After spending 10 years behind bars for experiencing a stillbirth, salvadoreña Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was released from prison last month, and now she is determined to help free other victims of her country’s stringent abortion laws.
“The day before gaining my freedom, it was the most exciting and contradictory [thing] at the same time. I had mixed feelings because … I was so eager to get out, but at the same time I thought about my cellmates,” Vasquez, 34, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In 2008, the woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder after she gave birth to a lifeless infant in a school bathroom where she worked.
In El Salvador, abortion is banned in all circumstances, including rape, incest, when the parent’s life is in danger or the fetus is inviable. The stringent legislation has led to the incarceration of multiple women, mostly poor and single, who experienced miscarriages.
“I think that these 10 years and seven months [in jail] have marked my life forever, because I won’t ever forget it,” she said.
Vasquez will also remember the women who remain locked up because of anti-abortion law charges.
According to the local Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion (CFDA), which campaigned for Vasquez’s freedom, there are currently 27 women imprisoned for abortion crimes.
They have been accused of ending their pregnancies, wrongfully convicted and placed in jail for murder, when, according to the CFDA, they actually experienced miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications.
“It’s totally clear that they haven’t committed any crime, but that they suffered an obstetric emergency which led to the loss of their child and that took them from the hospital to jail,” CFDA spokesman Jorge Menjivar told the foundation. “We will continue to seek different avenues until these women can regain their freedom.”
And they now have Vasquez fighting with them.
“For them, my leaving prison was an engine that was ignited. They are hopeful that I will fight on their behalf. … They know I’m going to help them, be with them and for them,” she said.
In 2016, legislators introduced a bill to allow abortion if the health or life of the parent is at risk, the fetus is inviable or if a pregnancy resulted from sexual violence, but there is no date for a vote and there remains massive opposition from religious groups.