Salvadorian Women March for Abortion Rights on International Women’s Day

BY ALICE STANDEN

The historical centre of San Salvador, El Salvador's capital city.


Around 2000 people marched in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to demand the legalisation of abortion and a decrease in the killings of women in the Central American country. Currently, El Salvador has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, as well as high rates of violence against women, and is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. Activists in El Salvador argue that abortion should be decriminalised to save the lives of women and girls, especially when a foetal malformation incompatible with life outside the womb has been detected and when the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence.


Abortion has been banned in El Salvador since 1998. Right now, there are over a dozen women incarcerated and serving varying sentences for termination of pregnancy, which result in a jail sentence of up to 8 years. In some cases, judges find women guilty of "aggravated homicide” instead, which is punishable by up to 50 years in prison. Many women are prosecuted if they simply seek medical help for complications in pregnancy, as they are suspected of having attempted an abortion. Morena Herrera, leader of the Citizens' Association for the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion, said that women have been “unjustly criminalised for having suffered an obstetric emergency” due to the strict abortion laws.


More than half of Salvadorans are Roman Catholic, which is partially why reproductive laws are so restrictive. Interestingly, both major right and left wing parties have anti-abortion platforms, making it difficult for activists to push for social change. Politicians have argued that if women don’t want to become pregnant, they shouldn’t sleep with men— but this has been criticised by activists, as well as academic Jocelyn Viterna, who argue that many women in El Salvador have little control over their own sexual encounters.


Recently, abortion has been decriminalised in Colombia and in Mexico and, in 2020, it was legalised in Argentina up to the 14th week of pregnancy. But it remains banned, under all circumstances, in neighbouring Central American countries, Honduras and Nicaragua.


At the march, the women also demanded that authorities combat femicides in the country and that the government of President Nayib Bukele do more to protect women from violence. Figures from the Observatory of Violence against Women show that 132 women were murdered in 2021, in what is known as femicidios. While this is fewer than in the past (2011 had the highest number of femicides at 628), activists argue that femicides are a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality, discrimination, economic disempowerment, and machismo in Latin America. This inequality can also be seen in the country’s judiciary: according to the UN, three-quarters of femicides in El Salvador never get taken to court, and only 7% of those cases result in a conviction.


Abigail Alvarado, a student at the state-run University of El Salvador (UES), told reporters at the march: “femicides must stop, women have the right to a safe life, no more violent deaths”. While rates of femicides have supposedly decreased, from 1 every 18 hours in 2016, violence against women has not: 67% of Salvadorian women suffer some form of violence, sexual assault, or abuse in their lifetime by their intimate partners or family members, but only 6% of victims report them to the authorities, due to fear, shame, and stigma.


Women in El Salvador still face inequality in all areas of life, not just when it comes to abortion and rates of violence. Literacy rates are much lower among women, at 90.4% for males and 86% for females (aged 15 and over), and women are significantly less likely to earn a secondary school education. Instead, women have high rates of attrition, as they often leave school to help with domestic work and childcare. Women are also employed at lower rates than men, making up 42.2% of the labour force, and, on average, make less in wages (11.5% less) compared to their male counterparts, regardless of whether or not they have the same level of education.


However, marches like those on International Women’s Day demonstrate that women in El Salvador are taking action to reclaim their reproductive rights. Organisations like Citizens' Association for the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion are working to decriminalise abortion and prevent women from being sentenced to 50 years in prison for seeking medical care. All that remains is for the Salvadorian government to change their policies, not just when it comes to abortion but also when it comes to dealing with femicidios.


Image: Unsplash (Esaú González)