(Updated on 10/27: San Salvador's Third Criminal Chamber has absolved MarĂ­a Teresa Rivera. She is free.)

On an early November morning in 2011, María Teresa Rivera awoke with a twinge in her stomach and hastened through the pre-dawn light to the outhouse behind her home. She hadn't been feeling well, but didn't realize she was pregnant.


Doubled over in pain, she suffered a miscarriage in her outhouse. She tried to stumble back to her bed, but collapsed on the way. Her mother-in-law found her slumped on the ground, dazed and bleeding, and rushed her to the nearest public hospital.

That's when MarĂ­a Teresa's morning really got bad.


The doctor took one look at her, then turned her over to police, who handcuffed her and told her she was under arrest for "aggravated homicide." Maria Teresa said she was taken from her hospital bed to the police station, then straight to jail. "I never got to talk to a lawyer," she told me.

The whirlwind mockery of due process ended with a judge's gavel that sentenced Maria Teresa to 40 years in prison. She was only 28 years old at the time, and raising a 7-year-old son by herself.

This is what justice looks like in El Salvador, the country with the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the world. Maria Teresa's head-spinning story may sound unbelievable, but it's a frighteningly common tale in a country that criminalizes all forms of abortion and mistakes miscarriage for murder. There are currently 25 women—all poor, all young— behind bars in El Salvador for suffering spontaneous abortions.


But even in her darkest hour, MarĂ­a Teresa, who grew up in an orphanage before getting a job hunched over a sewing machine in a Salvadoran sweatshop, remained hopeful that she would get out of jail and reunite with her son.

Then last May, after more than four years in prison, the unthinkable happened: An appellate judge agreed to rehear MarĂ­a Teresa's case, realized she had been railroaded on flimsy murder charges, and ordered her immediate release from jail.


It was an unlikely second chance in a country that rarely gives first chances to impoverished single mothers.

"It was such a feeling of happiness that I couldn't even believe it," Maria Teresa told me when I asked her about the day of her release. "To hug my son again after four and a half years…It was the happiest feeling that I could have felt, something I will never forget."

Maria Teresa is happy to be out of jail and reunited with her son.
Amnesty International


Tragically, that happy moment could be short-lived. El Salvador's Attorney General, in an act of mustache-twisting nastiness, is now challenging the judge's decision to release María Teresa a month after she was granted freedom. The government's top prosecutor claims the judge did not use “sana crítica” (reasonable review), and that new forensic evidence proving the neonatal death was cased by perinatal asphyxia does not constitute "new facts."

If the Attorney General's appeal is upheld, MarĂ­a Teresa could be rearrested next week and sent back to jail for the same crime she was already absolved of.

This is Kafka on steroids. Maria Teresa's only "crime" was failing to have a successful pregnancy in a land where machismo has been codified into law. Now the country with the highest murder rate in the world is treating this single mother as if she were public enemy No. 1—a threat that needs to be removed from society and put behind bars for the rest of her life.


El Salvador isn't the only country with punitive and backwards laws against abortion and reproductive rights. Worldwide, there are five countries—all, pathetically, in Latin America—that have total abortion bans, including two of El Salvador's closest neighbors: Honduras and Nicaragua.

The U.S., for all its posturing, is also pretty stupid about reproductive rights. A total of 38 states have fetal homicide laws on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although Indiana is apparently the only state that's actually sentenced a woman to jail time for feticide.

But when it comes to punishing pregnant women, no other country is as determinedly misogynistic as little El Salvador. Since criminalizing all forms of abortion in 1998, El Salvador has locked up dozens of women for having unsuccessful pregnancies—and they're showing no signs of slowing down.


The sisterhood of 'The 17'

To raise awareness about the issue, human rights activists in El Salvador started a campaign in 2014 calling for the release of “The 17,” a group of incarcerated women serving sentences of 12-40 years for having miscarriages or spontaneous abortions. Since the campaign has started, three women have been released or pardoned, but another dozen have been incarcerated on similar charges.

Maria Teresa says the incarcerated women have formed a strong sisterhood in El Salvador's dangerously overcrowded women's prison, which is reportedly overpopulated by 900%.


"We spent a lot of time together, and we talked about our cases. We got along very well. We were all in there for the same reason, 25 women at least. At first we were 17, then we were more," Maria Teresa told me.

She says there were some desperate moments when the women lost hope. "We didn't see any solution. We thought the world had forgotten about us."

But when El Salvador's feminist movement started the "Las 17" movement two years ago, it came as "a great relief and a light of hope" for the women in jail, Maria Teresa said. "It gave us strength to keep fighting."


Now that she's out of jail, MarĂ­a Teresa says she's determined to remain a free woman so she can raise her son to become a professional one day.

"This is difficult process right now, but things will work out. I trust in God and I know that nothing more will happen; I am not going back, and I trust in God that I won't go back to jail," she told me.

God might be her last best chance, because Maria Teresa says she has no faith in El Salvador's justice system.


"There is no justice. There is only injustice, especially for poor women, the most vulnerable people in the country," she said. "It's poverty. When you have money, there is no problem. But when you don't have money, everything is stacked against you, and that's what happens to us women in El Salvador. The Salvadoran women has always been discriminated against. Always trampled on. That's the huge problem here. Women have no rights. Women's rights don't count in this country."

Maria Teresa said her fight is also for all the other women jailed in El Salvador under similar circumstances.

"It's not just me, there are lots of women who are suffering an unjust jail sentence. So I have to fight for them too."