Thirty years ago, Morena Herrera was launching guerrilla attacks against a military-led government in El Salvador. She and her leftist comrades were incensed by an autocratic leadership that had ushered in sweeping inequality and a crackdown on civil liberties. As a commander and top military strategist, Herrera risked everything in a twelve-year war that left an estimated 70,000 dead.
Now the 60-year-old titan is fighting another war as the matriarch of the women's movement in El Salvador. She is the founder of the country's first feminist organization and the president of the Citizen's Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion.
"I didn't think I'd still be fighting for equality in 2016," the curly-haired titan said with a sigh while lighting a cigarette at her home in Suchitoto, the country's cobblestoned cultural capital. During the war, the town was nearly ravaged, and thousands fled.
Women were part of the country's armed insurgency from its inception. Women made up around 30 percent of the members of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of left-wing groups revolting against the government. Though the movement was hardly a feminist utopia, Herrera says the front gave women a sense of agency they had been denied in a society that saw them only as mothers and wives. Women proved to be successful guerrillas, as they were less likely to arouse suspicion and often went undetected when executing operations.
The civil war ended in 1992 with UN-brokered peace negotiations. An amnesty law was enacted, granting impunity to both sides for war crimes committed. FMLN transformed into a left-wing political party, which came into power in 2009. But many feel that the once-revolutionary group has been slow to tackle the country's vast gender inequities.
"Some of us thought that as soon as the war ended, we'd all have rights," Herrera said. "But we soon learned that the struggle continues."
Plagued by inequality and poverty, El Salvador is the most dangerous peacetime country in the world, per capita. The small Central American country has the highest rate of femicide in the world and one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. In 1998, abortion became illegal and criminalized in all cases including rape, incest, and those in which a mother's life is at risk (it had previously been legal if a woman's life was at risk as well as in cases of rape and of fetal abnormality). The country's powerful Catholic Church and pro-life lobby enthusiastically backed the new law and still wield significant influence among a vastly conservative population. On October 11, the FMLN introduced a bill in congress that would bring the abortion law back to its 1998 provisions. But without support from minority parties — many of which are conservative — the bill is unlikely to pass.
Herrera has been a perennial target for the country's misogynistic vitriol. Over the years, she has received countless death threats and is vilified almost weekly in local media.
"They can try to hurt me all they want," she said while walking to a local women's center that she helped establish, the first of its kind. "Nothing scares me anymore."
When 33-year-old Maria Teresa Rivera was released from prison last May, she could barely recognize her twelve-year-old son.
El Salvador's draconian abortion laws and the criminalization of those who assist with abortions have created widespread paranoia, if not a witch hunt, in which women who have had miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies are suspected of having abortions.
Rivera is one of seventeen women, known as "Las 17," who were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail following reported miscarriages between 1999 and 2011, most on charges of aggravated homicide because their fetuses were ruled as viable. According to Herrera's Citizen's Group, which has petitioned for their pardons, a total of 25 women are now in jail.