly to decriminalize abortion in their country. At the Center, we will continue to advocate for the rights of women in El Salvador, and around the world, and won’t stop fighting until every single wrongly imprisoned woman is set free.”
No woman should ever be unjustly imprisoned for suffering pregnancy-related complications. Now, thanks in large part to Guadalupe’s bravery, El Salvador’s Las 17 will finally find the justice they deserve.