2018: Teodora del Carmen Vásquez
“If those in charge thought they could silence me when they threw me in prison, they were mistaken. That’s where I found the drive to go on fighting, to come out and tell the world about the injustices that exist and the injustice that I suffered. I cannot stay silent; there are others still in prison who are just as innocent as I am. The state continues to trample these people, but the struggle will change all that.”
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She gave birth to a stillborn child, was accused of abortion and convicted of murder. After ten years in prison she was released in February 2018 thanks to massive international protests. Now she continues to fight for women who have been imprisoned for the same reason, and to change the laws of El Salvador.
El Salvador is a conservative country where the Catholic church is very influential. Since 1998 a total abortion ban is in place, which endangers the health of women. Abortion is illegal even when the pregnancy is the result of rape or if the life or health of the woman is in danger. The abortion ban is especially hard on young women living in poverty. It also often leads to women being subjected to false accusations of having an abortion after miscarrying or suffering complications during child birth. In some cases these women are convicted of murder.
What happened to you?
– I was nine months pregnant and due in three weeks. In those days I worked at a café and I was alone when the delivery started. I called both the ambulance and the police several times, but nobody came. I couldn’t leave, so I remained at work.
– Everything happened so fast. My baby girl was born in 45 minutes. When the police finally arrived, they said “you killed her, she’s dead.” They accused me of killing the baby without providing a shred of evidence. They took my phone so I couldn’t prove that I had made those calls. I was imprisoned for ten years and seven months, and to this day I still don’t know why my girl died.
How did you survive in prison? What was a normal day like?
– In prison, there was no difference between day and night. I was locked away between four walls together with 300 other women, all of us in the same room. There was no place to breathe, you could never get away to sit and think by yourself. The only thing that kept me alive was my son Angel Gabriel, who was four years old when I was sent to prison. He was the one who gave me the strength to make it through the days. I knew he was waiting for me on the outside.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to become an activist?
– It was when a new female prisoner arrived. She was sent there for the same reason as me, so I stood at the entrance of the prison and waited for her. I took her by the hand and showed her in. I said “I know why you are here. Stay with me and nobody will hurt you.” And I told everybody that “before you hit her, you have to hit me.” That’s when everything changed.
You only had four years of schooling when you were sent to jail. But when you were released you had a high school diploma and 36 diplomas from different machine shops and programs. Why did school become so important to you?
– I didn’t take my diplomas because the prison gave them to me, but because I had to educate myself in order to get out of prison. One way or another, I will get out of here, I thought. I am not going to stay here for the 30 years they have sentenced me to.
What does the Per Anger Prize mean to you?
– This is a validation of my work and the work of my friends. We have struggled and we will continue. The prize gives us strength and pride. It is enormously important to me, to my liberated friends and to those who are still in prison.
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was born in the Ahuachapán region of El Salvador and is a well-known women’s rights activist in her homeland. Today, she works for the volunteer organisation TNT, which supports women through, among other things, visits, contact with families and assistance when they are released from prison.
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was nominated for the Per Anger Prize by the Swedish section of Amnesty International.
The motivation of the Per Anger Prize jury
"Teodora del Carmen Vásquez is the recipient of the 2018 Per Anger Prize for her struggle for the rights of women to sexual and reproductive health in El Salvador – one of the world’s most conservative countries when it comes to abortion. She has turned personal pain into a force that provides support and hope for many girls and women in her home country. To continue fighting after ten years in prison is not only astounding, it also requires great courage. Teodora del Carmen Vásquez is an inspiration to us all."