A fearless fighter for women’s rights - Nobel Peace Center - Nobels Fredssenter

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A fearless fighter for women’s rights

19. september 2018 Av: Liv Tørres

Photo: Johannes Granseth

Photo: Johannes Granseth

She is always smiling. And she is smiling when she arrives at the Nobel Peace Center. But her smile fades away when seeing photos of herself in our new exhibition. It is understandable – she was imprisoned in El Salvador when her photo was taken. Meet Maria Teresa Rivera – one of the countless women paying a steep price for the lack of women’s rights.

Maria Teresa is 32 years old. And she has had a tougher life than most. Born into poverty and orphaned at a young age because of the civil war. At the age of eight, she was raped on her way to school. Her aunts told her it was her own fault. “But how can that be,” she says: “I was only a little girl of eight.”

She moved to a SOS Children´s Village, which was better than staying with distant relatives. She later got married and gave birth to a child, but her husband was violent and abusive, and one day he just went up and disappeared. In 2011 she got terrible stomach ache and she miscarried in a bathroom, without even knowing that she was pregnant. She passed out because of the pain and by the time she woke up, she was handcuffed by the police and sent to jail.

She was imprisoned for a crime she says she didn’t commit: the murder of her new-born baby. She served four-and-a-half years in prison. And life on the inside was tough. She was harassed, called a «baby killer» and slept on a concrete floor in an overcrowded cell for months. She cleaned toilets, clothes, and collected rubbish to make a few dollars to pay for necessities and water and saw her son only twice during her almost five-year imprisonment.

Maria Teresa is among the dozens of women to be prosecuted in El Salvador since abortion was banned in 1998. The Central American country is one of five countries where abortion is still banned under all circumstances – even in instances of rape, incest, when the mother’s life is at risk, if the foetus suffers a deformity or, as in Maria Teresa’s case, when the mother spontaneously miscarriages. Maria Teresa was detained for aggravated homicide and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

After nearly five years in prison, she was released due to pressure by international organisations. Amnesty International wrote a report on violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador in 2014 and started a campaign to mobilise international pressure for her release. However, months after she was exonerated and reunited with her 11-year-old son, Rivera feared that she could be sent back to prison after prosecutors appealed for the original verdict of aggravated homicide to be reinstated. She seeked and received asylum in Sweden, the first ever to get asylum because of torment due to abortion.

“I don’t really understand how I survived that rape,” she told us. “Maybe it was because I was and am needed in the fight for women’s rights.”

She is a hard worker. She speaks broken Swedish after only eight months in a Swedish language class. She can do any job afterwards, she says. She just wants to contribute. The money she can spare, she sends back to El Salvador to women who need it more. To women who have just been released from prison, or women who are still imprisoned because of abortion. In El Salvador, the perpetrator goes free and it is the victims who must pay.

“This is not only about gender right’s, sexual harassment, or violence against women; it is about gender and class,” she says. It is the combination, plus the mix of religion and a conservative regime, that is lethal, both in El Salvador and Latin America in general. Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, and she is not going to stop fighting, she says. She owes it to those who are still incarcerated and to the countless women and girls who are still being harassed and jailed.

“I’m not doing this for myself – I’m doing this for the women of El Salvador,” she says. The women at the frontline will keep fighting, but we need your help. The right to determine over our own bodies is important to so many of us, Maria says. She looks at me smiling. She has no fear left it seems. Maria is what the fight for women’s rights looks like today: determined and fearless.

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