Last week, Maria Teresa Rivera of El Salvador was granted political asylum in Sweden based on her imprisonment for abortion-related charges—the first person to receive such protection in history.
The Swedish Migration Agency notified Rivera of its decision on March 20. She appears to be the only woman in any country to ever be granted political asylum on such grounds, according to Sebastián Rodríguez Alarcón, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who discussed his research on the issue with Rewire.
Now, Rivera told Rewire, she intends to use the opportunity to continue fighting against the policies in her native country that ban abortion and lead to more unjust imprisonment for women.
Abortion has been illegal in El Salvador under all circumstances since 1997. In addition to outlawing abortion, the law is often misapplied to women with obstetric emergencies who seek emergency medical services in public hospitals. That was the case with Rivera. In 2011, Rivera experienced an unattended birth in the latrine at her home, and the fetus died. She had not known she was pregnant. Unconscious, losing blood, and barely alive, she was taken to a public hospital where she was accused of provoking an abortion and sent to jail.
In 2012, she was convicted of aggravated homicide, even though the evidence showed that the death was a tragic but natural occurrence, and not due to any action on her part. The judge sentenced her to 40 years in prison—the longest sentence handed down to any Salvadoran woman under this law.
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During the years she spent in the extremely overcrowded Ilopango Women’s Prison, Rivera allegedly suffered mistreatment at the hands of guards and at times from other women prisoners, a consequence of the severe social stigma attached to abortion-related convictions. As Rivera told Rewire in a 2016 interview, “I understand that many women didn’t want to tell others why they were there because they were treated so badly. They called us ‘baby eaters’ and more, and sometimes hit us or threatened us. But I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I spoke up. Other women came to me secretly to tell me why they were there and asked me to put them in contact with my lawyer so they could get help.”
Eventually, a higher court in El Salvador ruled that the trial that sent her to prison was tainted by judicial errors, including a lack of evidence that Rivera held any responsibility for the death of the fetus, or that a crime had been committed at all. That higher court ordered a new trial. After years of delays, she was found not guilty on May 20, 2016 and set free.
Rivera continued to face stigma, despite being found innocent: She told Rewire people on the street would call her a “baby murderer.” Furthermore, the government prosecutor had announced that she would appeal the not-guilty verdict and attempt to return Rivera to prison to complete her original 40-year sentence.
Weighing the threats she continued to face and the possibility of being returned to prison, Rivera decided to leave El Salvador with her 11-year-old son. As she told supporters in a video message, “The societal and work-related discrimination, along with the judicial persecution that I faced every day, brought me to the decision to leave my country.”
“I couldn’t give my son a future. He was exposed to the discrimination and dangers in the country,” she continued.
She requested asylum in Sweden in the fall of 2016.
The Swedish Migration Agency reviewed her case and granted Rivera and her son an initial three-year asylum period with the potential for renewal, the standard procedure now under recently tightened Swedish asylum laws.
The Migration Agency declared that the nature of the treatment Maria Teresa suffered—specifically the time she served in prison, the sentence she was given, and the dangers she would experience if she returned to El Salvador—were “severe enough to qualify as persecution.” It also ruled that there is no “good reason to assume that the treatment she endured in the past will not be repeated.”
In its decision, which Rewire had access to in the form of an English translation, the Swedish Migration Agency stated that it was “clear that this [political] persecution is rooted partly in her sex as female,” as well as in her “political opinions.” It also judged that “acceptable official protection” is not available to her in her country, nor would the situation be likely to change in the future.
The decision, said Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, at a press conference on March 21, sets a historic precedent, “not only for El Salvador, but internationally.”
“It is important that the Salvadoran society be aware of Maria Teresa’s situation, but also that the Salvadoran government listen to the international community so that these events do not continue to be repeated in the country,” she said.
Herrera pointed out that many other women are still incarcerated in the country for obstetric emergencies, including a 19-year-old who has been imprisoned for almost a year without a conviction. The teenager’s recent preliminary hearing, attended by this Rewire reporter in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, was riddled with the same misogynist comments and assumptions that Rivera’s was.
Also at the press conference, Agrupación attorney Dennis Muñoz pointed out that the judge who found Rivera not guilty in 2016 also directed the Salvadoran government to provide reparations to her for the time she served in prison and the fact that she faced a 40-year sentence. The government has yet to take action on the reparations, he noted.
“This case exemplifies the Salvadoran government’s criminalization of poverty and the social stigma with which many poor and marginalized women live under this government,” said Veronica Reyna of the Catholic Passionists’ Human Rights Office in San Salvador, which has supported Rivera’s case over the years, at the press conference. “Instead of repairing the damages that were done, the State looked to criminalize her once again. Thus, she felt obligated to leave her country and search for protection in another place.”
“Fortunately, in that new place she will find doors open to her that she never would have found in El Salvador,” Reyna said.
For her part, Rivera said she will continue to be an activist against El Salvador’s regressive laws. In Sweden, in addition to numerous media events, she contributes her critiques of the draconian Salvadoran anti-abortion law and its effects on women’s lives at many activist gatherings, including the Swedish chapter of Amnesty International.
“I’m breaking the silence in Sweden for my compañeras still in prison in El Salvador,” Rivera told Rewire in a recent phone interview.
Rivera is also speaking up in favor of a bill introduced in October 2016 that would decriminalize abortion in El Salvador under specific circumstances: when the life and health of the pregnant woman are at risk, when the pregnancy results from rape, and when the fetus has a condition incompatible with life. Rivera commented in the video message to her supporters, “I want the government to approve the reform …. This will help women and girls, girls who are being raped. Many families are being broken, separated for this situation.”
“I ask that you unite more voices, raise your voices, Salvadoran women! It’s time for women to make decisions about our own bodies,” she said.
By contrast, she says, legislation currently in the works to raise the penalty for abortion to 30-50 years “is a death penalty for poor women. These laws apply only to women, and only to poor women. The daughters and sisters of the rich go to their private hospitals, not to prison. Or they leave the country if they want to have abortions. Those of us who didn’t want to abort, but had obstetric emergencies, we went to prison. We experienced criminalization rather than help when we went to public hospitals.”
“We go from the hospital to the jail. In the hospital first they accused me of abortion, then changed the charges to aggravated homicide and sent me to jail,” she said. “My compañeras are still there paying the price.”