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A new campaign led by women

By Chris Hufstader

In 2005, Oxfam America joined with four other development and women's rights organizations to address the vulnerability of women in El Salvador by challenging the government to provide better protection; training and mobilizing women and men to change the machista culture in the country; and raising public consciousness through the media, street theatre, and other public events. What emerged is a campaign under the slogan "Entre Vos y Yo, Una Vida Diferente" ("Between you and Me, A Different Life") that is calling for new laws to protect women, as well as the financial commitment to back up the laws at both the local and national levels. Along with better laws and policies, members of the coalition are training public officials such as police officers, judges, doctors, and social workers to be more sensitive to gender violence in their work, recognize the signs of abuse, and take steps to stop crimes against women. Six communities have made public commitments to the campaign and have stepped up their efforts to help women affected by violence.

The next generation

One of the goals of the campaign is to increase the number of women who understand their rights and can effectively defend them as Adelina Ortiz did. To help educate the next generation, the campaign developed a program for teachers and schoolchildren in 2007 that teaches young people about how to prevent gender violence and what to do if they are attacked.

"We used to talk about gender equity here," says Patricia Jovel. "But never gender violence." Jovel is the director of a school participating in this new initiative in El Progreso, a village perched on the impossibly steep Quetzaltepeque volcano outside San Salvador. The school, where 850 students from 6 to 16 years old attend classes in two half-day groups, is a collection of six cinderblock classrooms topped by metal sheet roofing on either side of a terraced concrete courtyard sloping down the mountainside. It is a beehive of activity after classes, as without any level area for a playground, the students play tag around the central courtyard in the brisk mountain air. Jovel says the young women who sometimes have to walk home in the dark after school are now better equipped to fend off the young men offering drinks and cigarettes to them. "Thank God there have been no rapes," she says.

The students have learned their lessons well: Karla Sanchez, 15, says it is a matter of her basic rights. "Everyone must respect our rights as children, girls, youth. We all have the same rights, and no one can violate them. And if something should happen, we know we can tell our parents, our teachers, or adults we trust. They are here to help us," she explains patiently. And if these people can't help, she knows where to go. She lists a number of institutions where she can turn for protection: the Human Rights Office; the National Police; and the Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women, known as ISDEMU. As she leaves, Sanchez articulates one essential idea about reporting gender violence: "We should not be afraid of what people say."

In 2007, this pilot project in 53 schools exposed 25,000 students to the key messages of the campaign and trained 1,000 students and 1,000 teachers. The teachers now have incorporated violence prevention into their curriculum, and they work with the trained students. The pilot was supported by the Ministry of Education and was such a success that the minister decided to incorporate it into the public school curriculum nationwide.

Changes in attitude

Sustained pressure to change societal attitudes toward women is a slow process. One effective way to question long-held ideas and beliefs is to educate those entrusted with defending the rights of women, protecting them in the community, and helping them if they are attacked or injured. These include public officials like police officers, judges, public health officials and doctors, and social workers. The campaign organized a formal training program at the University of Central America (UCA) in 2005, and 45 people attended.

Maritza de Vasquez, a psychologist at the family court in the city of San Marcos, just outside San Salvador, says this training has helped her assist the many women who come through her office. De Vasquez says that women are hearing the messages of the campaign and are taking action to protect themselves. In the steady stream of domestic violence and divorce cases she sees, there is a different attitude. "Women take the opportunity to come here and talk about their situation they come here right away to denounce it," she says. "They are expressing their rights more openly now."

Back in Ahuachapan, Ortiz grows corn and raises sheep to support her children and grandchildren. He husband is in jail awaiting a hearing. "I'd rather see him in prison than anywhere else," Ortiz says. It was her participation in a sheep-raising program run by one of Oxfam America's partners, Association of Salvadoran Agriculturalists (AGROSAL), that exposed Ortiz to the human rights training that helped her defend her own life and protect her children. She points out that in all her training to become a health worker, no one ever educated her about domestic violence or how to prevent it. "The training taught me that women have rights and people are obligated to respect them," Ortiz says. "This made me act, to look for help, and thank God I found it."