El Salvador’s Feminist Movement Calls to Protect “Human right to health, life and liberty for women and girls”
After the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidency for the first time in 2009, the government of El Salvador ramped up efforts to increase social programs and resources for women and girls, from preventative health care to promoting financial independence. However, conservative and misogynist tendencies that criminalize poor women continue to plague both the legislative and judicial systems, while simultaneously facilitating impunity for aggressors who commit acts of violence against women and girls.
During the March 2018 elections, the FMLN lost eight seats, or twenty-five percent of their voting bloc, to right-wing parties, who gained a combined total of eleven seats. This defeat means a dramatic consolidation of conservative power in the new Legislative Assembly, which took office on May 1. It also translates into a major setback for feminist organizations, which had been making significant legislative progress recently, including in their ongoing struggle to reform the country’s draconian abortion ban. In 1998, El Salvador outlawed abortion under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Several high-profile cases in recent years, from the case of a young woman known as Beatriz, who nearly died before the Ministry of Health approved a therapeutic abortion to save her life, to a group of women known as “Las 17” who face up to thirty-year sentences for miscarriages that were tried and convicted as aggravated homicides, have drawn widespread condemnation from international human rights organizations and highlighted the law’s disproportionate and violent impact on poor women.
For years, feminist organizations in El Salvador have worked successfully to raise awareness about the impacts of the ban internationally and to educate and to shift public opinion nationally. In October 2016, FMLN legislator Lorena Peña introduced a reform that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated in four situations, essentially restoring the law to its pre-1998 version: when the mother’s life is in danger, when the fetus is not viable, when conception occurred as a result of rape and in instances of sexual violence against underage girls.
The overwhelming response to the FMLN’s proposed reform was to prevent the legislation from ever seeing the light of day, with private business and anti-abortion advocates mounting major pressure on legislators. One of the leading anti-abortion forces in El Salvador, Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life), which pushed the 1998 reform, called on the Legislative Assembly, the Court of Accounts and the Human Rights Ombudsperson to investigate the funding sources of El Salvador’s feminist organizations; meanwhile, Sí a la Vida itself receives much of its funding from a conservative pro-life U.S. organization, Human Life International, as a 2017 report in The Guardian revealed.The National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), El Salvador’s powerful big-business lobby, also warned the legislature away from approving reforms. ARENA legislator Ricardo Velasquez Parker doubled down, proposing a counter reform that would increase the sentence for abortion to 50 years.
However, there were splits in ARENA, a sign that demands from the women’s movement are gaining traction and that public opinion is shifting. Johnny Sol Wright, an ARENA legislator who has since left the party, presented his own proposal to soften the abortion ban, a more moderate reform that would have allowed abortions under two circumstances: when the pregnancy is a result of rape, including of underage girls, and pregnancies that pose a threat to the mother’s life and health.
Notably, both Peña’s and Sol Wright’s reforms would have both protected underage girls who have been the victims of sexual violence, another priority issue for the women’s movement. Prior to August 2017, Salvadoran law still allowed perpetrators of rape against girls that resulted in pregnancy to marry their victims, as long as the aggressor could obtain signed parental consent. This practice was outlawed after a reform to end underage marriage, also presented by the FMLN’s Lorena Peña, was approved last year.
But despite the modesty of Wright Sol’s proposal, the 2015-2018 legislative period came to a close without a vote on either bill. In a statement, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion condemned the Legislative Assembly’s unwillingness to revisit the issue of abortion despite the significant change in popular opinion that is occurring in the country. “The absolute criminalization of abortion creates unnecessary risks and injustices that affect, above all, poor women,” they declared. “For this reason, we reaffirm our commitment to achieving legislation and public policies that guarantee the human right to health, life and liberty for women, teenagers and young girls.”
The feminist movement is also shining a light on El Salvador´s judicial system, long-dominated by the conservative sector, for its role in perpetuating violence against women, as cases of violence against women and underage girls persist at alarming rates and with overwhelming impunity.
In late April, feminist organizations mobilized demonstrations to denounce the disappearance of several female police officers and the murders of women and young girls, including journalists and organizers, in what are being described feminicides. Despite the passage of historic legislation in 2010 designed to address violence against women, the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women, feminist organizations have decried an ongoing crisis, having documented 146 feminicides that occurred between January 1 and April 26, thirty-two more cases than during the same period in 2017.
Though the protests have pushed the leftist FMLN government to enact a new national policy to address the issue of sexual violence and feminicide, feminist and social movement organizations demand that the government, security forces and judicial system address all cases of feminicides with diligence, that they be thoroughly investigated and that those responsible be held accountable. They are also calling on the media “to address the issue of violence against women through a critical lens and to avoid re-victimization” and on female journalists and communicators to “join the movement to denounce violence against women in the workplace.”