Hundreds of Salvadoran women were out on the streets of San Salvador, capital of the small Central American country of El Salvador, in late November, celebrating International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But, for many of these women, a life of respect and equity in this country, considered one of the most violent in Latin America, is still an unfulfilled dream.
"El Salvador is a country with one of the highest rates of femicide (the killing of women) in the world, according to the United Nation’s Population Fund,” said Carolina Castrillo, director of Oxfam America’s Central America, Mexico, and Caribbean regional office. In fact, over the past three years, the number of femicides in El Salvador has increased from 28 to 46 a month.
That is one reason why, on Nov. 25, legislators voted to approve (by a 75-9 margin) the Special Integral Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women. "The penalty for femicide will be between 30 and 50 years of imprisonment," said Mariela Pinto, chair of the Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs in the legislative assembly. The new law also provides penalties—such as fines and jail sentences—for other crimes, such as pornography, psychological abuse, and negative or hateful messages.
Beyond penalization: prevention
An important and innovative aspect of this new law is that it addresses gender-based violence from a prevention perspective and broadens the definition beyond domestic violence. (Gender-based violence also can occur in public spaces, workplaces, etc.) Effective January 1, 2012, the law will be binding in the public sphere, such as ministries and the media. This means government institutions, such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Public Health, as well the Public Attorney’s office and the National Prosecutor’s office will be bound by law to do their part in the prevention of violence against women and children.
"Some institutions already are taking steps in this direction," says Mélida Guevara, program coordinator for Oxfam America’s gender program in the region. "For our Campaign for the Prevention of Gender Violence [an initiative of Oxfam America in collaboration with nine Salvadoran organizations], the Ministry of Education is a very important ally, in incorporating gender-based violence and its prevention within school curricula.”
“We also signed an agreement with the Sub-Ministry of Local Development,” she continues. “This coming year, we will bring theater and performance art, as well as training in basic gender concepts and the prevention of gender-based violence, to communities within which the ministry already works. But it takes much more coordination effort and work to change habits, roles, and beliefs. If we talk about a culture of prevention, we talk about changing the way we have been doing things for decades, even centuries. And that entails a long process, in which we all have to do our share.”
Two points of view included in one law
The new law is a product of two different proposals, one of which the female assembly members authored. These members participated in an intensive certificate course on gender-based violence, another initiative of the Campaign for the Prevention of Gender Violence. The Feminist Alliance, an alliance of several Salvadoran feminist organizations in El Salvador, authored the other proposal. The assemblywomen’s proposal stressed prevention; the proposal from the Feminist Alliance stressed penalization. The proposals complemented each other and came to make one multi-faceted law—a major victory for Salvadorans.
“This is a remarkable achievement,” said Guevara. “The Campaign’s certificate course for the assemblywomen, which resulted in the proposal, dates from 2008. It required constant work with the assemblywomen and their advisors from all the different parties. First, the women themselves had to be sensitized and find each other in a cause that goes beyond ideology. Then, as the course went on, we could see them become more and more committed, and start to advocate for gender equity as part of all the government bodies in which they take part.”
Over, the coming year, Oxfam America and its local partners will be among many civil society organizations working on a widespread education effort to teach Salvadorans, civil society, and government players about the law’s contents and the sort of conditions that need to be created to make effective implementation possible.