Justice for Evelyn in Landmark El Salvador Abortion Trial

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez is 21 years old. She has spent almost 3 years in prison in El Salvador with 27 left on her sentence. Her crime? Suffering from a stillbirth after being raped.

Yesterday, in a landmark retrial that was the first of its kind in the country, Hernandez was declared innocent and cleared of all charges. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she walked out of the courtroom with her mother and lawyer into a crowd of cheering supporters.

In July 2017, Hernandez was convicted of aggravated homicide after falling unconscious and giving birth to a baby that was later found dead. Despite maintaining that she had not known she was pregnant, she was accused of deliberately killing her baby and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Due to lack of evidence, Hernandez’s conviction was overturned in February this year and a retrial was ordered. Despite ferocious pressure from prosecutors, the judge concluded “there was no way to prove a crime.”

In El Salvador, sexual and reproductive health legislation is harsh and inhumane. Abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including instances of rape, incest and risk to life. Women who suffer from obstetric emergencies like miscarriages or stillbirths are routinely suspected of intentionally ending their pregnancies and accused of murder. Convictions are pursued aggressively and sentences are severe.

It is estimated that since 1998, over 600 women have been imprisoned under El Salvador’s abortion laws, many serving up to 40 years in jail.

Paula Avila Guillen, human rights expert and Director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, explains: “El Salvador violates the human rights of women, not only because of the total prohibition of abortion but because of the arbitrary and erroneous application of the law that sends women to prison.”

Sentencing a teenage rape victim to 30 years in prison sends a direct message from those with all the power to those with very little: we set the laws, we decide what happens to you, we are in control.

But times are changing.

Last year, 20-year-old Imelda Cortez was released from prison after almost 2 years awaiting trial for attempted homicide. Like Hernandez, Cortez became pregnant as the result of rape. Like Hernandez, she hadn’t known she was pregnant. And like Hernandez, Cortez woke the world up to the reality of El Salvador’s absurd and cruel criminalization of vulnerable women and girls.


Miscarriage is not a crime. Still birth is not a crime. Abortion is not a crime. What is criminal is using the law to force women and girls to bear children against their will.

What better way to restrict women’s power and agency than to lock them into child bearing. And if they appear to resist, what better way to punish them than to simply lock them up.

In our current climate, where abortion rights continue to be denied and progress is not only slow but actively reversing, Evelyn Hernandez’s release is a welcome reminder that activism works. Her case offers hope to all those still imprisoned under heinous laws and to all those currently denied human rights. Hernandez’s retrial gives new hope for reform and for a deeper understanding of the catastrophic human and social impact of abortion bans.

Evelyn’s story, like Imelda’s, is about far more than a debate on the morality of abortion. It’s a story about systematic persecution by unjust justice systems that treat victims as perpetrators and women as less than human. And like recent stories of women in Argentina, Chile, Northern Ireland and Alabama, it’s a story about fighting to defend human rights.

Speaking outside the courtroom yesterday, 21-year-old Evelyn told the crowds of supporters: “My future is to keep studying and achieve my goals… There are many women who are still locked up and I call for them to be freed soon, too.”

Activism, social pressure, solidarity – they work. But we have to keep going, in every case, in every country. Evelyn finally has justice, who’s next?

#JusticiaParaEvelyn, #OjosEnElSalvador, #JusticeForEvelyn, #EyesOnElSalvador

Revolution & Massacre in Sudan: What Can We Do?

How much do you know about the massacre in Sudan? About the mass murder, internet blackout, rape and torture inflicted on those standing up for peace, freedom and justice over the past two weeks? How much do you know about the revolution that began last December?

If you’ve been relying on major international media outlets, the answer is quite possibly not much at all.

What happened?

After several months of demonstrations and protests, Sudan (finally) captured the world’s attention in April this year when an image of a young woman dressed in white went viral. It was celebrated as an image of hope. International media shared it widely, drawing global awareness to the courage and progress of the revolution.

Soon after, Omar Hassan al-Bashir was overthrown from his presidency, ending a 30-year reign of oppression, corruption and conflict. The Sudanese people demanded an immediate transition from al-Bashir’s presidency to a civilian-led government. Instead, however, military generals took over, agreeing at first to transition to a civilian-led government within 3 years but revoking the agreement soon after.

And so in the days and weeks that followed, protesters remained outside the military headquarters, gathering each day in an area filled with art, music and political discussion. From social media coverage, it also seemed to be a space filled with joy and fierce hope for the future.

In the early hours of Monday 3 June, Sudanese security forces began a brutal massacre.

Civilians were shot and beaten. Mutilated bodies were urinated on and thrown in the River Nile. Women, men and children were raped. At least 118 people were killed, 300 critically injured and 70 raped that day (although the true figures are probably much higher). Perpetrators were mostly members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – paramilitary forces formerly known as the Janjaweed.


As graphic videos of violence started to spread across social media, the government shut down the internet. The country has endured a total information blackout ever since. Violence continues. It has been reported that a 6-year-old girl was raped by ten men. Stories have been shared of Sudanese military officials with women’s underwear draped over their weapons.

International media have not shared news of the Sudan massacre widely. They have not drawn global awareness to the atrocities being inflicted on innocent people.

For the most part, social media and grassroots activists have been far more informative than newspapers or world leaders. Many have called out the silence of the international community in the face of such horrific events.

Coverage and information from major media outlets is increasing, but shamefully slowly and with a disturbing lack of urgency. I look at the BBC News app on my phone every day. Not once since June 3rd has a story about Sudan been the daily featured article.

What’s happening now?



What can we do?

“Shaming still works – Sudan’s government would not kill the internet if it did not,” writes journalist Nesrine Malek. “So shame the world into applying pressure on the regime and restraining the Gulf powers that support it.”

She explains that we can help “by preventing the normalisation project and aiding the Sudanese people in getting their message out during the blackout.”

If it’s within your power to do so, inform yourself about what’s happening and the context and history that has led to this point.

Spread knowledge and awareness to others in whatever way you can. The list below is by no means comprehensive, it’s simply a starting point of resources I’ve found useful in my own attempts to educate myself. If you have any to add, leave a comment and I will update the list.

Follow:

@hadyouatsalaam, @amel.mukhtar, @bsonblast, @yousraelbagir, @NesrineMalek, @reemwrites

#SudanUprising, #SudanRevolts, #SudanCivilDisobedience, #IAmTheSudanRevolution #SudanRevolution #SudanProtests #Internet_Blackout_In_Sudan

Read:

If you want to help Sudan, amplify the voices of those suffering its horrors, The Guardian

Victims of Sexual Violence in Sudan Deserve Justice, The Daily Vox

Rape and Sudan’s Revolution, BBC

Three Pioneering Women Recount the Brutal Turning Point of Sudan’s Revolution, Vogue

Tasgot Bas Archives: an up-to-date documentation of Sudan’s most recent uprising

Sudan’s Third Revolution, History Today

Sudan’s Revolutionaries: Offline but Not Silenced, BBC

No, It’s not Over for the Sudanese Revolution, Al Jazeera

Donate:

Emergency Medical Aid for Sudan

Food & Medicine for Sudan

Sign:

The UN must investigate 3 June human rights violations in Sudan

Recognise the Rapid Support Forces led by General Hemedti as a Terrorist Organization

US – Send a message to your representatives in Congress through Resistbot

Today, on International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict, I add my voice to the global demand for accountability for the sexual crimes committed in Sudan.

I add my voice to the chorus of those outraged that rape continues to be used without consequence as a tool for dehumanisation and a weapon of war. You do not have to be Sudanese to support the basic human rights of civilians being systematically and mercilessly massacred. I stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan, and in awe of their resilience and courage. Voices are powerful and silence is deadly.

Gender is at the Heart of Spain’s 2019 Election

Spain’s 2019 general election will take place on 28 April. This year, a range of political alternatives have emerged across the ideological spectrum, creating an extremely heated electoral debate. And gender seems to be at the heart of the conversations.

In 2018, a passionate feminist movement was sparked in Spain. It was a reaction to the most high-profile rape case in the country, known as the ‘Manada’ or ‘Wolf Pack’ case. Five men were accused of gang raping an 18-year-old girl. They were sentenced to 9 years in jail for “sexual abuse”, but acquitted of rape. Such a verdict was made possible because the Spanish law requires rape cases to include proof of “resistance” from a victim. In this case, the young woman was deemed to have shown “passive” behaviour.

Public reaction to the ‘Wold Pack’ verdict was unprecedented.

Thousands of (mostly) women stormed the streets of Spain’s main cities. They called on leaders to change the current legislation and reverse a patriarchal justice system. They also offered support to all sexual abuse victims – voicing “yo te creo” (I believe you). However, a ‘macho movement’ has grown in backlash to this feminist renaissance. Spain has heard narratives of victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and excusal of “boys will be boys” behaviour.

Conversations around gender and feminism have dominated Spanish news, TV shows and social media. And now, in the run-up to the elections, gender is being used ruthlessly as a political tool.

Right-wing and extreme-right-wing parties seem to be on a race towards backwardness and misogyny. In a recent electoral debate, one of Partido Popular’s regional leaders – Cayetena Álvarez de Toledo – made a very alarming remark on consent. She stated that during sex, “no one says yes, yes, yes until the end”, and that “silence doesn’t mean no”. Cayetana is well-known for her anti-feminist views. In the past, she has has been vocal about her beliefs that equality was achieved long ago, and that today’s feminism is unrealistic.

Vox, a newly acclaimed far-right party, has gained voters’ favour with straight-up misogynistic discourse. They have repeatedly described feminism as “supremacist”. The party has publicly questioned official data on violence against women, alleging that “many women unjustly report their partners”.

The third party in the conservative game is Ciudadanos. They have become quite popular due to their ‘liberal feminism’. Inés Arrimadas, regional leader for Ciudadanos, has stated that every woman should be free to reclaim equality on her own terms. The issue with liberal feminism is that while it acknowledges gender inequalities, it dramatically fails to see the sexist structures that allow them, in favour of market self-regulatory rules.

In contrast, Spain’s left-wing parties are doing exactly the opposite and intensifying their pro-feminism discourses. The Socialist Workers’ Party has been vocal about gender quotas in the private and public sectors, and fight against the gender wage gap.

In fact, Spain’s current president – Pedro Sánchez – recently became the first world leader to appoint women to almost two-thirds of cabinet positions.

Further along the progressive spectrum, there’s Podemos. Irene Montero, the party’s spokesperson, is a long-term feminist activist. Her gender narrative has intensified with the introduction of gender-neutral language and the proposal of feminism as a subject in school.

Across the political spectrum, gender is receiving huge attention in this year’s Spanish elections.

It’s the guest star at every political rally, sparking both outrage and admiration. And while some still fight to safeguard traditional patriarchal values and try to destabilise feminism, the truth is that gender has never been so high on the political agenda.

Our Spanish sisters must be doing something right.

On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.   

Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).

Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.

Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.

During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.

In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.

I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.

After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.

Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.

They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:

“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”

“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”

Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us. 

I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.

He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.

It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.

At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

The Victory of Imelda Cortez in El Salvador

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence.

I hope that by now you might have heard the name Imelda Cortez. On Monday, the 20-year-old from El Salvador was found innocent and released from prison following almost 2 years in custody awaiting trial.

Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather for 6 years. She became pregnant without realising, suffered an obstetric emergency but delivered a healthy baby. There was no evidence indicating that she had attempted to end the pregnancy or harm her baby. Regardless, she was charged with attempted homicide and faced up to 20 years in prison.

Yesterday, a judge dismissed all charges against Imelda and she was allowed to return to her family. 

This is an amazing victory in a country widely considered to have the most extreme abortion ban in the world. But Imelda’s story is a reminder of the misogynistic justice systems we live in.

This joyful news deserves to be celebrated. But we must also continue to fight for justice. Justice for the dozens of women who remain in prison in El Salvador, and for all of the women around the world facing death, imprisonment and irreversible psychological damage as a result of extreme abortion laws. 

Imelda’s attorney, Ana Martínez, said: “This vulnerable young woman survived sexual violence only to be pursued for a crime she did not commit. Imelda goes home to her family today and will finally be able to meet her daughter and attempt to rebuild her life. We wish the same, and soon, for the women still jailed for obstetric emergencies. The women of El Salvador deserve better.”

And they do. There are at least 20 women currently imprisoned in El Salvador, accused of attempting an abortion. But what I want to share with all of you is that these outrageous cases are not exclusive to one country. This is happening all around the globe. 

I live in Mexico, and every day one woman is reported to the authorities for having an abortion. Every single day! In the past 10 years there have been 228 women sentenced, 83 in pre-trial detention and 53 in formal imprisonment. Mexico’s sanctions for abortion depend on the state penal code, but vary from 15 days up to 6 years in jail. Fines go from 20 to 300 times the national minimum wage.

Sometimes people ask me, how will one blog post make a difference? This week, Imelda Cortez’s victory answers that question.

Our voices matter, our voices have an impact on society, and our voices really can help to change the world. I invite you to join me in using yours!

Standing outside the courtroom, Imelda’s grandmother Julia had a message for all those who helped to put pressure on the government of El Salvador: “I give thanks to everyone, every single person, who has fought for Imelda’s freedom today. When I was visiting Imelda in prison she would tell me how grateful she was for the many, many women fighting on her behalf, even though they didn’t know her personally.”

Join us in speaking out against injustice to help every woman who has been deprived of her human rights. We won’t stop fighting for girls and women’s freedom. We are not going anywhere.