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"I spent four years in an El Salvador jail for an abortion I didn't have."

Content warning: This post discusses pregnancy loss.

Maria Teresa Rivera was wrongfully prosecuted under El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion laws after losing her child during complications at birth. She spent four years in a San Salvador prison before her conviction was absolved this year. El Salvador’s law makes it illegal to have an abortion under any circumstances. The following blog has been translated from interviews.

My name is Maria Teresa Rivera. I am 33 years old and the mother of an 11-year-old boy. I lost my second child in a sudden premature birth at home and was accused of killing my newborn baby, or aggravated homicide. A homicide that I didn’t commit. But no one believed me and I was condemned to 40 years in prison; the longest sentence ever handed down for an abortion case in my country. But thanks to God, I’m free.

I will never forget the morning that changed my life. I felt very uncomfortable; I had stomach pains and suddenly needed to go to the toilet. When I was in the toilet I just felt something come out. When I stood up I was covered in blood that wouldn’t stop. I felt dizzy. I made it back to my bedroom but I fell unconscious and after that I don’t remember anything else – only waking up in a hospital bed. I later learnt my mother in law found me covered in blood and rushed me there.

Immediately doctors asked where my baby was and I asked what baby? I had no idea I was pregnant. My pregnancy had been asymptomatic. But doctors didn’t believe me. If I had known, I would have liked to have been a mother again, as I am to my son Oscar.

Maria Teresa Rivera. (Image supplied)

The nurses immediately called the police and accused me of having an abortion. They asked me lots of questions. How did I cut the umbilical cord? What did I use to cut it? At about 5pm that afternoon the police arrived and handcuffed me to the hospital bed. I just kept telling them I hadn’t done anything. But they handcuffed me and told me I had killed my baby.

The worst thing was I live in a rural village outside San Salvador. Our toilet is a pit latrine – the place I had rushed thinking I needed to use the bathroom. They said I threw my baby in there. That was their evidence.

Not at any moment did they listen to me. They never examined me. I asked repeatedly for a lawyer – but one never turned up. I felt completely powerless. Voiceless.

I was taken to prison where they treated me really badly. The policemen threw food in my face. In hospital I was given some medicine because I was very weak from such severe haemorrhages. But they told me I deserved to die.

At my first hearing I told the judge you need to examine my body. But still they did nothing. Finally the judge sentenced me to forty years in prison. Forty years was extremely difficult for me. I started to think about how old my son Oscar would be when I was released. I realised he would be 47 years old. I thought, 'How is he going to manage his studies without me?' I was both mother and father to him because his father never supported me. That really killed me.

SBS Dateline journalist Evan Williams, Maria-Teresa Rivera and her son Oscar. (Image supplied.)

In that moment I asked God, 'Why did you give me this life? Why was I born? If my life has been a failure - when is this going to stop?'

But I kept fighting.

There was this woman in prison who used to tell me you have a son and you need to fight for him. And this woman gave me faith to wake up in the morning. I began to support the other women like me in prison who had lost their babies and are now accused or sentenced for an abortion, for homicide. In prison, the stigma around our cases is extreme. Other inmates beat you. So often other women like me would ask, “How can you be so brave to tell us why you are here?” And I told them that I feel good when I let it out. By talking. I felt good because I hadn't done anything wrong. There were 17 of us, all wrongfully accused, now behind bars. By talking, we supported each other.

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The most difficult thing about my case is the stigma. In my country, there is specific treatment for us — for women who are accused of an abortion. This accusation has now marked me for life. People judge me and question why I should now be free. At the market, they look and say that’s the girl who killed her baby. Just because of the crime I’m accused of, all the doors have shut for me. Before all this, I specialised in sales. I worked and supported my son. Now recently I went to a fabric store with my CV but as soon as I arrived they stared and told me there are no vacancies.

Sometimes I don't understand our country's laws. I believe the law has to change, because they discriminate against women, especially the most vulnerable. Inside prison you won't find the daughter of a lawyer or someone rich, they can pay a private clinic and have an abortion just like that. Even though it’s completely illegal. But for rural women like me - we didn't want this at all, we didn't want to harm anyone and we are here very unfairly paying for something we didn't do.

We are the owners of our body. We have to decide. But unfortunately other people decide for us.
None of us have the possibility to pay for a lawyer. If it hadn't been for the Feminist Collective and lawyers like Dennis Munoz - these men and women who help us, working hard for us, trying to find a way, trying to find international help for us, without them - - and God touching the hearts of these people - I would still be behind bars.

Lawyer Dennis Munoz works with San Salvador’s local Feminist Collective to defend women wrongfully accused of abortion. (Image supplied)

In April this year I was freed. It took four years in prison and three attempts at an appeal before a separate judge agreed to review my case and found no evidence to support a conviction. I am reunited with my son, and treasure every moment we have together.

But unfortunately none of this is truly over for me.

The public prosecutor recently appealed and now we are waiting to see what happens. They are worried the fact I was exonerated will set a legal precedent for other women accused of an abortion.

I worry. I talk about this with my son. He's now 11 years old and very mature for his age. He watches the news and sees my case on TV. He says to me “You're not going back to jail mummy.” I see he feels unhappy. I ask him to cheer up, I tell him everything will be alright. But deep down I feel sadness because I don't want to go back to that place. I’m still left worrying, wondering, what is going to happen to my son? Who will look after him if not me? I don't have a father, I don't have a mum to ask to help. My mother in law is too old.

What makes me strong above all is that right now we are together. That I am free. And that I am going to fight against the odds to keep going. Now my son says he wants to be a lawyer to defend women like me. And God is going to help me to make his dream come true.

See more of Maria Teresa’s story on Dateline, Tuesday 8 November at 9.30pm on SBS.

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