Lessons from Feminist Organisation in El Salvador
#CommunitySolutions #Feminism | In February, I did an interview with a work colleague on the feminist and womens’ rights movements in El Salvador for the issue of Eirene Suisses magazine Point d’? - Du local au global: La société civile lutte pour le féminisme (which is where you can find the French version ;)).
With the Covid-19 crisis, the publication has been delayed and it's no longer so "timely", but I definitely wanted to share this with you because she is one of the most inspiring and intelligent people I’ve met!
Hi, Marta. Thank you very much for telling us about Salvadoran women's rights organizations and their experiences. How would you like to introduce yourself to the Swiss readers of Punto d'?
I am Marta, a defender of “territories without violence”. I defend human rights in general and, in particular, those of women, the sexual and gender diversity community, children, rural and indigenous people. I come from the northern zone of El Salvador, from Santa Marta, a historic rural community of freedom fighters, and a farming family. I have been working with ADES since 2013.
How did you come to define yourself as a women’s rights defender, as a feminist?
I think for all of us it is a process - you don't just wake up one day and say "I'm a feminist!" - and we have different paths. I owe my identification as a women's rights defender to my work within ADES, and to different national and international exchanges and movements that have gradually informed and shaped me.
I would say that the biggest influences were a colleague of mine, with whom I worked on the defense of territories, and my involvement with the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, as well as the Feminist Collective. Before 2015, I primarily defined myself as a social worker, working mainly with youth. Then I started seeing myself as a human right’s defender. Since 2015, I also identify as a women’s rights defender.
What structures in El Salvador support your work as a women's rights defender?
At the level of public laws, since 2011 we have the Law of Equality, Equity and Eradication of Discrimination against Women, which introduced many interesting tools and mechanisms. Thanks to this law, sexual and reproductive education in schools has improved (although it’s still not that great) and a more holistic approach to Women's health is being promoted. There is a classification of gender violence that recognizes - and thus makes visible - many types of violence, starting at sexist jokes and ending with feminicide (see the "Violentometro"). But the challenge remains in the implementation of the law.
The main pillar however are the civil society; organizations and communities working at the national and regional level. They have years of experience in defending the environment, defending the right's of Women, defending the right to sexual diversity and demanding sexual and reproductive rights. Others work on changing the publics perception, through education and sensibilisation in independent and alternative radios and news outlets. There are also national organizations that work in my department, such as the Colectiva Feminista, the Alliance for Sovereignty and Governance in El Salvador or the National Health Forum, or the Network of Women Human Rights Defenders. Today, we have to work on improving the organization and mobilization at territorial and regional levels, in addition to the existing national structures.
A very important part of the puzzle are the communal women’s organizations, many of which have become leaders in the defense of environmental rights and other human rights. A large percentage of families in El Salvador are women-led households, often single mothers. So women are also rethinking the notion of economic activities and building one based on a feminist solidarity economy model. They collectivize labor and create spaces to share ideas, create a sisterhood, and support each other rather than following the economic mantra of competition.
Another way in which they are breaking with historic cycles of economic exclusion or marginalisation is by insisting on and investing in the education of their children - boys and girls. Today, it is normal that women have the right to study.
This outdated vision of "The home to the woman, the street to the man" has changed a lot.
Not only are women engaging and shaping the economy, there are more and more men who take on care responsibilities for the family, who assume their responsibilities of fatherhood. So, we can see a shift in gender norms.
The country's 21 community radio stations have been essential to this social change. In Cabañas, Radio Victoria has taken a strong stand behind the demands of the feminist movement. It reports their work and demands and talks about the realities of gender-based violence. They have voiced their support for the proposed law in recognition of equal marriage and gender identities.
Thus, the radio has become an educational strategy. This has left its mark on the way the issue of gender is now perceived in the communities, and promotes respect for the queer community.
It seems there is quite a broad and diverse set of organizations and people supporting, defending and fighting for women’s rights?
Well, yes and no. Women are the dominant "masses" in almost every mass movement that defends the fundamental rights to life, such as the defense of the environment, the defense of water, the right to food, in the defense of land rights and territories. They are the ones at the demonstrations, at the meetings, and a large part of the volunteers.
However, mixed organizations are hardly involved and rarely support specific feminist movements, motions, or demonstrations. Just to be clear: I’m not saying we need men to dictate to women how they should manage their movement.
Rather, we are asking that men and mixed organizations join these so-called "women's" struggle and support them actively.
Social organizations in El Salvador promote equal conditions for all, equal participation in decision-making, inclusion in the exercise of power. There is a lot of political clarity, but it seems to be very difficult to internalize it within the organization.
Often, power remains in the hands of the more experienced/older men - even if the public figure of an organization might be a woman.
Sometimes, people say that women simply don’t want the responsibility, or didn't take an opportunity when it was offered them. But we have to recognize that women and men have different social responsibilities, and - especially in relation to care - they often carry more social responsibilities. These responsibilities change a lot over time and with the age of the children or parents.
So, it is important not to just "give" the opportunity once, but to leave the door open so that she knows that as soon as her other responsibilities allow for it, she can take on the responsibility.
These are issues that need to be strengthened not only in mixed organizations, but also in women's and feminist organizations. They are still very focused on the elder generations and sometimes decade old power-struggles undermine efforts of collective decision making.
These struggles within the movement in El Salvador sound very familiar to the Swiss context as well.
What are some of the key issues in El Salvador, related to Women's Rights, the movement(s) are tackling?
Unfortunately, there are many situations that violate women's rights. At the forefront are the right to decide about your body, and gender-based violence.
Since 1998, the termination of a pregnancy is illegal.
The feminist movement is divided itno two camps: some fighting for the right to legal abortions, regardless of the cause; and others fight for the so-called "four causalities": the right to interrupt a pregnancy if 1) the foetus couldn't survive outside of the womb, 2) the woman's life is endangerd by the pregnancy, 3) the pregnancy is the result of rape 4) pregnancies in underage girls, resulting of statutory rape.
The current penalty for abortion is 8 years in prison.
However, many women are convicted for “aggravated homicide” with a penalty of 30 to 40 years.
A gender-based discrimination in the application of the Criminal Code becomes strikingly apparent here: For the same crime category (aggravated homicide), men receive an average sentence of 20 – 25 years.
There are 17 known cases, and 147 supposed cases of women that have had miscarriages - not abortions! - and were charged with aggravated homicide. All of them are poor, come from rural communities, and were denounced in public hospitals.
We have already talked about the different levels of gender-based violence in the "Violentometro". The feminist movement is very active in denouncing gender-based violence in all its forms, and demanding the law be upheld.
Sometimes, the violence is less visible or apparent: The National Health Forum, for example, works a lot on obstetric violence in hospitals.
Hospital staff routinely treats women as if they are not capable of understanding the complicated procedures, or taking decisions about their own lives.
This structural violence expresses itself in attitudes and practices that limit women's autonomy, to the point of rejecting or imposing sterilization against the patient's will.
The most extreme level of violence is femicide, homicides motivated by a hate of women, or the view of women as property or worth less. El Salvador remains the country with the highest rate of femicides, on average two women per day are killed in feminicides. The State does not take a stand on this issue and does not give sufficient resources to the institutions that are trying to fight this.
Why do you think El Salvador has both one of the highest rates of gender-based violence and the least regard for women’s rights to decide over their body?
Our society is largely misogynist. It is constantly looking for any mistake or fault a woman can make, for an opportunity to condemn her – either socially or legally.
Culturally, El Salvador is a very conservative country, and the church/beliefs play a very strong role. Many of the churches in El Salvador imposes a morality that is particularly strict on women, and limits or eliminates some of the rights of women.
The state is secular, yes, but the beliefs of individuals and officials bleed into their politics.
So the state continues to be silent about violations of women’s rights and bodies, or put’s the fault on them, on women’s lack of morality, and on women’s responsibility to uphold men’s morality.
There is an appalling case in Mexico currently that illustrates this perfectly: At the beginning of February 2020, a couple kidnapped a 7 year old girls who was later found raped, murdered, and with missing organs. While the actions of the couple are horrific, the social treatment of the woman and the man were very different.
Often, in cases of gender-based violence, the victim is put at blame for being in a certain place, at a certain time, dressed a certain way. The victim was not blamed this time - because she was a girl. But the media did condemn her mother, who wasn’t on time to pick up her daughter at school. And they condemned the woman who kidnapped the girl for her partner.
They said nothing about the abuse and threats she and her children had been receiving from her partner. They said little about the man who had instigated the kidnapping and raped the girl. They said nothing about the international mafia and organ traffickers. They said nothing about the utter silence of the president and the state in the face of structural gender violence.
Silence is violence - whether you are the state, the media, a family member, a civil organnisation.
Everybody kept focusing on the mother, and the female criminal. You realize that you live in a society that - no matter what you do – it will always be the womans fault. She is scrutinized and condemned more heavily. There are a different set of rules for men and women, and the laws are applied differently.
Laws are created from a male perspective and in a way that favors men. And because of that, the States continues to be responsible for the violation of women’s rights.
You mentioned that you travel a bit for work and bring perspectives from El Salvador and Central America to international human rights debates. You’ve also visited Geneva on one of those occasion. Is there anything in particular that you would like to share with our Swiss readers?
Yes: El Salvador is more than a murder statistic. It is interesting to learn more about how the feminist movement positions itself, how community mobilisation works, the creative ways of protesting, and also how alternative media work. Movements from all over the world can learn from each other, and from the Salvadoran experience.
In direct relation to Switzerland, one issue I find important would be to put pressure on the UN Human Rights Council to define a legally binding treaty that would oblige companies to respect human rights and environmental rights. One of Switzerland's responsibilities is to monitor Swiss companies and banks that finance transnational corporations and to ensure they don’t/they stop violating human rights.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about this and for teaching us about and defending human and particularly women's rights!
*Regarding her last point, you might have heard about an Initiative in Switzerland called "Multinationales Responsables" or "Konzernverantwortungsinitiative"