Woman alone | ELLE UK

What It's Like To Be The World's First Abortion Refugee

In 2011, María Teresa Rivera was sentenced to 40 years in prison for 'aggravated homicide' following a miscarriage in El Salvador. Five years later, free and living in Sweden, she finally speaks out about the horrific ordeals women across her home country are facing when it comes to abortion, homicide and the law.

The pain, both physical and psychological, of going through a miscarriage, is an experience no-one should have to endure.

However, little did 33-year-old María Teresa Rivera know that the death of her embryo would also be compounded by the loss of her freedom.

In 2011, Rivera was sentenced to 40 years in prison in El Salvador for 'aggravated homicide' following a miscarriage, despite the fact she claims she was unaware she was pregnant.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Four years later, her lawyers were finally able to set her free and, in March this year, the Swedish Migration Agency granted Rivera and her 12-year-old son political asylum after the pair fled the country when a prosecutor tried to appeal the judge's decision to a higher court.

Describing her experience to Splinter in June, Rivera explained she suffered a miscarriage the night before her son's graduation in November 2011, and when she woke up in hospital, she was informed she was under arrest for 'aggravated homicide' and handcuffed to her hospital bed.

'When the judge gave me the sentence, I felt like it was all over. The first thing I thought was, "How old is my seven-year-old son going to be in 2052 when I leave prison?" I did the math and told myself, "He is going to be 47 years old and he's going to hate me. He is going to blame me for missing his life." I thought about all the things that can happen to my child in that amount of time. It was very difficult,' she told the publication.

El Salvador is one of six countries in the world that have a blanket ban on abortions in all circumstances. Most recently, it's criminalisation saw rape victim Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz sentenced to 30 years in prison for failing to seen antenatal care, resulting in the alleged murder of a foetus.

For Rivera, this is a situation far more common in El Salvador than most people would care to believe.

When the judge gave me the sentence, I felt like it was all over

'It turned out there were a lot more women in prison who were accused of having abortions. Some of them had 30-year sentences, others were sentenced to 35 years. But I got the most severe sentence. I was the first to get a 40-year sentence, so my story made international headlines,' she explained.

Describing the abuse and death threats she received in prison, with her fellow female inmates calling her 'mata niños' ('the baby killer'), Rivera revealed she also met women as young as 18-years-old who were imprisoned for having abortions.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'All of them were poor. The women who have money pay private doctors for the procedures or they fly out of the country for an abortion.

'Women would come to me and tell me they were in there for an abortion. I'd get their names and share them with my lawyer,' she added.

Advocacy group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens' Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion) which helped fight Rivera's case found that at least 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in El Salvador between 2000 and 2011, while 21 women in prison are currently serving time for abortion-related charges.

'I met 11 of these women during my four years in prison. We all had similar stories. We came from poor and working-class families. Some of them had little schooling. Some of the women were raped. There were cases of incest and miscarriages.

'We all lived through this very difficult experience and only we know how we feel,' she added.

Having promised each other that the first woman to be free was to fight for their freedom, Rivera never expected she'd be group's shining beacon of hope.

'Now I have that responsibility, and I cannot break that commitment. I don't speak out so people know who I am—I speak out so that people learn what's going on. My commitment to the women who are still incarcerated are what give me power to keep going now,' she explained.

When the judge annulled her sentence, ruling there was insufficient evidence to prove the changes against her and demanded the State pay her damages, she claims several news outlets focussed the possible appeal and used graphic details about her miscarriage, rather than focussing on the judge's decision.

We all lived through this very difficult experience and only we know how we feel

As a result, Rivera's new-found freedom felt anything but.

'I tried to get work immediately but I quickly realised I wasn't really free. I've had to work since I was a young girl. I'm a hard worker and willing to do anything so I could provide for my own son. I've never had fear of any work. In prison I would stick my hands in toilets to clear them up. I'm not afraid of an honest job.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'But I'd walk into businesses that had hiring signs on their windows and they'd look at me and tell me the position has been filled. People recognised me and didn't want to hire me.

'I told myself I wouldn't speak to reporters again. The media in my country only used my story against me. They never printed anything in my favour.

'Then officials announced they were going to appeal the judge's decision to annul my case. That's when I knew I had to leave,' she added.

When she was asked to speak at a conference in Stockholm last year, the mother-of-one knew Europe would be her only place of freedom from her past.

People recognised me and didn't want to hire me

'I feared they wouldn't let me fly out of the country because the prosecutor was after my case. I knew my sentence was annulled and felt more secure when I was able to get a passport without any issues. But at the airport I was still anxious. I was shaking when they scanned my boarding pass to enter the plane. In the end we didn't have any problems getting out of the country,' she added.

Having received asylum for herself and her son, she has now been given immigration housing provided by the Swedish government and is learning Swedish online in the hope to integrate herself into her new way of life.

While she's yet to receive a work permit and admitted to finding it difficult to build a new life so far away from El Salvador, Rivera is on a mission to speak out about the injustices facing women in her home country.

'I've told my son that when the time is right I want to him to share his story with reporters, too. I want the world to know what these laws and the stigma are doing to the families of these women.

'I'm not afraid to speak out anymore. I don't care what people say about me. I'm going to speak and talk about the lives that Salvadoran women are living,' she concluded.

More from ELLE UK: