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Film portrays plight of women jailed under Salvador abortion laws

San Salvador Photograph:( AFP )

AFP San Salvador Sep 13, 2019, 10.11 AM (IST)

Teodora Vasquez spent 10 years in jail for murder in El Salvador. Her crime? Giving birth to a dead baby. Now a new film tells her story and highlights the plight of 16 women still serving long sentences, as pressure grows for legislative change.

Vasquez, who served more than one-third of her 30-year sentence, will present the 90-minute documentary 'Fly So Far' at a festival in Sweden later this month.

"After being locked up for so long, you can fly, you can go far," Vasquez told AFP in an interview, explaining the film's title.

The 36-year-old was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 after being convicted of the aggravated homicide of her baby, who was born dead.

Sixteen women are currently in prison in El Salvador for what human rights groups describe as obstetric emergencies. Under Salvadoran law, however, they were convicted of having abortions.

"Even if those 16 women regain their freedom, we will continue the fight because we don't want future generations to end up in jail because of the kind of obstetric problem that happened us," said Vasquez.

Human rights organizations are calling for an end to El Salvador's total ban on abortion, under which women and girls are routinely imprisoned, even after enduring stillbirths and miscarriages.

The film by Swiss-Salvadoran director Celina Escher hopes to highlight their plight on the world stage.

- Overcrowded jails -

Escher began filming inside the overcrowded Women's Prison in the eastern suburbs of San Salvador in 2017. The prison has a capacity of 1,200 inmates but as recently as February housed 2,229.

The film focuses on Maria Teresa Rivera, who was given political asylum in Sweden after being jailed in El Salvador.

It portrays her life inside as well as after her release, showing the difficulties experienced by these women integrating back into society, particularly given the stigma of the crime for which they were convicted.

Vasquez, who will be in Stockholm to launch the film on September 23, has become an outspoken human rights defender.

She says meeting members of the New Times Theater company, an NGO that brings artistic programs to prison inmates, motivated her to seek to help other former inmates integrate back into society.

So many of the women are in a "vulnerable state," she says.

Rights groups can point to recent victories, like the early release of several women this year -- including three in March -- after serving around a third of their 30-year jail terms.

The latest was a 21-year old rape victim released in August, who was accused of killing her baby. She served nearly three years of her sentence. 

However, state prosecutors launched an appeal against her release earlier this week.

- Fresh start -

Vasquez currently directs a project that provides ex-prisoners with the chance of a fresh start -- offering healthcare, psychological help, employment assistance and legal advice.

Finding a job once outside is a major challenge as the women have a criminal record.

"Society continues to stigmatize us, continues to discriminate against us," says Vasquez.

"We have the problem that when we recover our freedom we leave with a criminal record, and having a criminal record, prevents us from getting any job."

One way to overcome the problem is to help the women set themselves up in small businesses, she says.

El Salvador's law against abortions provides for prison sentences of between two and eight years, but courts often find the women guilty of the more serious crime of aggravated homicide, which carries punishment of up to 50 years behind bars.

Vasquez herself suffered a stillbirth in July 2007, in her ninth month of pregnancy, while at the school where she worked.

She tried to call paramedics, in vain, before falling unconscious.

Police accused her of inducing the miscarriage, and in January 2008 she was convicted and sentenced for aggravated homicide. She was released in February 2018.

She was last year awarded Swedish government's Per Anger Human Rights Award for human rights defenders, named after a Stockholm diplomat, for her work for women's rights.