El Salvador elections: Putting women’s rights on the agenda

Women’s rights should become part of the citizens’ security agenda.

El Salvador has one of the highest femicide rates in the world [AFP]

Jenny Peirce’s recent piece about El Salvador on the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog, Sin Miedos, questioned where women’s voices fit into discussions surrounding the (in)famous gang truce brokered in 2012. While Pierce’s question remains salient, perhaps at a more fundamental level, there should be a question about where women’s voices fit into ideas of security in El Salvador more generally. As elections rapidly approach, it is important to observe whether promises for women’s rights will indeed enter the agenda of the new president.

In 2010, a Special Law for Women was passed in El Salvador. The Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres (The Special and Comprehensive Law for a Life Free from Violence for Women) was approved on November 25, 2010, and entered into force on January 1, 2012. According to the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development (ISDEMU) – a formal state institution – the law is an answer to the deepening of diverse forms of violence against women.

People & Power – Life at any price

A legal solution?

The passage of the Special Law marks a historical moment for feminist activists and Salvadoran women’s organisations, who have spent many years campaigning for legal reform for wider protection of women’s rights. This law, in tandem with a new Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law, will theoretically replace the use of the Intra-family Violence Law in matters dealing with violence against women. For many years, this legal structure has upheld traditional family values, often at the expense of women’s physical and psychological protection.

Although the Special Law was put into action over two years ago, there is a discrepancy between what it prescribes and how – or more importantly, if – it is implemented. For example, the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reports that of the 63 cases [Es] of femicide they registered in the past sixteen months, only 16 were classified by judges as such (as opposed to homicides), indicating the judges’ refusal to implement the Special Law. 

Indeed, the inclusion of legislation on femicide in the Special Law itself is flawed given the legal opening for an arbitrary interpretation of a gendered crime (that is, who decides whether a homicide committed against a woman was done because she is a woman?). With rates of 12 murders [Es] of women per 100,000 inhabitants, even with definitional discrepancies, the Interamerican Commission of Women has said that the phenomenon has reached levels close to those of a pandemic.

It should be noted that since the passage of the Special Law, the rate of femicide has decreased, as reported by the National Civilian Police (PNC) and ISDEMU reports. One must hesitate, however, to conclude that based on this observation violence against women has altogether decreased.

Silvia Juarez, who works at the violence observatory project run through ORMUSA, is less concerned about the lack of quantitative clarity in the Law (which she had a hand in writing). Instead, she is more worried about the broader acceptance of violence against women in El Salvador. In a personal interview, she said that since 2011 femicides have decreased, but the number of reported cases of sexual and psychological violence have increased. Furthermore, as the recently-released documentary El Ingeniero highlights, disappeared bodies do not figure among either femicide or homicide statistics. 

Women’s rights as a security issue

Passed under the government of Mauricio Funes – the first FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) president to be elected since the creation of the party after the end of the civil war – the Special Law has at least set a precedence for the need to address women’s issues as a factor in citizens’ security.

In September 2012, the first location of Ciudad Mujer opened in Usulutan. The project, now led by the Secretary of Social Inclusion (Funes’ wife, Vanda Pignato) is designed to create a unified space for women seeking resources from the state. For example, Ciudad Mujer locations (currently five, and two more to open soon) include access to medical and legal aid and a PNC (National Police) post. They also offer skills workshops to improve economic opportunities for women.

People & Power – El Salvador: Quest for Justice

Interviews I conducted with leaders of women’s rights organisations, including Isabel Guevara of MSM (Salvadoran Women’s Movement) and Deysi Cheyne of IMU (the Institute of Research, Training, and Development for Women) shed doubt on the panacea promises of Ciudad Mujer. They worry that the project is a gimmick designed to garner votes for the FMLN in the elections on February 2. On a more fundamental level, leaders criticise the lack of organisational training offered by Ciudad Mujer. For Guevara and Cheyne – both with personal histories rooted in the guerrilla FMLN during the civil war – the skills to organise against violence at community level is of paramount importance in the effort to bring legitimacy to the Special Law.

Many women, especially in rural areas, are unaware that legal measures exist for their physical and emotional wellbeing. Leaders of women’s organisations I interviewed have argued that community organising can help women gain enough social capital and confidence to report gendered crimes and put pressure on state institutions to comply with the Special Law.

In the February 2 elections, it is a positive development that all major presidential candidates have included women’s issues in their electoral campaigns. It is hard to tell whether their promises will translate into actions and bring the issue of gender into citizens’ security.

Some politicians have chosen to approach the women’s rights issue from a conservative perspective. ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance Party) candidate Norman Quijano, for example, openly promotes conservative family values. His idea of women’s rights does not really align with that promoted by Salvadoran women’s rights organisations, such as those mentioned above. However, the fact that Quijano and the other major candidate consider women’s issues important enough to include on their agendas, represents a major change from previous elections.

Hopefully, with a solid foothold in the presidential platforms, women will be able to make more demands on the state in terms of actually guaranteeing the application of the Special Law.

Julia Zulver is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her upcoming thesis focuses on women’s mobilisation in El Salvador.