SAN SALVADOR — Shortly before International Women’s Day last March, I sat in a classroom of ninth-grade girls discussing sexism. The discussion was led by Ivan Tazuma Jimenez of Men Against Violence, a grassroots organization dedicated to “constructing a new masculinity” that would transform men from perpetrators into allies. A ponytailed ex-guerrilla and single father, Jimenez is recovering from many things: violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and machismo, the traditional belief that men should be aggressive and dominant.
We had traveled by bus about an hour southeast of San Salvador to the city of Zacatecoluca, which is famous for its maximum-security prison nicknamed “Zacatraz” and high levels of gang violence. We passed a whitewashed church in the town square and walked up the steps of a community center, where rows of teenaged girls were streaming in. They listened attentively as Jimenez began listing examples of gender stereotyping. “Your brothers go to the park to hang out with their friends, right? Well, if a group of friends showed up at your house and invited you to the park, would you be allowed to go?” he asked.
The girls squealed with laughter and shouted, “No! Of course not.”
It was a stark reminder that gender stereotypes here are enforced early on, establishing girls and women as second-class citizens and leaving them vulnerable to abuse and persecution throughout their lives. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest rates of femicide (in Latin America, it is second only to Honduras). The cultural practice of treating women as a subservient class, whose primary duty is to remain in the home, serving their male relatives and sacrificing on behalf of their children, is especially damaging for women from poor or marginalized communities.
In recent years, new legislation has created protections and imposed harsher penalties for violence against women. Nevertheless, many in the legal system are still influenced by widespread gender stereotypes enough to make them unwilling to protect women suffering domestic violence or other forms of abuse. Worse still, poor women are actively criminalized thanks to attempts to enforce a total ban on abortion, revealing how such stereotypes threaten the lives, freedom and future of women who suffer obstetric emergencies.
Pregnancy can be a ‘trap’
In the past, Salvadoran law permitted abortions in certain cases, such as rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health. But it was outlawed in 1998 with the backing of Catholic Church and other conservative and religious groups. El Salvador’s abortion law is now considered one of the strictest in the world.
According to Michelle Oberman, a legal scholar who studies the consequences of abortion laws, the ban puts doctors in a bind: When both pregnant women and fetuses have the same right to life, and the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, the doctor must choose whose rights to violate. In practice, the fetus usually wins.
This paradox attracted public attention in 2013 through the case of “Beatriz” (as she was called to protect her identity), a young mother with lupus who petitioned the Salvadoran state to allow her to have an abortion. Like many poor Salvadoran women, Beatriz was in an abusive relationship, trying to raise a young child while going back and forth between her partner and her parents’ homes. Before getting pregnant for the second time, she had been warned that conceiving again could put her life and health at risk, but she did not have access to birth control and her child’s father did not heed the doctor’s warning. Traditional machismo dictates that women must submit to their partners’ sexual demands; refusal often leads to beatings. During her pregnancy, doctors discovered that Beatriz’s child would not survive due to severe birth defects. Despite her worsening health condition, the authorities refused to approve the procedure—rendering her “trapped,” as Oberman writes in her book Her Body, Our Laws.
Beatriz is an example of the multiple layers of oppression experienced by poor Salvadoran women: inadequate access to health care, unstable housing and an abusive partner from whom she couldn’t turn away. She was unable to prevent her own pregnancy even though she and her partner knew it would be dangerous, and then she was blamed for her own situation. Her identity was leaked to the press and she and her family were hounded by journalists. Her lupus worsened, causing damage to her kidneys until she began having contractions at 27 weeks and doctors finally performed a caesarean section. Despite being placed on life support, her daughter died within hours. Four years later, Beatriz died of complications of lupus exacerbated by injuries she sustained in a traffic accident.
The health of the mother is not the only concern surrounding the abortion debate. Since the passage of the abortion ban, prosecutors have aggressively pursued women accused of aborting their fetuses. Over 50 percent of cases involve charges of homicide, which applies to a fetus of seven months or more. Sometimes, there is no evidence at all that the women had done anything to end their pregnancies. “In case after case,” Oberman writes, “the Salvadoran criminal justice system has wrongly convicted poor women of homicide when the only evidence against them was that they had a late miscarriage.”
Prosecutors have aggressively pursued women accused of aborting their fetuses. Over 50 percent of cases involve charges of homicide, sometimes with no evidence the women had done anything to end their pregnancies.
Private doctors are incentivized to cater to their patients and risk losing their licenses, or even jail time, if they violate their duty of confidentiality. But doctors at public hospitals have been known to contact the authorities in the case of suspected abortions, meaning that women who can’t afford private care are at a higher risk of being arrested after miscarrying. These same women also are unlikely to be able to afford private legal representation. And the cards seem stacked against them in other ways as gender stereotypes become weaponized to prove their guilt.
In March of this year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard the case of another young woman, “Manuela,” who suffered a late-term miscarriage at home, lost consciousness and was prosecuted for homicide. She died in prison just a few years after her arrest, of a cancer that may have caused her pregnancy complications. At Manuela’s original trial, the judge held that her “maternal instinct” should have overridden her body’s impulse to slip into a coma. Evidence was also introduced regarding her infidelity: her older children’s father had left for the United States so the fetus could not have been his. Manuela’s “immorality” was used against her in the absence of any forensic evidence to establish how far along she was or whether the baby was born alive.
When women are criminalized
Cinthia Rodriguez had a similar experience to Manuela but lived to tell about it. In 2008, she went into labor at home and woke in the hospital with her ankle cuffed to the bed. After three days, she was transferred to a holding cell and finally to Ilopango women’s prison—charged with aggravated homicide. She was promptly convicted and served nearly 11 years of a 30-year sentence before it was commuted in 2019.
I met Rodriguez and her fellow former inmate Alba Rodriguez (no relation) at the House of Ideas, a feminist meeting space and entrepreneurial collective in downtown San Salvador. Both were among a group of 17 women prisoners identified by the Citizens’ Group for Decriminalizing Abortion (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto) as having been prosecuted under similar circumstances. Both are also still convicted felons, which complicates their ability to find work and support their families.
Prison is especially difficult for women who have been accused of harming their children. The two Rodriguez women recounted how they were discriminated against by other inmates and guards, prohibited from participating in classes and activities, and even experienced beatings and other forms of humiliation. Loved ones and neighbors turned against them as vicious social media campaigns denounced them as murderers. When they were finally released, the lingering stigma prevented them from returning home.
Both women gave birth to girls following their release—which prompted me to ask how they felt about raising daughters after their experiences. They looked at each other before answering. Alba said she has spoken to her other daughters about what happened, which was a challenge especially since the younger of the two had no memory of her mother. Cinthia, meanwhile, said she is afraid of explaining the situation to her daughter when she grows up.
Both emphasized that they don’t want their daughters to suffer the same experiences they had—but that other than teaching them to use birth control and encouraging them to stay in school, it was difficult to know what else they could do. “Machismo is everywhere and it has a strong hold on people,” Cinthia said as Alba nodded in agreement. “Finding a good man is hard. Many of them want to be able to hit and mistreat their women.”
I thought back to the young girls in Zacatecoluca and what they would take away from Jimenez’s lesson. They had seemed engaged by the discussion and readily named some of the injustices in their lives. Yet in reality, several have already likely faced gender-based violence. They may have been even more vulnerable during the year that had passed since my visit: during El Salvador’s pandemic lockdown, the rate of teen pregnancy has spiked, particularly in the 10 to 14-year-old demographic. Even though the girls’ experience now has a label, that knowledge won’t necessarily protect them from future abuse. As Cinthia stated, machismo is still deeply entrenched and it will take a much more widespread social and cultural transformation to change that.
President Biden’s promises to Salvadoran women
As endemic problems such as crime, poverty and social injustice continue fueling migration from countries like El Salvador, the Biden administration has pledged to both address the “root causes” that lead so many Salvadorans and other Central Americans to flee to the United States and to “bring back domestic violence asylum.” While US humanitarian aid is likely to benefit many poor women and their families, and efforts to strengthen the rule of law could help improve the legal system’s response to them, there are also limits to how much US government policy can—and should—focus on transforming Salvadoran society. When I met with Cinthia and Alba, I couldn’t help but think that mass incarceration and the vigorous anti-abortion movement in the United States may have influenced the systems that led to their imprisonment.
What the Washington can—and should—do is strengthen safeguards for Salvadoran women who flee machismo and gender-based violence, experts say. Seeking asylum is a right under international law, and the US has a duty to provide protection to those who arrive at its borders and can’t safely return to their home countries.
Whether domestic violence qualifies as persecution for asylum in the United States has long been a matter of legal debate. In order to win an asylum case, an applicant must prove that he or she fears persecution on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, national origin, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Past cases have held that women who are unable to leave their domestic relationships or those who are treated as property qualify as members of a particular social group. (Some countries, such as Mexico, avoid this legal complication altogether by explicitly including “gender” as a basis for asylum.)
In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied the asylum application of a Salvadoran woman and wrote a long opinion making it much more difficult for women fleeing domestic violence to seek shelter in the United States. Since then, attorneys have increasingly argued that gender alone is grounds for granting asylum, since being a woman arguably meets the definition of a “particular social group” and domestic abusers, rapists and others who commit gender-based violence are at least partially motivated by the gender of their victims.
On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden promised to reverse Trump-era policy and extend asylum protections to Central American women. If his administration follows through, that would mean many more Salvadoran women could find themselves successfully seeking safety abroad. Biden has asked for a review of asylum law by August 2021. However, despite pressure from advocates and prominent Democrats, Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to take action to overturn Sessions’s decision.
Meanwhile, thousands of asylum seekers are appearing before immigration judges across the US, forced to make their best arguments under Trump-era laws, while thousands more remain in limbo as their cases wind their way through backlogged asylum offices and immigration courts. Here in El Salvador, activist groups such as Jimenez’s Men Against Violence and the Agrupación will continue working to transform the way Salvadoran society views women. The hope is that it will eventually no longer be necessary to flee—of course, the reality is much more complicated.
Top photo: Ivan Tazuma Jimenez of Men Against Violence, a grassroots organization dedicated to “constructing a new masculinity”