El Salvador: “We are still not equal”

News headlines often describe El Salvador as the most dangerous country in Latin America, if not the world. Gangs permeate the small country of 6 million people, imposing extensive power and control over the population through the use of violence, extortion and intimidation. Conflict due to gang violence contribute to a large portion of the homicides that occur each year – with more than 5,200 murders in 2016 and more than 6,600 murders in 2015. Although gangs pose a significant threat to the entire population, the prevalence of gender violence presents another horrific reality of aggression and inequality for Salvadoran women.

Horizons' partner, ORMUSA, reported 2,250 cases of femicide between 2010 and September 2014. Credit: Reuters.

Horizons' partner, ORMUSA, reported 2,250 cases of femicide between 2010 and September 2014. Credit: Reuters.

"What does it mean to be a woman in El Salvador?" said Silvia Juárez, program coordinator for Horizons’ local partner, Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) in San Salvador. "We are still not equal. The profound root of violence against women is inequality. We are considered human beings of less value."

The distressing rates of violence against women in El Salvador are an indicator of how grave this inequality really is. According to ORMUSA, so far this year there have been:

  •  395 cases of reported femicides between January and October 2017 (there were 524 in 2016);
  • 463 cases of reported domestic violence;
  • Nearly 2,000 cases of reported sexual assaults, with 79% of victims being girls age 17 or younger.

More worrisome, the actual occurrences of violence against Salvadoran women are probably much higher than the statistics represented above due to lack of reporting from victims.

Members of ORMUSA march to raise awareness on violence against women in El Salvador.

Members of ORMUSA march to raise awareness on violence against women in El Salvador.

One of the major reasons for not reporting these incidents is fear of retribution, since the perpetrators are often men in the lives of these women – husbands, fathers, uncles, friends, neighbours. In fact, 74% of the cases of assault occur in the place of resident of the victims. When abuse comes from someone close to them, many women fear the consequences and repercussions within her family life such as being disowned or worries over supporting dependents.

Impunity is another reason many female victims choose not to report assault. Vanda Pignato, El Salvador’s Secretary of Social Inclusion, explained that women stay silent because of “fear, shame, terror, and above all, because they do not trust the judicial system. The judicial system in El Salvador leaves much to be desired on this issue. There is widespread impunity for aggressors and that isn’t a good message for young people and the female victims of violence” (La Prensa Grafica). Despite the Equality Law and the special comprehensive law for a free life without violence for women passing in 2011, the New York Times reported that “not all have responded with the same speed and enthusiasm”.  Furthermore, despite units being rolled out by policy to help with reporting, they still lack procedures to protect victims from retaliation if the attacker finds out the incident has been reported.  

The prevalence of gang violence also contributes to the high rates gender-based violence against women. Gangs rape and violently murder young girls or take them as sex workers for gang members.  If the girl or the family does not comply, the gangs threaten to kill the whole family.

ORMUSA hosted several women's organizations in an exchange to discuss strategies for raising awareness and preventing violence against women in Latin America.

ORMUSA hosted several women's organizations in an exchange to discuss strategies for raising awareness and preventing violence against women in Latin America.

To combat the extensive gender-based violence faced by Salvadoran women, ORMUSA raises awareness on women’s rights, including the right to a life free of violence, in women’s groups throughout urban and rural communities in El Salvador. They also provide free legal services to victims of violence seeking justice while coordinating with justice institutions.

As well, ORMUSA facilitates educational campaigns on the impact of impunity in cases of violence against women and girls and how this lack of action from the justice system has resulted in increasing rates of gender-based violence and femicide throughout the country.

Promotional material from ORMUSA to bring awareness to national laws protecting women from violence. Translation: All people in public life should abstain from any act of violence against women and ensure that authorities, officials and agents comply with this obligation. For a country free of violence towards women: No "machismo" and misogyny in state institutions!

Promotional material from ORMUSA to bring awareness to national laws protecting women from violence. Translation: All people in public life should abstain from any act of violence against women and ensure that authorities, officials and agents comply with this obligation. For a country free of violence towards women: No "machismo" and misogyny in state institutions!

They are also working to strengthen the capacity and collaboration between regional and national women’s networks in their efforts to uphold women’s rights, including the right to a life free of violence.

To support ORMUSA fight gender-based violence in El Salvador click the button below:

Hannah Matthews