El Salvador has a reputation of being extremely violent. The gang violence and murder rates are extremely high, which is well documented by both foreign and domestic media outlets.
What is not being reported is the fight for female lives that has been occuring, with the salvadoran women, NGOs, and government taking action in a meaningful way to improve the situation of women.
The feminist movement in El Salvador has been quietly on the rise since 2007, when Suchitoto (a municipality about an hour outside of the capital) launched a feminist collective to address the systemic violence being perpetrated against Salvadoran women. This collective started out as a community of women tired of being mistreated by men and seeing no justice who launched a campaign to make their community safer. They began to paint a flower and a bird on any home where the owner would let them, accompanied by the phrase “en esta casa, queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres”, or roughly translated “in this house, we want a life without violence towards women”.
These small paintings brought the discussion to the front doors of those who had previously avoided it –literally– it was outside of their door. Famous for their murals, street art is a prevalent form of political discourse in El Salvador. Art provides commentary on the way things are going, and murals mourning the status of women began to arise across the country. Suchitoto in particular has several murals aimed at changing the public discourse surrounding women’s rights and violence against women.
Then, in March of 2011, local activists from the Concertacion Prudencia Ayala, surveyed women across the nation to fully understand the barriers they were facing. They found that there were a diverse set of misogynistic policies and attitudes that are preventing women from reaching full equality, like lack of access to education, and wage inequality. The activists then combined with the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s development to petition the UN General assembly to legislate.They succeeded, and the Law of Equality, Fairness, and the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was passed by the United Nations. This law addressed the wage gap, and ensured that women would now have access to education and all the rights that men enjoy.
It worked. 4 years later, UNICEF concluded that Salvadoran girls attended and finished school at a rate higher than their male counterparts. Additionally, gangs recruit children who are not in school, and although gang violence persits in El Salvador, we know that as the dropout rate decreases, so too will recruitment of vulnerable school dropouts. Furthermore, school curriculums have expanded to include consent courses and self protection workshops for the children. In some cases, like in Suchitoto, the children are actually the designated artists for the consent murals, making it all that more personal.
In 2017, judge Glenda Baires, a fair but ruthless judge with a background in combating gang violence, accepted the role of judge in the specialized court for women that deals with gender based violence (this includes domestic violence, which is common in El Salvador, and is rarely punished). Baires aims to change that, noting that if women are protected under the law, and she is able to dole out real punishments to the people who commit those crimes, women will be safer.
Additionally, the Salvadoran Attorney General, Douglas Melendez, has appointed Ana Graciela Sagastume as a special prosecutor for femicide. This is a brand new position with the potential to ensure that people who commit femicide are held accountable for their actions. This decision was made in part due to three high profile murders of three young women: one stabbed 56 times by her fiance, one who was mortally injured after falling down a flight of stairs in her home, and one who was strangled in her vehicle. In all three cases, the woman’s partner was charged with the murder.
In a statement (made originally in Spanish and translated) Ms. Sagastume said ‘We must bring justice to the victims. We will make alliances with other entities of the State and private companies so that charges can be filed in [common places, like] supermarkets, for example, where the victim arrives without the victimizer suspecting [a report],’.
The efforts made by the attorney general, however, are largely punitive, and although it is important to hold those who have mistreated woman accountable, it is equally important to strengthen women’s status in their communities, as well as for future generations. This is why most local efforts in El Salvador focus on strengthening women’s skills so that they can be financially independent.
A local organization called the Casa de la Mujer (house of women) in Suchitoto is focused on providing resources for women, providing everything from job training, to assistance on leaving abusive relationships, to workshops on contraception and healthcare. They are part of the ‘Feminist Collective’ that fights for women to have complete autonomy over their body and their lives.
Another organization working to empower women is the ESPERA program. Established in 2008, it aims to empower women by providing financial assistance in the form of small business loans. Suchitoto is a major hub for this, since the Concertación de Mujeres de Suchitoto were beneficiaries of ESPERA funding. They were given 20,000 U.S. Dollars to distribute however they saw fit, and fourteen Suchitoto women received loans. Some women bought shops and became vendors, some opened restaurants, some invested in farm equipment to raise cattle or chickens. All 14 were successful, and now there are 80 women nationwide who are members of the concertacion, growing their businesses and encouraging others to do the same.
A Maryland based nonprofit called Salvadoran enterprises for women also provides resources and seed funding for female’s businesses. In Suchitoto, the organization has helped numerous women launch and sustain businesses. S.E.W. worked with Pájaro Flor in Suchitoto, to create a sustainable business model selling their goods made in their sewing workshop. They operate out of the women’s collective Casa de Mujeres in Suchitoto, where local entrepreneur Irma Guadron spoke to us about the community. Guadron owns Arte Anil in Suchitoto, and although she has not been a beneficiary of funding like SEW provides, she notes that for many business owners it makes the difference between success and failure to have an organization that they can lean on for support. She also mentions that women are starting and sustaining businesses more than she has ever seen in her lifetime of living in Suchitoto, and that it is gaining them respect from male community members.
The centro arte para la paz is a refurbished building from the 1800s that Peggy O’Neill and Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell turned into an art center, where many of these organizations hold events, work, and socialize. The two women turned the old building into a multifunctional space, providing a hostel and living space for volunteers, a museum, an event space, and a learning facility that they pack full of programming for all walks of life. O’Neill and Farrell envisioned the space being a place where women could come for anything and everything that they needed, from a sense of safety to a place of work.
In a municipality with approximately 25 thousand residents, Suchitoto is just one small example of the power of a few policy changes can have on the lives of many people. Around El Salvador, female empowerment is on the upswing, and the status of women continues to improve through NGO, Government, and local efforts. Although gang violence continues to persist and gender based violence is still prevalent, progress is being made, and soon , and will soon to change all of that: one mural at a time.
More information on the state of feminism in El Salvador can be found here:
Photos by Lorena Pajares