Smear Campaign Against Woman Human Rights Defenders in El Salvador
| By Gabby De Cicco and Verónica Vidal Degiorgis
AWID spoke with Alejandra Burgos, from «Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local» (Feminist Collective for Local Development) and Morena Herrera, President of «Agrupación Ciudadana para la despenalización del aborto» (Citizens' Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) about the new wave of slander attacks that both organizations have been receiving from religious fundamentalist groups in El Salvador.
El Salvador is one of seven countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region where abortion is forbidden on all grounds. Not only are women who have had a spontaneous abortion or need an abortion criminalized, pro-life Catholic fundamentalist groups also carry out smear campaigns against activists who defend these women, using both virtual platforms and, in this case, one of the major newspapers in El Salvador, which has links to fundamentalist groups among its most senior staff.
AWID: The attacks against your work started in 2013 when both your organizations were defending «Beatriz». Why you are again under attack now? Do you think there is anything in the context of your work that might have reactivated this kind of attack?
Morena Herrera (MH): Our experiences of defending criminalized women have made it evident that harassing and criminalizing women in El Salvador is more than an isolated case.
In April 2014 we submitted 17 requests for pardon and exposed the fact that there is systematic injustice and rights violations against certain women with a common profile: living in poverty, low education levels, some degree of helplessness and family-social insecurity - they are usually street sellers, market sellers, domestic workers or housewives in rural areas and also some students from the lowest educational level. We got two of the seventeen pardon requests granted and one of them, may be the most emblematic one, was Guadalupe's.
This created an immediate response from very conservative individuals and groups with a clear goal: to destroy our organizations, at least as legal entities. And also destroy us as individuals, depriving us from our right to defend rights.
AWID: Who are the media actors in this violence? And how did the smear campaign develop?
MH: At the local level there is Fundación Sí a la Vida, also a webpage and a group called Vida SV that is a subsidiary of Sí a la Vida. At the international level, Aci Prensa, based in Peru, and also InfoVaticano. These groups have used social and also mass media, accusing us of being apologists for crime, calling for the State to investigate us and using many personal photos as well as my name as part of this discrediting campaign.
In some of their publications they actively called for hate-inspired actions, proclaiming that Christians are not peaceful and that this is a “fire and sword” struggle. In a country like El Salvador with a growing number of homicides due to social and criminal violence and organized crime, a call to commit further violence does not go unnoticed. Hired killers are a common feature. We have done research and found that some of these people have links with those involved in attacking abortion clinics and the doctors working in them in the USA.
Alejandra Burgos (AB): In a country like ours, where it is said that there are hundreds of murders each month, this campaign increases our vulnerability to violent attacks that could be passed off as common crime and distorted as a consequence of the stigma these publications are creating against us.
AWID: What do you think motivates these groups to carry out such attacks?
AB: They are trying to demonize sexual and reproductive rights and discredit advocacy for these rights as human rights advocacy. They seek to instill fear and to have that fear stop us in our struggle for an open, informed, scientific, ethical and human rights-based dialogue to promote decriminalization of abortion on therapeutic, ethical and eugenic grounds.
We believe this aggressive way of attacking our groups is related to a change in social views on the issue. People are becoming better informed, accessing evidence that this is a social problem, not something that only happened to one or two women but that there are many women in public hospitals needing to interrupt a pregnancy which are endangering their lives or to access treatment. And in many cases those are forced pregnancies, because they have not received the necessary care after facing a situation of sexual violence.
As Salvadorean society wakes up, these groups feel their power and certainty threatened, and then they begin to shake and many of the statements they make are truly bizarre, fall into the absurd, and become extreme and violent. They lack real arguments to challenge and debate.
MH: We have already managed to enter into conversations with some public institutions who are responsible for solving this problem. For instance, in April this year, we met with the main authorities of the three State powers during a visit from Amnesty International, the Centre for Reproductive Rights in the USA, and other Central American organizations. It it clear that these fundamentalist groups want to discredit us so we cannot move forwards in these conversations.
AWID: What effect is this discrediting campaign having on your daily lives?
MH: It raises fears that I think are important to admit to and that need to be contextualized in the reality we are experiencing in El Salvador that, as we said, is very unsafe. Fortunately, doors have not closed on us but rather the opposite: after seeing those publications, organizations and individuals immediately called us to express their support and solidarity, and they have even issued statements about it.
But they also take a good deal of our time and energy; when these slander campaigns are incessant, it is hard not to pay attention. We do our best and we have reaffirmed our decision to continue with our work, but still having to defend ourselves from these attacks takes a good portion of our energy.
AWID: What strategies are you implementing to resist these media attacks against your work?
AB: We have informed different allied organizations at the national and international level, particularly regional ones, to start a series of letters with information about the situation we are facing. For instance, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative has reported it to the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and on Health, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We have also reported it to relevant institutions in El Salvador, like the Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Ombudsman) and Instituto para el Desarrollo de la Mujer (Women's Development Institute).
We have requested that the newspaper which irresponsibly published these attacks allow us to exercise our right to reply. They have not met the deadline that the law stipulates for exercising that right in our country and so we are about to start legal actions against the newspaper and those responsible for spreading false information and slandering us.
AWID: Have any of the letters you just mentioned elicited a response, some form of support, a commitment to investigate?
AB: Yes, the working teams from the Rapporteurs on Health and Human Rights Defenders are in touch with us and waiting to learn about how the newspaper responds and also about the legal action we will take against them. Once we send them this information, they will decide whether to communicate with the Salvadorean State. For the time being, they have confirmed receipt and indicated they are following the situation. The same happened with the High Commissioner's Officer which is also waiting to see how the situation develops, and with whom we are discussing the possibility of having a special procedure implemented.
AWID: How can feminists and human rights movements support you?
MH: Some feminist organizations are starting to send letters to the Salvadorean Embassy in their countries expressing their concern about the attacks and demanding that the State guarantees our right to defend rights. Each organization that wants to, can send its letter to the Embassy.
It is important that we expose these discrediting campaigns for what they are. I think we need to encourage solidarity, expressions of support, use social media and as far as possible also the diplomatic channels that countries have to express our concern and to have them communicate with the government of El Salvador.
AB: The Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative has decided to start an online petition for people to sign and then take it to Procuraduría para la Defensora de los Derechos Humanos to the Instituto para el Desarrollo de la Mujer and to other institutions guaranteeing the right to defend rights and also women's rights.
We are inviting people to sign this petition that will express concern about the lack of guarantees to defend rights and particularly women's rights in El Salvador. El Salvador was among the countries promoting the Resolution on Women Human Rights Defenders at the UN Human Rights Council that was signed by almost all countries represented there. We call on individuals and organizations to sign our petition so they can show their concern and support for our legitimate struggle. Our struggle is for those women who have not had access to a legitimate, efficient and effective defense to now have that access. It is for those women facing what the criminalization of abortion under all circumstances actually means in daily life.