San Salvador, El Salvador – Endemic levels of sexual abuse and gender based violence have made El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world for girls and women, amid entrenched “machismo” attitudes and a criminal justice system that too often fails victims.
More than seven sexual attacks were reported every day in the first three months of 2013 – a 17 percent rise in 12 months, according to official police figures. Two thirds of the reported 636 rapes and sexual offences were committed against children under the age of 18. El Salvador has a population of 6.2 million.
While much of the country’s escalating violence over the past decade can be blamed on street gangs and drug traffickers, the most risky place for girls and women is still at home.
In January alone this year, police received 243 complaints of domestic violence – a 23 percent year-on-year rise.
Information gathered by the feminist organisation Ormusa (the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace) reveals that most sexual assaults involve girls aged between 12 and 17 and take place at home. Sexual crimes are usually committed by a close relative or family acquaintance while the mother is out working.
One in three pregnancies in El Salvador involves a teenaged girl, often the result of abuse, according to NGO Plan International.
Too many girls end up in relationships with much older men in order to escape poverty or violence at home, Roxana Ramos, a primary care nurse working with pregnant teens in Chalatenango, told Al Jazeera.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Women and girls also bear the brunt of kidnappings – another violent crime which blights the country and causes huge anxiety among the population. In the first four months of 2013, almost 500 kidnappings were reported – 60 percent involved girls and women, according to the National Civilian Police (PNC).
It is widely believed that PNC figures represent only the “tip of the iceberg” of actual crimes committed, as fear, mistrust of authorities, social stigma and a lack of awareness among many women about their rights keeps many from speaking out. Conviction rate figures are not publicly available.
A prevailing machismo attitude among the police, prosecutors and judiciary in particular continues to be a huge obstacle to justice for women.
In 2012, six women were murdered by partners who were serving police officers, according to the Observatory of Gender Violence against Women.
Rodrigo Bustos, director of Plan El Salvador, said: “Violence against girls and women is one of the biggest challenges facing the country, and we know for a fact that it is not getting better. Adolescent girls are at huge risk of sexual abuse from older men within the family… in some cases the mothers know but are too powerless or scared to do anything.”
Bustos added: “The roles assigned to women are very fixed: take care of the home and family, and be submissive to all men in all relationships. Violence occurs when women won’t submit to this. Our only hope is working with young people, boys and girls, to change these beliefs.”
Girls and gangs
Gang violence peaked in El Salvador in 2011 when it was ranked as the world’s second most dangerous country by the United National Office on Drugs and Crime – with a murder rate of 69 per 100,000 people. That year 628 women were killed – a 225 per cent increase since 2000.
Few girls are fully initiated gang members in El Salvador but tit-for-tat killings of girlfriends, sisters and other girls working within the gang structure had escalated until the two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Calle 18, called an unexpected truce in March 2012.
|The murder rate in El Salvador has fallen after two street gangs declared a truce in March [EPA]|
The murder rate has fallen by 50 per cent since then, but one woman and four men are still murdered on average every day. Most rapes, assaults and even disappearances within the gangs remain hidden from official figures as they are rarely reported.
Sara Romero, a 20-year-old from San Salvador, became involved with Calle 18 when she was 13. She was raped by five gang members when her boyfriend, a neighbourhood gang leader, was in prison.
“I never even considered going to the police. I didn’t want to cause trouble for my gang by getting the police involved,” Romero told Al Jazeera.
The perpetrators were beaten-up badly as a punishment, one died as a result, but not for the rape per se, rather for the disrespect they had shown Romero’s boyfriend.
“As Sara’s case demonstrates, the level of violence inflicted on women by the gangs is extreme. But, it is also easier for society to point to the gangs as the violent ones,” said Jeanne Rikkers, a youth violence expert at the human rights organisation Fespad.
“It’s much harder to accept that girls in their own homes are being raped by their fathers and brothers, and that’s something this culture needs to come to terms with if we’re going to address the issue of violence against women.”
A radical new law designed to improve access to justice by identifying specific crimes and sentences for violence against women was introduced by President Mauricio Funes’ left-wing FLMN government on January 1, 2012. It came after years of campaigning by feminist and human rights organisations.
“The law recognises for the first time that gender based violence exists and that it violates the human rights of women,” Silvia Barrios, a lawyer at Ormusa, told Al Jazeera. “It also obliges every state institution to tackle violence against women.”
The legislation was followed by a zero tolerance campaign launched by President Funes and the country’s first lady, which has been lauded as an important step towards reducing the stigma that victims face.
A handful of recent cases suggest some signs of progress.
In a widely reported incident in May, a 29-year-old man was refused bail after being arrested for throwing boiling oil over his girlfriend in a drunken rage.
“For him to be denied bail and the newspaper to publish his picture in the newspaper rather than hers, the victim, is a huge step forward,” Barrios told Al Jazeera.
In another high profile case, Luis Villatoro, a former parliamentary adviser, was jailed last month for six years for a series of physical and verbal assaults on his ex-girlfriend.
Omar Flores, a lawyer from Fespad, said the sentence set a precedent for El Salvadoran women who he hoped would now feel more confident in reporting similar abuses.
But, despite these noteworthy examples, implementation of the legislation has so far been slow.
Here, boys are bought up to think they own girls and women - that they have the right to use their bodies however they want.
Several senior judges have denounced the Special Integrated Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women as “unconstitutional”, insisting they would not implement it in their courts, Barrios said.
Amnesty International said the law would only protect women if attitudes within law enforcement changed.
“We are still hearing about women left in dangerous situations due to the failure of police and justice officials to ensure protection orders are delivered and complied with. There are cases of the judiciary failing to apply the new law, resulting in lesser penalties for perpetrators,” Esther Major, Amnesty’s El Salvador expert, told Al Jazeera.
“Officials must be properly trained and, crucially, held to account, when they fail to ensure women are protected from acts of violence.”
Bessy Martinez, a 20-year-old from rural Chalatenango, was raped in her own home at the age of seven by her step-father’s nephew. Martinez is a child born out of sexual violence – the result of her mother being raped at the age of 16. Neither mother nor daughter has seen justice.
“The boy who raped me was only 16 or 17, but he was always trying to touch us young girls as we bathed in the lake,” Martinez told Al Jazeera. “He told me that he would kill my family if I told anyone, so I kept quiet for many years. I blamed my mum for leaving us alone with him, but when I eventually told her what had happened, she was angry at me.”
Martinez is now part of a youth group sponsored by Plan International, supporting other young victims, but also trying to shift the attitudes of her peers.
“Here, boys are bought up to think they own girls and women – that they have the right to use their bodies however they want,” she said. “That machismo culture is our biggest problem and that’s what we are trying to change.”
*Names of victims have been changed to protect identities.
Follow Nina Lakhani on Twitter: @ninalakhani