Teodora del Carmen Vásquez

Fighting strict abortion laws

What started as a tragedy became an inspirational story of patience, strength and solidarity. Teodora del Carmen Vásquez from El Salvador was put in jail for ‘homicide’ when she lost her baby. In prison, she found out that she wasn’t the only one. After her release she kept a promise: to fight for the others.

At the lowest point in her life, Teodora Vásquez had lost all hope. After her baby was stillborn, the police accused her, without proof, of having drowned her. She was sentenced to 30 years in Ilopango women’s prison in El Salvador, where she was separated from her son Ángel. ‘I used to stay in bed, thinking and crying’, she remembers her first years in jail. ‘I thought: I will not survive here. Here I will die.’

El Salvador has extremely strict abortion laws, and women who lose their baby under unclear circumstances have a hard time convincing the police they did nothing wrong. Many women who have a miscarriage or a stillbirth are accused of having carried out an abortion. Often, like in Vásquez’ case, the charge is raised to aggravated homicide, which is punishable by 30 to 40 years.

Things changed when a group of lawyers from an El Salvadoran NGO visited the jail. ‘The lawyers called a group of women together’, she remembers in an interview after her release. ‘I thought I was the only one there for “murder of a child” – only me.’ But she wasn’t: there were sixteen others who were also in prison after having lost their baby. The women decided to unite and defend themselves. ‘From that point on’, she says, ‘the struggle for human rights within the prison was underway.’

The women called themselves ‘The 17’, and Vásquez became their spokesperson. After a lawyer provided by Amnesty International convinced the court to review her case, she started to draw worldwide attention. And as she says in Fly So Far, the beautiful documentary about her: ‘In prison we promised each other: the first one to be released, will fight for the others.’

It’s a promise she has taken seriously from the moment she left the prison gates in 2018, after a worldwide campaign for her freedom. She became one of the faces of the movement against the El Salvadoran abortion laws. The legalisation of abortion in Argentina, in December 2020, has given the Latin American women’s movement new hope. In her motherland, things still have a long way to go. But whatever happens, Teodora Vásquez never gives up. ‘I want to prove to the state of El Salvador that Teodora Vásquez has not been conquered’, she says. ‘Teodora Vásquez is moving forward.’

Fly So Far is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2021, where Teodora del Carmen Vásquez will be a special guest.