BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Maria Teresa Rivera was freed from an El Salvador prison last year after her conviction for murder following a miscarriage was quashed, she hoped to start a new life with her 11-year-old son.
She thought she could put behind her more than four years of incarceration and mourn the miscarriage that led to a wrongful prosecution for abortion in the Catholic nation where abortion in all circumstances has been banned since 1997.
But it was impossible.
“I was known as the baby-killer. No one would give me a job. I was judged,” said Rivera, 34, who was sentenced to 40 years - the longest term imposed on a woman for an abortion crime in El Salvador.
When state prosecutors filed an appeal to overturn the Supreme Court ruling of May last year, Rivera knew she had to seek refuge abroad or risk being sent back to prison.
On March 17, Rivera became the first woman to be granted asylum in Sweden based on being wrongly jailed for defying an abortion ban - one of hundreds of Salvadoran women accused of inducing abortions after miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications, rights groups say.
According to lawyers at the U.S.-based Center of Reproductive Rights, Rivera is the first woman in the world to be granted asylum on such grounds.
“I was so nervous. I didn’t think I’d be granted asylum in Sweden and for it all to happen so quickly, within months,” Rivera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Swedish village of Horndal, a two hour drive from Stockholm.
“They (the Swedish authorities) said my rights as a woman had been violated. Instead of protecting me, the state had persecuted me.”
Despite grappling with the cold and a new language, Rivera said she is happy in Sweden where the locals and the Latino community have made her feel welcome.
“We aren’t used to having to wrap up warm and the new language has been the biggest culture shock,” Rivera said.
“But most importantly I’ve been well-received. The Swedes have shown solidarity toward us.”
Catalina Martinez, a lawyer and Latin America director at the Center of Reproductive Rights, which has supported Rivera, described the move as “a very big precedent not only for women in El Salvador but for women across the world”.
While the decision by the Swedish authorities to grant asylum did not specifically address El Salvador’s abortion ban, it did mention Rivera had been imprisoned for having an obstetric emergency, Martinez said.
“Migration officials considered the fact that she had suffered legal and social persecution,” Martinez said.
In the end, Swedish immigration authorities deemed Rivera’s punishment, time served behind bars and dangers she could face if she returned to El Salvador, amounted to persecution, Martinez added.
“They couldn’t say that if Rivera went back to El Salvador she would be safe. Right now women continue to be persecuted,” Martinez said.
El Salvador is one of seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have a blanket ban on abortions. The procedure is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, when the woman’s life is in danger or the fetus is deformed.
There are 26 women who have been convicted for inducing an abortion in prison in El Salvador, currently serving between 30- and 40-year sentences, including one woman who was imprisoned last year, according to the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
“Only poor women not rich women get jailed under the law,” said Rivera, who has vowed to fight for their release.
“There are no members of congress or mayors jailed for this. They can leave the country if they want to have an abortion.”
Since arriving in Sweden in October, Rivera has given numerous interviews to the local press to raise awareness about the plight of others still behind bars.
“We promised each other that if I left El Salvador I would speak up on their behalf. They don’t deserve to be in prison for crimes they didn’t commit,” said Rivera, who dreams of studying law. “Some mothers have spent 10 years in jail away from their children.”
Campaigners say there has been a glimmer of hope for women seeking potentially life-saving abortions since October, when Congresswoman Lorena Pena from El Salvador’s ruling leftist FMLN party introduced a bill to ease the ban.
Pena told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February the bill is about “saving women’s lives”, and would allow abortion under certain circumstances, including in cases of rape and a risky pregnancy.
Lawmakers are expected to debate the bill later this year.