This woman is facing 30 years in prison for stillbirth
A stillbirth is one of the most tragic things a woman can go through, but Teodora del Carmen Vásquez's was made all the more tragic when she was thrown in jail hours after she lost her baby.
The Salvadoran woman was nine months pregnant when she felt a piercing pain in her abdomen. Four hours later, she was in extreme pain and bleeding when she went to the toilet of a school that she was working in. She claims she hadn't even sat down when she felt something "come down", fainting straight after. Regaining consciousness, she told Al Jazeera that she sat outside the toilet waiting for help, surrounded by her own blood, still in extreme pain, with no idea that she had already delivered a stillborn baby daughter.
But that wasn't the only thing she didn't know. In addition, she had no warning that the 911 call that she had just made would lead to a 30-year prison sentence. As it stands, Teodora has been in prison for more than 10 years. Her crime? She is accused of murdering her baby by inducing an abortion.
The 34-year-old, already the mother of one 11-year-old boy, was charged by the state under a strict law in El Salvador that prohibits abortion in any circumstance. Her lawyers and supporters, including international human rights organisations, insist she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Today, December 8, is the day that her case will be reviewed by the same jury. In just a few hours, they will decide if she walks free or serves the rest of her sentence.
If her story is true, it means that an already devastating incident has been turned into a tragic miscarriage of justice that may end not only in the loss of one life, but in the loss of 30 years of an innocent woman's life too.
"They … [said] that I had killed my baby …. [But] I thought the baby was still inside [me]," Carmen said as she recalled her distressing story to Al Jazeera from the courtyard of Ilopango women's prison in San Salvador. "I asked them to help me … I kept dialling, but the ambulance never came. I did not hear anything. I never heard anything. I did not hear my baby cry. I was waiting for them to come to help me because I didn't have any knowledge, there was a lot of blood, and that was all I knew."
The medical process of ending a pregnancy has been banned in all circumstances since 1998 and there are no exceptions, including if the woman is raped, her health or life is at risk, or if the foetus is seriously deformed. Despite the lack of evidence and the gravity of the allegations, Teodora was in court within weeks of her arrest, where lawyers claim that she was denied a fair trial.
According to Amnesty International, Teodora is one of at least 17 Salvadoran women who come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and were unjustly imprisoned after unfair trials. They claim that unreliable and weak evidence, combined with poor legal defence lawyers, have led to unfair convictions for all of these women, suggesting that no woman who miscarries is completely safe from the "guilty until proven innocent" approach that appears to be taken in El Salvador.
On Monday morning, Amnesty International hijacked an FM frequency in Oslo to broadcast a distress signal - a last-minute attempt to get the world to stand up and pay attention and put international pressure on Salvadoran authorities. They are asking people to share it to express their support for Teodora. According to sources, the distress sign has already travelled to 92 countries, reaching millions of people before it hit Salvadoran media yesterday.
John Peder Egenaes, Secretary General of Amnesty International in Norway spoke about the case a few days ago, stating: “This is a rescue operation. We only have a few days to show the people and the authorities of El Salvador that the world is listening and cares about what happens on December 8th. This is our chance, and if we succeed, it could not only change Teodora’s future, but also the future of all other women who share her fate, and who have been sentenced to prison for pregnancy-related complications."
Teodora, one of 11 children from a family of subsistence farmers in a rural village in the west, left school when she was only 10 years old and was forced to move to the capital to find work as a domestic servant at age 17. Giving birth to her first child when she was 20, she sent him to live with his grandparents so she could continue working and providing for him. But, despite her struggles, her family have claimed that she was thrilled to fall pregnant again at 24, with her sister claiming that she had bought toys, nappies and clothes for the newborn.
Her sister, Cecilia Vásquez de Ramos, told the Guardian back in 2015: "She was so happy she bought toys, nappies and clothes, and asked me to help look after the new baby so she could keep working. I thought if I could just explain all this to the judge he would see that she wanted the baby, but I never got the chance.”
The jury verdict for Teodora's case takes place in mere hours. If you've read her story and believe an innocent woman is being sent to prison, visit I am Listening and share the distress signal to spread awareness.