Sentenced because of Abortion: A Visit in the Ilopango Women’s Prison, El Salvador

Due to the absolute ban on abortion in El Salvador, women are frequently imprisoned for up to 30 years. Although the topic is part of the public debate, legislative changes are far from being realized. 

This article is more than 6 years old.

Surprise: Breathing. Relief. The request of four members of the European Parliament was granted from one day to the next “to inform the international public”, as it was written in the permission from the Ministry of Justice. The two Green members of the European Parliament, Bodil Valero from Sweden and Molly Scott Cato from the UK, as well as Gaby Küppers and Gert Eisenbürger from the Informationsstelle Lateinamerika e.V. were allowed to visit Salvadorian women who were convicted of pregnancy terminations. They could hardly believe what they heard there. Yet a life imprisonment is the sad truth in this country, where the church and an extreme right enforce an absolute ban on abortion. 

The idea was born during the 9th International Conference on Feminicide (murder of women) and Violence Against Women in San Salvador. For almost 10 years the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Green/EFA Group in the European Parliament have been organizing such conferences in order to focus on the fight against feminicide. This time the conference was organized by the association “Colectiva de Mujeres” in El Salvador, which mobilized the local population in an incredible manner. More than 200 people – among them 90% women – came together in the conference room.  According to one of the speakers, El Salvador has the highest rate of murders of women in relation to the population. Besides this title topic of the event, the main concern was the promotion for international support in the fight against the absolute ban on abortion in the country.

The success was already obvious at the previous press conference. At 8 o’clock in the morning the room was packed with journalists, cameras and recorders.  Most questions concerned the abortion ban. We recognised the huge support it would bring for local women, especially those sentenced for abortion, if they could see this encouragement from Europe. It would be even greater if it came in the form of concrete positions made by those in power, such as members of the EU Parliament. Would it be possible to visit them? Although Sara from Colectiva was sceptical because of the lack of time, she immediately sent a request for a visit to the women’s jail in Ilopango. The next day we received the positive answer from Sara: Sustained!

The day after, Berta, a lawyer from Colectiva waits in the “Casa de Todas” (House of all women) for our minivan to Ilopango. Berta supports some of the women who are imprisoned for miscarriages and accompanies us to the prison. 
On our way to a suburb of San Salvador, Berta explains some things about the social backgrounds of the women we are about to meet and the judicial action on abortion. She tells us that the accused and sentenced women mainly come from lower class backgrounds and many of them from rural areas. In most cases, they are taken to a public hospital due to complications from abortions, and thereby attract the attention of the justice. Public hospitals are obligated to report every suspicion of abortion. That’s why there are also accusations against women who suffer miscarriages. Because women in the middle and upper class can afford to undertake their abortions in foreign countries or in private hospitals, they don’t get caught by authorities. Thus is it mostly the poor who are affected by the law.

During our conversation, our minivan rumbles to the right and squeezes between the other cars. In our front we see a small driveway which leads to an inconspicuous yellow gate, where an armed guard is standing. Nothing indicates that it would be the biggest women’s prison in the country, originally built for 1200 prisoners and nowadays desperately overcrowded with several thousand people. In El Salvador, there are uniformed and armed guards in front of every big building and company, so the entrance of the prison could also be company premises. The delivery vans, which are passing the gate, strengthen this impression. There is even a small “Maquila” inside the prison complex, a textile factory where the imprisoned women can work. Unpaid, as we find out later.  

After presenting our permission we are allowed to pass the gate and arrive at a small parking space in front of an inconspicuous house where our passports are checked and retained. We are then allowed to enter the premises. Berta tells us, that the formalities at the entrance were simplified due to the fact that we are foreigners – among us two Members of the European Parliament – and our special permission. When she comes alone, there is a lot more paperwork and she is subjected to a body-search. As the procedure takes two hours each time, she only enters the prison every 14 days. For the relatives of the imprisoned women, the access is even more difficult and takes more time.

We step on a small lawn in front of the textile factory. At its end there is a concrete building with one open side and some battered plastic chairs inside. On a board at the wall we read that this is the place for “visitas íntimas”, thus an area for undisturbed visits for the prisoners. In fact no guard appears during our visit. Though, an undisturbed conversation is still not possible, due to the practice of church songs next door. The music drones in a deafening volume which complicates listening and talking. Molly Scott Cato notes that it’s ironic that the hymns of the institution that is mainly responsible for the imprisonment of the women dominate the communication in the prison. 

One by one, six women arrive in the open “intimate” visitor area. Apparently, all but one put on their best clothes. Berta, who defended some of them in the court and is a person of trust for them, introduces us gently as members of the Parliament and friends from Europe who came there in order to learn more about their fate and to support them. Uncertainty on both sides. After introducing us briefly, the women start to speak. The first one is Lucia*, the only one who studied, up until she had a miscarriage and got arrested. She couldn’t see her first daughter since her imprisonment four years ago. Her parents tell the child that Lucia has a job far away and won’t come back in the near future. 

Then, more women appear. 30 year-old Silvia is nervous. She explains that she has never spoken to people from another country before, something which is likely the case for the other women as well. But soon, the ice is broken. Women, paying for something which is not even a crime, speak. We listen with growing dismay. Ana tells her story: she is 31 years old and has been imprisoned for 10 years now, in total she is sentenced for 30. “30 years?” we ask her. The answer is “Yes,” women who have an abortion are treated as murderers in El Salvador, and the penalty varies between 30 and 35 years. 

Silvia has also been in Ilopango for almost 10 years and is supposed to stay there for 30. Ana and Silvia both have children. Ana has a son and a daughter in the age of 11 and 13, and Silvia’s son is 12 years old. Both of them haven’t seen their children for many years. Ana thinks this might be better and that it wouldn’t be good for her children to see her as a prisoner, as they are already struggling enough. “But you didn’t do anything to be ashamed of,” responds Bodil Valero, “in our countries, a woman can decide by herself weather she wants to carry a child or not.” It should be every women’s right to decide about her own body – no matter where. The women, convicted as murderers, don’t know what to answer. 

In Salvadorian prisons women are allowed to stay with their children under the age of five. Afterwards, the children are forced to leave the prison and their mothers. The authorities apparently don’t care about what happens to the children afterwards. Ana und Silvia consider themselves lucky, as their children are living with their grandparents. Other children are in a worse situation, growing up with distant relatives or neighbours who often mistreat them. Nevertheless, Ana and Silvia are especially concerned about their sons. They are afraid that they will end up on the wrong path and affiliate with one of the Maras, criminal youth groups which extort protection money and control the drug trafficking in El Salvador. They are responsible for numerous murders and their members lives are always under threat by rival gangs. 

The last person who joins our conversation is the 28 year old Carmen, who has been living in Ilopango for eight years. Instead of dressing up as the others, she wears white rubber boots and working clothes. She tells us that she is working in the kitchen and had to wait for her break. We ask her if she gets paid for her work. The answer is no, neither the women in the kitchen nor the women in the Maquila receive any money. Nevertheless she is happy to have a job. Firstly she has an occupation and secondly every year she works is counted double and thereby shortens her term of imprisonment. For this reason, the few jobs are in great demand. Carmen is the only one who periodically sees her children, as Carmen’s mother visits her twice a year together with the children so they can spend some hours together in the public “intimate” area. 

Maria, who has been serving her sentence for almost 13 years, can also count on a release after half of the time. The 32 year old women received amnesty and will be released in roughly a year. Our first conversation partner, the 26 year old Lucia, also received a reduction on her penalty after an appeal process. Her imprisonment was shortened from 30 to 10 years because the father of her child didn’t testify against her after the miscarriage. What strange patriarchal logic. 

While all of the five aforementioned women seemed to get along with the daily live in prison, the nearly 19 year old Sara seems to be very distraught. She arrived in Ilopango recently. Sara also got arrested after a miscarriage. In the hospital she said that she didn’t know about her pregnancy, but they didn’t believe her. The fact that she didn’t undertake a medical examination was considered as evidence that she would have tried to hide her pregnancy in order to induce a miscarriage. 
Berta, the lawyer, calls it an absurd argumentation. She thinks that Sara repressed the signs of her pregnancy from being overstrained with the situation.  
It is obvious that the young woman needs psychological support and may even be suicidal. But she probably won’t get the help she needs. The amount of psychologists in Ilopango is too low to ensure stabilization or therapy for suicidal prisoners. Some of the women have a bad opinion on the psychological service of Ilopango: according to them, they were mistreated rather than getting the help they asked for. 

We ask about the prison conditions. The biggest problem is the overcrowding in Ilopango. There are not even enough beds and mattresses, so some women have to sleep on the floor, sometimes under the other beds. There is no privacy as they don’t even have a wardrobe or a locker. Everything they own needs to fit in a small box. Not that they are allowed many possessions: the women are not allowed to have more than four changes of clothing and laundry (which they receive from relatives) and everything else gets confiscated during the regular inspection of the dorms. 
Moreover, the sanitary facilities are inadequate due to the overcrowding. The condition of the toilets and showers is very bad and, additionally, there are way too few. During the description of their problems, the women are laughing a lot, especially as Maria recounts some stories in an original and drastical way. None of the descriptions is really funny, but the laughing has a liberating effect. Maria laughs joyfully, as we admire her humour. We wonder how she is able to keep it. 

In order to prevent embarrassment and tears through direct questions, we had already asked Berta on our way to the prison if and how often the prisoners receive visitors. Only occasionally, was her answer. Mostly, it is their mothers who visit. Fathers and other male relatives almost never enter Ilopango. Visits are complicated and expensive for relatives. Many of the imprisoned women come from the countryside so relatives have to pay for a bus ride. Then, the visitors have to pay for the permission and the documents, as well as pass the entrance procedure. Some relatives accuse the women to be responsible themselves for their fate and therefore refuse to visit them.

About daily life in prison, the women explain that they have a lot of free time and tell us about occasional aggressions of fellow prisoners who insult them, calling them child murderers. On the other side, a positive part of life are “tailleres,” classes and workshops organised by Non-Governmental-Organisations, the prisoners can acquire new skills and make something for their families outside the prison. Ana tells us that she embroiders; Silvia crochets – typical female activities, which are not very qualifying for the job market, but it’s easier to realize handicraft workshops than computer courses. Silvia explains that there is no library in the prison, but she often reads in her bible. 

There is medical care in Ilopango – but it’s limited. It is only possible to see the dentist every six months. Silvia tells that she had a toothache once and wanted to see the dentist but they told her that there were eight days left until she would be allowed to have a treatment. “As if my teeth knew when six months were over,” she says laughing. We are laughing with her and think: is that even possible? 

Our visiting time comes to an end. We ask the women, if they need anything we could purchase. They ask for shampoo, crème, toilet paper and tampons. We promise to organize everything and Berta, who is close to the women and visits them every two weeks, agrees to bring the things to the prison. We then say goodbye, emotionally and deeply moved. The women accompany us to the entrance house. After a last wave goodbye, everyone goes back to their own reality. 

While we are waiting for our passports, we look at each other very concerned. Finally, Molly Scott Cato says with anger and tears in her eyes, “Only because some men define the meaning of moral and what women are allowed to do, the women’s liberties and their perspectives are taken away and prevent them from seeing their children growing up. That’s unbearable.” The gate opens and we walk towards our minivan. While on our way in to the prison we talked a lot and had many questions for Bertha, we are very quite on the way back. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts. 

The next day we meet a European friend who has been living in El Salvador for a long time. We ask him about existing perspectives for a change on the absolute ban on abortion and on the situation of the imprisoned women. He answers that in the governing party FMLN, especially between the female party members, there is a consciousness and a will for change, although many worry about ruining their relationship with the powerful churches (the Evangelical and the Catholic Church). The problem is that only 31 out of 85 members of the parliament belong to the FMLN. Party member, Lorena Pena, introduced a draft law which proposes the legalization of abortions in case of rapes, risk of death for the mother and poor viability for the foetus. The chances for acceptance of this proposal are very low, as it needs 43 votes in the Parliamentary Assembly to pass. Despite international support –from Germany and Switzerland, among others – our friend doesn’t believe that 12 members of the right wing would vote in favour for the draft law. 
The right-wing conservative party, ARENA, implemented the absolute ban on abortion, which is still considered as a great success. They label themselves as guardians of families and traditional values. Putting pressure on the FMLN-government through international campaigns is important, but it is even more important to have an impact on the small right-wing parties. It would be a long and exhausting battle, but it could be possible that conservative organisations from Europe and the US or Christian associations could convince ARENA to make a difference. At least the topic is now part of a public debate, and is no longer suppressed by fundamentalist arguments. 

*The names of the imprisoned women have been changed. 


This article was first published in: ila (October 2017): Weil Männer entscheiden was Frauen dürfen. Nr. 409.