Time has come to reveal the impact of US imperialism on the regression of women’s rights in Central America. In this groundbreaking article, Daniel Odin Shaw sheds light on the ‘Global Gag Rule’  inaugurated by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsorano, his Brazilian accomplice. Their anti-abortion rhetoric and policies, Shaw explains, are undermining reproductive rights all over the American continent. 

In April 2017, in the Republic of El Salvador, a 20-year-old woman, Imelda Cortez, was imprisoned after giving birth to the child of her abusive stepfather in a latrine. She was charged with attempted murder on suspicion of attempting to have an abortion. Despite a lack of medical evidence, she was held for over 18 months, denied legal advice and prevented from seeing her child. Her potential sentence was 40 years in prison. Meanwhile, it took months for charges to be filed against her rapist. Imelda is just one victim of El Salvador’s regressive and punitive reproductive laws, some of the harshest in the world.

Imelda was released after months of well-organised public protests, with both grass-roots support and assistance from domestic and foreign NGOs. The furious reaction to her treatment shows the deep divisions that exist within the country and indicates the potential for change. However, dozens of women remain imprisoned in El Salvador for having “attempted abortions”, despite strong medical evidence that many suffered involuntary miscarriages or stillbirths. Her case has drawn attention to the mixture of regressive laws and machismo culture that makes El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. It is a situation which is repeated to greater or lesser degrees throughout Latin America, where total bans on abortion are commonplace, although the government in San Salvador stands out for its punitive approach. These harsh laws are just part of a wider crisis of women’s health and security in the region, with rampant femicide and sexual violence characterising daily life. Complicating this is a political and cultural environment that is hostile to feminist activism, with governmental repression and threats of violence being commonplace.

It is against this backdrop that Trump’s reimposition of the Mexico City policy in January 2017 came into force. This policy requires NGOs in receipt of US government funding to certify that they do not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning”, even with other sources of funding. Although it has been implemented by every Republican President since Ronald Reagan, Trump has massively expanded the scope by applying it to all international health funding rather than only family planning groups. What would have been $600 million of jeopardised funding has become to $9 billion, potentially impacting on a wide range of health programmes concerned with challenges such as HIV and the Zika virus.

Better known as the global gag rule, this policy not only prevents charities from mentioning the possibly of termination but also goes much further than that by effecting all uses of contraception. While it is touted to the Republican’s evangelical base as a way of preventing American tax money from funding abortions, this is already covered by the 1973 Helms amendment. The real effect is that it ties US health aid to an abstinence-based approach by placing high costs even on compliant NGOs, thereby impacting health, advocacy, educational and legal work by a wide range of groups. This means that activists and service providers in Central America are not only hamstrung by their own governments, but by the cyclical domestic politics of the United States.

A cruel irony of this policy is that it doesn’t appear to succeed in reducing abortion rates. A new study by Professor Yana Rodgers shows that the gag rule often increases the number of terminations because reduced access to contraception drives unwanted pregnancies. Even in countries like El Salvador, hit by a double blow of reduced funding and total abortion bans, terminations occur frequently. Middle-class women can access illegal clinics at a high cost, while poorer women in rural areas often rely on dangerous and traumatic methods. Around 1 in 3 pregnancies still end in abortion, with significant risks to the mother.

The global gag rule is not the only way that foreign states and religious networks push an anti-choice agenda in Latin America. Well-funded organisations like the “Yes to Life Foundation” draw much of their funding from American evangelical groups, providing anti-choice campaigners the expertise and resources needed to stall legislative reform. The USA’s imperialist foreign policy also plays into this ongoing social conflict, with tacit and active support for right-wing governments continuing long after the end of the Cold War. For example, one of the first policies to be instituted after the 2009 US -backed coup in Honduras was a ban on the morning after pill, a particularly horrifying policy given the high number of rapes committed by the new regime’s security services. That US support for this right-wing coup was ensured by then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton shows that this kind of callous indifference towards women’s rights transcends the Republican-Democrat divide.

Although the damage done to women’s bodies is the most direct consequence of these policies, the effects of the global gag rule reverberate much further than this. According to Dr Mo Hume, even the earlier iterations of the policy “set back AIDS prevention efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa by decades.” The most recent example of these ripple effects lies in El Salvador’s response to the Zika virus, driven by a potent mixture of ineffectual policy and patriarchal politics.

The Zika virus, which causes severe birth defects, is best prevented by contraception, with doctors arguing that termination must also be an option. The response of the Salvadoran government to this challenge was to advice that women avoid pregnancy for two years, reflecting the persistence of an abstinence-based approach to family planning in the deeply religious country. However, in a country with one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world the idea of simply abstaining from sex for several years goes from being simply impractical to being cruel farce. Although condoms are available in El Salvador they are often expensive and are of course not used in cases of rape. 1 in every 3 pregnancies is to a teenage mother, with a legacy of child marriage and endemic gang violence making a mockery of the idea that women in El Salvador have complete control over their own pregnancy.

Hume emphasises the centrality of “purity” culture, with the onus being put on girls and women to ensure their chastity. However poor education and a culture of impunity mean that they are consistently robbed of their ability to do so. Although the endemic violence and poor health outcomes are an acknowledged problem in the country the state of political polarisation has thus far stymied attempts at change. The legacy of the Cold War and the importance of the Catholic Church (as well as the growing power of foreign-funded evangelical groups) mean that progress on issues around sex and feminism is firmly resisted by an entrenched conservative movement. Such views are deeply wedded to state institutions, with Dr Julia Zulver arguing that “the state and judicial structures that promote impunity are effectively ruling against women”, while Hume emphasised the difficulty of pushing through educational reforms in the face of a conservative civil service.

It is this situation which means that activists in the region have to engage in what Zulver calls “High-Risk Feminism”. The offices of women’s groups have been ransacked, with confidential data stolen, in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Female activists have reported being threatened, while 3 pro-choice protestors were stabbed in Chile. This fits with a broader right-wing trend in Latin America, exemplified by Brazil’s election of Jair Bolsonaro, which have seen a push back against “gender ideology” put at the centre of the conservative platform. Indeed, Brazil´s new Minister for Human Rights, and evangelical preacher, has promised to halt the trend towards greater reproductive rights in Latin America´s largest country. Zulver sees an uphill battle for women’s groups unless the “crisis of masculinity” underlying this backlash is addressed.

But despite this, the women’s movement in El Salvador has been described as “high energy” with “strong powers of articulation” and a number of successes under its belt. Child marriage was banned in 2017, with the release of Imelda Cortez showing the power of protest and organisation. There is further evidence of growing momentum in a recent Supreme Court decision, which overturned the 30-year sentence of Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz, a victim of rape who was similarly convicted of having a stillbirth. There have been false dawns for imprisoned women in El Salvador before, with the 2015 pardon of Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez failing to spark further pardons or much needed reform. The election of a new centre-right President brings further mixed signals, with him personally seeming open to mild reform despite his party being firmly anti-abortion. Nevertheless, the success of these latest protests and the international attention they have drawn provide hope for campaigners. Given the anti-feminist backlash sweeping much of the world and the capriciousness of foreign donors it is unsurprising that the greatest successes for Salvadoran women have come from inside the country, as they draw attention to the deeply personal cost of the patriarchal anti-choice system.



Daniel Odin Shaw is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, working on conflict in Latin America, with a strong interest in gender issues. 


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