In El Salvador, home to one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the world, teen pregnancy is a leading cause of suicide. That’s because desperate teens, many of whom have become pregnant through rape, don’t feel like they have any other options, according to health officials working in the country.
The link between the culture of violence against women, the harsh abortion restrictions, and the suicide rate has become increasingly clear to groups working in El Salvador. Last year, sexual crimes in the country rose by 17 percent, and two thirds of reported rapes were committed against girls under the age of 18. Recent data shows that half of the teens who commit suicide are pregnant when they take their lives.
“There’s a correlation between sexual violence and the high rate of suicides among adolescents — that’s the reality. Pregnancy is a determining factor behind teenage suicides,” Mario Soriano, the head of the program for youth and adolescent development at El Salvador’s health ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview this week.
According to Soriano, despite El Salvador’s high rates of teenage pregnancy, the girls who become pregnant are typically seen as outcasts in their conservative Catholic communities. They are often kicked out of the house, dumped by their boyfriends, and even expelled from school to avoid setting a “bad example” for other students. Rather than risk this type of rejection, many girls choose to resort to desperate measures.
Since abortion is illegal under any circumstances in El Salvador, even girls who have been victims of rape or incest are forced to seek out an illegal procedure if they want to end their pregnancies. According to estimates from El Salvador’s Ministry of Health, about 6,500 clandestine abortions take place every year, and about a quarter of those occur among girls under 18. Advocacy groups like Amnesty International say the real numbers are likely much higher.
Even aside from the risk of dying — something that results from about 11 percent of the illegal procedures in El Salvador — it’s very dangerous to end a pregnancy there. The women who are convicted of having an abortion can land in jail for decades. Even the women who have miscarriages, and weren’t intentionally trying to end their pregnancies, can be charged with aggravated homicide.
These dynamics haven’t escaped international scrutiny. Earlier this week, twelve countries — including Canada, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Sweden, among others — called on El Salvador to fulfill its obligations to the United Nations Human Rights Council by decriminalizing abortion.
“The chorus of countries worldwide calling for El Salvador to end its unjust abortion ban is growing ever larger and louder,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement at the time. “The Salvadoran government cannot ignore the calls any longer, and must not be allowed to evade accountability for the human rights abuses that countless women continue to suffer.”
Amnesty International, which has been pressuring El Salvador to amend its abortion ban for months, frequently criticizes the country for killing its women and girls. The international organization says that the harsh abortion restrictions are akin to torture, particularly because even women in life-threatening situations aren’t always allowed to legally end their pregnancies. The United Nations has also warned El Salvador that its draconian abortion laws are a violation of human rights.
While the majority of countries around the world don’t have abortions bans as harsh as El Salvador’s, these dynamics are not necessarily specific to Salvadoran citizens. Globally, an estimated 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year. And even here in the United States, where abortion remains legal under Roe v. Wade, a mounting number of state-level barriers to the procedure puts it out of reach for some vulnerable women — particularly poor people and people of color. When those individuals are unable to exercise their abortion rights, there’s some evidence to suggest that being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term increases their risk of mental health issues and economic hardship.