El Salvador releases second woman jailed over abortion

Maira Figueroa's sentence was commuted by El Salvador's Supreme Court. (AFP pic)
Maira Figueroa’s sentence was commuted by El Salvador’s Supreme Court. (AFP pic)

SAN SALVADOR: A Salvadoran woman serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide over an alleged abortion after she was raped was released from prison on Tuesday having served half her sentence.

Maira Figueroa is the second woman jailed under the Central American country’s severe anti-abortion laws to have her sentence commuted by the Supreme Court this year.

“I am happy to be with my family,” Figueroa, 34, told reporters outside the Women’s Prison in San Salvador following her release.

“I hope that other women are given the opportunity to go free.”

She had served 15 years of her sentence, imposed when she was 19 years old.

Another Salvadoran woman, Teodora Vásquez, was freed in February. She had served 11 years of a 30-year sentence after being accused of an abortion following a stillbirth.

Vásquez was among those waiting to greet Figueroa on her release. The two women embraced outside the prison walls.

Under a law that came into force in 1998, all abortions are illegal in El Salvador, regardless of whether the pregnancy results from rape, as in Figueroa’s case, or poses a medical threat to the woman.

Prison terms range from two to eight years, but women can be charged with more serious crimes instead, as in both women’s cases.

Two dozen women remain behind bars after running afoul of the country’s strict abortion laws, activists say.

Figueroa was convicted in 2003 by a court in the western city of Ahuachapan for aggravated homicide.

She had been hospitalized after suffering an obstetric emergency and blood loss at a home where she worked as a domestic employee.

Prosecutors accused her of aggravated homicide and she received a 30-year prison sentence.

The baby died in hospital and “she was arrested and accused of having caused an abortion,” the Citizens’ Association for the Decriminalisation of Abortion said in a statement.

The pressure group representing 15 women’s rights organizations had petitioned the Supreme Court for her release.

In an interview after she was freed last month, Vásquez said part of the problem in El Salvador was that poor women found themselves “abandoned” by the public hospital system.

Instead of receiving medical help, they risked being turned over to police because of problems encountered during pregnancy.

“A woman with money who wants to have an abortion finds a clinic and gets it done, and nothing happens. But a poor woman does that and she is sent to prison,” Vasquez said.

Morena Herrera, the group’s coordinator, said 24 other women are currently incarcerated in the country for abortions that were classified as homicides under state law.

“They were all convicted because of prejudice, so we hope that their cases will be reviewed or they will be granted a pardon,” Herrera said.

Beyond the problem of incarceration, Herrera said there was a need to “decriminalise abortion in specific circumstances, such as when the health of the mother is at risk.”