By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As if rape, pregnancy and miscarriage weren't enough for a teenager to handle, Salvadoran Guadalupe Vasquez had to contend with a 30-year prison sentence for the crime of losing her baby.
Now she is fighting back.
"My message to El Salvador is to stop convicting innocent women. I was innocent. We are all innocent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Women (imprisoned for abortion crimes) should all be released so there's justice for everyone."
It is a decade since her ordeal began, when 17-year-old Vasquez was raped and left pregnant.
She suffered a miscarriage and her baby died.
At hospital, doctors accused Vasquez of having an abortion, which is banned in El Salvador without exception.
Vasquez was convicted of aggravated murder in 2008 and sent to jail. She spent seven years in prison before winning release in 2015 following a rare pardon by lawmakers after El Salvador's top court ruled due process had been violated in her trial.
But at least 17 women who have been convicted for abortion crimes remain in prison, serving 30- to 40-year sentences.
"I wouldn't call it a pardon because I didn't do anything wrong," Vasquez said.
"I lost my youth and family in jail. It's a death sentence."
Since 1997, El Salvador has had one of the most stringent abortion laws in the world. Abortion in the Central American nation is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, when the woman's life is in danger or the foetus is deformed.
The ban has put dozens of women and girls behind bars, many wrongly convicted of inducing abortion when they had suffered miscarriage, stillbirth or complications, rights groups say.
Vasquez, now 27, is campaigning along with rights groups for their release as El Salvador - under renewed international pressure - considers a bill to ease its abortion ban.
Vasquez is set to speak on Monday before the Geneva-based United Nations women's rights watchdog - the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
"I'm going to tell them about my experiences in jail. You are treated like a criminal. I'm going to speak on behalf of the imprisoned women and raise their voices," Vasquez said.
The U.N. committee is expected to issue non-binding recommendations to El Salvador several weeks after the hearing.
El Salvador, however, has ignored previous recommendations from U.N. experts regarding reproductive health.
Facing more pressure, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is considering a 2015 petition that argues El Salvador is failing to provide sexual and reproductive health care to all.
"El Salvador continues to violate women's reproductive rights .. through its highly restrictive anti-abortion legislation that obliges health professionals to report women to the police based merely on a suspicion of abortion," said Sebastian Rodriguez, Latin America programme manager at the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the petition.
Under the ban, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion or aggravated murder between 2000 and 2011, 26 of whom were convicted of murder and imprisoned, according to a local rights group, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion.
Most of these women, like Vasquez, were young, poor, with little education and came from rural communities.
But there is now a thin ray of hope for women seeking a potentially life-saving abortion.
Congresswoman Lorena Pena, who introduced a bill in October to ease the ban, says it would allow abortion under certain circumstances, including in cases of rape and a risky pregnancy.
"It's about saving women's lives," said Pena, who belongs to El Salvador's ruling leftist FMLN party.
"The changes to the law are so that women can decide about their own lives, their own futures," Pena told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
So far, debates over the country's fiscal crisis and rampant gang violence have overshadowed all other concerns, and lawmakers have yet to vote on the abortion bill.
With many vocal conservative lawmakers opposing the bill, it will likely face a tough ride through the congress and senate.
In addition, El Salvador's powerful Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups have publicly criticised moves to overturn the abortion ban.
They say that life begins at conception, as stated in the country's constitution, and that laws must protect the rights of an unborn child at all costs.
Across Latin America, six other countries have total abortion bans - Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Suriname.
Rights groups say such bans are a leading cause of maternal deaths because they force women and girls to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions.
"These laws have led to the preventable deaths of many women," Rodriguez said.
Meanwhile Vasquez, a single mother, who dreams one day of owning a small business selling maize cakes, hopes the women imprisoned on crimes of abortion will get justice.
"I pray they will get their freedom," she said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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