Morena Herrera is possibly one of the best-known feminist activists in El Salvador. Having worked in the struggle for human rights and freedom, her activism began with the student movement. “In this country there were no alternatives, and all the responses to any demands were subject to repression, massacres and violence,” she explains. She fought as a guerrilla in the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN).
“Before the Peace Accords were signed[el 1992], a number of women came together and shared their concerns. There were many situations that we were unhappy about, as they seemed unfair to women, even within the guerrillas. We carried out several protests and we complained on numerous occasions, but these actions were irrelevant.” In order to give voice to these demands, in 1990, two years before the Peace Accords were signed, Morena Herrera, along with other colleagues, founded the feminist organization Las Dignas.
The initial name of the Las Dignas organisation was “The Women’s Movement for Dignity and Life.” “Our male colleagues made fun of us and that’s how we started to call ourselves Las Dignas (women with dignity). At that time I had already personally experienced, and had seen, the problems associated with abortion with my colleagues.” Herrera says that she began to witness situations that involved women who did not understand each other, and it was in this scenario when she began to work for the decriminalization of abortion and for women’s rights in her country. It is a marathon task that she still continues.
Morena Herrera is one of the founders of the Feminist Collective for Local Development,which works for the rights of Salvadoran women in different fields. It aims to attain impact at both national and local levels. “Our efforts are focused on strengthening the capacity of women to transform power relationships between women and men. In this context, our commitment includes the need to change male mind-sets that are focused on superiority and hegemonic masculinities, and this has led us to develop and implement training and awareness-raising processes with young people, students and teachers, as well as with civil servants, so that they can also contribute to the construction of inclusive and equitable organizations and communities from their own fields”, she explains.
The Feminist Collective for Local Development acts in different areas, such as fostering the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights from a comprehensive, secular and scientific approach, the promotion of a life free from gender violence, and promoting empowerment and independence, in addition to economic protection of women and the protection of human rights defenders. The group also addresses environmental justice projects and works to encourage public and political participation to promote a more egalitarian, fairer society, among its other aims.
A turning point came in 2006: the New York Times published a report on a woman who had suffered an abortion and had been sentenced to thirty years in prison for aggravated homicide. “At that time, we realized that this sentence was the tip of the iceberg, and that things were extremely complex. The case began as a prosecution for abortion and it swiftly turned into a conviction for aggravated murder. It took us four years to get her released from prison, but when we managed to do it, in 2009, we saw it as a proper victory. It gave us a real boost.”
That same year, in 2009, Herrera began working with the Citizens’ Group for the De-criminalisation of Abortion, which works to achieve the following goals:
El Salvador is a deeply religious country, with fundamentalist sectors that have significant amounts of economic power, as well as numerous ties to the country’s major media outlets. Using pressure and other means, women who have had abortions, for whatever reason, have been persecuted, criminalized and discredited.
El Salvador is currently one of the few countries in the world where abortion is completely banned. Women cannot have an abortion, not even if their lives are at risk, nor when the foetus has a birth defect, nor when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
According to the report From the Hospital to the Prison. The Consequences for Women of Interrupted Pregnancies from Penalisation without Exception in El Salvador 1998-2019,published by the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador, “In the investigation carried out in all the examining magistrates courts and sentencing tribunals of El Salvador between the period 1998-2019 the following was found: (…), the existence of 181 women who were prosecuted for abortion, although for half of these, the criminal classification of aggravated homicide was later changed (…). The highest number of cases of women prosecuted occurred between 2000 and 2005, and this dropped significantly after 2006, although with there was a spike between 2009 and 2012”. It is important to highlight the socio-economic profile of the women prosecuted for this cause:
54% of those cases reported to the authorities come from the hospitals that cared for these women. The other reports come from the woman’s own social environment. According to the report “Of all the women prosecuted, 37% were convicted. Of these, 15% were found guilty of consensual and self-induced abortion, and 22% for aggravated, attempted or culpable homicide.”
Given this scenario, Morena Herrera and the organizations which she works with are determined in their aims: “We must continue to fight to change the law, change social awareness and banish the social censure that goes with abortion. This is about the freedom of women”.
In late November 2021, El Salvador was condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights(IAHCR) due to a case involving a woman, known as Manuela, who had suffered a miscarriage. The sentence reads;“for violations of personal liberty, judicial guarantees, equality before the law, the right to life, personal integrity, privacy and health, to the detriment of Manuela, as well as the violation of the right to personal integrity, in detriment to Manuela’s relatives.” It marks a turning point, as it creates a precedent in the recognition of women’s rights in the country.” Manuela’s pre-trial detention was arbitrary and violates the right to the presumption of innocence. Her pre-trial detention was not based on sufficient grounds and was substantiated on legislation contrary to the American Convention.”
Manuela, which is a pseudonym, was a woman of meagre financial resources, she was illiterate and from a rural background. In 2008 she had a miscarriage at home, and had to go to the hospital due to bleeding. The doctor who treated her reported her to the authorities. When police arrived at Manuela’s home and found the foetus, she was arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison for aggravated murder. She died in 2010 of a lymphoma that had been detected and had not been diagnosed in time.
When did your activism for women’s rights and the decriminalization of abortion begin?
In 1992, when the Peace Accords were signed. I realized that women’s rights in El Salvador were not respected. I had previously believed the contrary, but that night I realized that Salvadoran women were being robbed of their right to the presumption of innocence and legal certainty. In fact, I had already set up Las Dignas in 1990 with my colleagues and I had attended a Latin American feminist meeting in the Caribbean. At that meeting, we were already discussing the decriminalization of abortion.
What happened in 1997?
The Criminal Code was changed. When it came into force, we actively protested, but there was also a lot of silence as a result of self-censorship. The Criminal Code established that the “induction of abortion” was a criminal act. This point is not altogether clear and it is open to extremely broad interpretation. This also meant that many organizations and associations were silenced, as well as many of my feminist colleagues.
What role does sexual and reproductive health education play?
It plays an essential role. In fact, sexual and reproductive health is also part of our work. We support comprehensive sex education in schools and other extracurricular areas. We also put emphasis on training educators, as they play a very important role in classrooms.
The attitude of the medical staff towards abortion is surprising. The vast majority of complaints about women who have had abortions come from hospitals.
Medical staff have no legal safeguards in the majority of cases, and doctors are afraid of being singled out as criminals. Many professionals prefer make reports rather than take risks. Professional secrecy must be regulated.
Apart from being punished by law, abortion causes a deep social stigma in El Salvador.
In this country, the problem with this issue is that people hear the word “abortion” and automatically think that a crime or a sin is being committed. And this is why it is essential to change the collective mentality. Abortion should be seen as a matter of democracy, social justice and individual and community health. The complexity of the issue must be understood, and the decisions that women make must be completely legitimate. All women must be respected, no matter what decisions they make, and society cannot act as a judge. We must respect women as recognised moral subjects who are able to make their own decisions.
Some women are charged even when they have a miscarriage.
This is linked to the idea that the primary destiny of women is to be mothers, and the belief in the desire to be one.
Is it about being right-wing or left-wing?
There are people on the right who believe that this situation needs to change and there are people on the left who are not coherent enough when it comes to supporting women’s demands. In the end it comes down to a human rights issue, not a political one. It is a problem in which we all have a responsibility. Because men too are responsible for pregnancies. This is why we are also committed to actively incorporating men and adolescents into sex education.
Last year you presented a proposal for decriminalization,however it was rejected in parliament. You put forward the decriminalisation of abortion in cases of rape, when the mother’s health is at risk and due to foetus malformations.
Yes, it was not discussed in the plenary session. There were several left-wing MPs who were committed to it, but they had to fight with their parties later on. Last year we also presented the Beatriz Reform, and this year we will present another one.
So are you are only seeking decriminalisation with respect to these three instances (rape, a risk to the mother’s health and foetus malformations?
I do not think that El Salvador is a country that is ready decriminalize abortion in all cases yet, so we are carrying out strategic litigation, we are moving ahead one step at a time.
You are working for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to convict El Salvador in the Beatriz Case. Who was Beatriz?
In 2013, Beatriz was 22 and had already had a child. She had a chronic illness and a problematic pregnancy, as the foetus was malformed with a brain abnormality. In order not to repeat the experience of the previous birth, and because her life was really in danger, she requested a termination of the pregnancy. Up to fifteen specialist doctors recommended interruption. The case was taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which also approved the case. Although the necessary legal framework was provided, she was made to wait until the 26th week of pregnancy. inally, a caesarean section was performed, and an abortion was not performed. Beatriz’s health suffered enormously and she died in 2017 due to her deteriorating condition.
What has been done or is being done?
She did not want other women to have to go through what happened to her, and that is why, on her behalf, we filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission has recently been sent to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which considers El Salvador to be in violation of the law. We will have to see what happens, but we are hopeful.