On the shoulders of a jubilant procession, a kitsch, heavily garnished shrine is carried down the narrow streets of a Salvadoran town. Churchgoers gather in Panchimalco every year for the Palms Festival, a celebration held within a week of Mother’s Day that pays tribute to the ultimate mother, the Virgin Mary.
Mary sets the bar at an intimidating height for women. In addition to receiving praise and exaltation for bearing the son of God, she has achieved the impossible and remained a pious figure of purity—a paradoxical idol that cultivates unattainable expectations for women and inevitable self-loathing.
This weight alone hangs heavy, but in El Salvador—a country where the government locks down oppressive laws against women’s reproductive rights, where gangs control the communities, and where rape rates are soaring—women face a much greater burden than religious repression. Adding to the list of things to fear: the outbreak of Zika last year. Women are at high risk of birthing a microcephalic child if they contract the virus during pregnancy. With little health care, support, and severe consequences for abortion, women living in poverty are advised by the government simply to “hold off” from reproducing for a few years.
Heavily pro-choice, and having narrowly avoided Zika herself whilst pregnant during the breakout in Brazil, Italian photographer Nadia Shira Cohen felt compelled to speak out against the life at conception laws that were secured in El Salvador nearly a decade ago—a country where women really have no options.
These draconian anti-abortion policies seem to employ a hierarchy of rights, where the fetus trumps the woman. Reproductive choices are muzzled, and women are punished not only for making decisions about their own bodies, but for their fate. In some cases, women enduring a miscarriage have arrived at the hospital only to be handcuffed to the bed, accused of intentionally expelling their child. “Girl Kills Baby in Bathroom” is he kind of headline you can expect to frequent the news; women can face a jail sentence of up to 50 years for such a crime. It seems that childbirth can certainly be sacred—miraculous, even. But only when it works.
Religion anchors and presides over Salvadoran society. Cohen’s project shows Catholicism in a cultural manner and demonstrates how powerful religious rhetoric can be when utilised as a political tool. Prodding delicately at the hypocrisy, her photographs encourage the viewer to contemplate the surrounding insincerities. If it were truly about morals, surely the government would turn an eye to the crime, the corruption, or the neglected children living in poverty whilst their mother serves time for a stillbirth.
Despite this heart-wrenching injustice, Cohen holds women and the power of female solidarity at the core of the series. Whether it’s creating a sense of community in a hopeless environment by cooking for the entire town during the Palms Festival, or evading the law out of compassion and necessity—such as a group of ex-guerrillas that offer assistance to pregnant women living in poverty (often having to hide in isolated mountainous regions, as the law prohibits assisting in home births)—Cohen demonstrates unity. In an attempt to battle religious repression and strengthen a growing consciousness of women’s rights, she exemplifies how women can work together, providing nurture and support to one another.
“A lot of the women I spoke to, even women that had Zika, were pro-life” says Cohen. “Some were a little bit loose when talking about it,” she continues, “They were pro-life, but believed other women should be able to have the choice, should they have problems with their own health, or issues with their babies.” It seems that women often encourage freedom of choice for others, but repress themselves.
Given the spread of conflicting labels these women are repetitively tagged with, it’s really no wonder. Virginal, sexually deviant, mothering, murderous—between them, the media, politics and religion have it covered. Women are demonized all too quickly, and Cohen’s photographs lyrically illustrate this shift. Vibrant shots of the Palms Festival show that femininity can be celebrated, with all its flowers and frills, while her intimate portraits have a muskier aura—an internal exploration of the headspace of a woman living in fear.
Yet Cohen speaks optimistically about this “loose” mentality. There is a movement in the Salvadoran government to upturn the life at conception law, and despite deep-rooted beliefs, Cohen discusses the malleability present in the people she spoke with. “It seems that there’s a growing consensus within the public to bring back the three possibilities of abortion”— this being the threat to the mother’s life, the fetus not being viable, and rape. “As sad as it may be to terminate something that may have the potential for life, you have to be ready to take care of that life, and many of these women aren’t,” says Cohen.
El Salvador does not have the support for sufficient healthcare, education or family planning—particularly for a child living in poverty with special needs, or one suffering with microcephaly. This is where Cohen’s rage comes in. Hearing the Brazilian archbishop publicly condemn abortion, she despairs at the non-existent alternative. “What else do you propose? Will your Church erect a house for disabled children? There are little-to-no options, and the children will suffer as a consequence.”
It seems almost too obvious that restricting access to abortion will not lower the figures. Re-directing attention towards sexual education, birth control and support to young mothers could see much more merit. The pertinence of these photographs lies in conjunction to Trump’s order on abortion policy in the States. During his presidential campaign, amongst many other horrors, Trump said he believed “some form of punishment” should be in place for women who have abortions, if the practice were to be banned. Only a few months into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order that banned federal money from funding international groups which provide information on abortion. Subsequently, various states were given the green light to defund Planned Parenthood by the Senate. Although El Salvador faces a much greater battle, Cohen warns, “We are in a precarious situation—we risk losing our rights in many places.”
Over three hundred pregnant women have contracted the Zika virus in El Salvador. By acknowledging the effect that Zika has on these women, Cohen shines a light on a multitude of other unknown battles that women face for their rights worldwide. What’s more, she invites the viewer to consider the multitude of reasons a woman may have for wanting an abortion. It’s often more than three.
If you’re interested in seeing more work on this and similar topics, we’d recommend these previous features: The Longings of the Others, Sandra Hoyn’s award-winning series on the grueling lives of female sex workers in Bangladesh; an intimate and agonizing portrait of domestic abuse in Sara Lewkowicz’s Maggie; and Another Family, a documentary series about two drug addicts and their child living in St. Petersburg.