Outside the home of Gilma Molina de Vasquez, 30 women sit patiently on chairs and benches under trees decorated with balloons and colorful paper streamers shaking in the mild wind. Trucks roar past in low gear as the women strain to hear the words of their attorney, who is reading through the articles of incorporation for a new women's organization. When he finishes, the women sign official documents to be filed with the government. Molina de Vasquez is among the first. The women take turns holding each other's infants to allow the mothers to add their signatures. In a little over a month, they will have an official nonprofit organization.
Molina de Vasquez worked hard to get the group established because she wants women to have opportunities to work outside their homes so they can broaden their horizons. "So many women are mistreated by their husbands," she says. "They need to know about their rights and feel capable of doing things."
"I would like to get women to know about their rights and duties, and to increase their self-esteem. We can help ourselves and our families, care for our children, and earn income to change our lives."
When asked why helping other women is so important to her, she says, "Let me tell you a little about my own life; then you will know."
A leader emerges
The details come spilling out; she's like someone who walks away from a serious car accident, describing how lucky she is just to be alive. Mistreated by her father, her mother abused, Molina de Vasquez was married at 14 to a soldier. "I thought it was a way to escape," she says, "but my life got worse." Her husband was violent, and his family "used to tell me that my job was to have children and take care of my husband." When she failed to deliver a child for the first three years of their marriage, "I was useless to them," Molina de Vasquez says with a sigh.
But others could see that she was a leader. When their first child went to kindergarten, she was chosen to be the president of the parents' board at the school. "When I told my husband, he was angry. He told me I was not capable of it. I accepted this; he always told me I was good for nothing. For 11 years it was like that."
Eventually they moved to a rural area and things started to improve. Her husband became an agricultural laborer. They had a son. But Molina de Vasquez wanted to do more activities outside their home, like joining a health training program. Although reluctant to allow her to participate, her husband said she could host training sessions at their home. As part of this training, one of Oxfam's partners, AGROSAL, taught the women about their rights and how to prevent domestic violence. It was part of the Vida Diferente campaign to prevent gender violence.
Dialogue, not violence
"I started to listen to talks about preventing violence in the home," Molina de Vasquez says. "I learned about my rights." Since her husband allowed her to hold the meetings at their house, Molina de Vasquez took a risk: "I invited him to the talks and training sessions, and he became more sensitive." Together, she and her husband questioned the gender roles and attitudes in the machista culture in El Salvador, and they recreated their relationship. "Now my husband and I solve problems through dialogue, not violence," Molina de Vasquez says. He now recognizes how important it is for her to use her leadership skills. "If someone asks me to do something, I will do it because I know my husband will not say no."
Molina de Vasquez is committed to the new women's organization: "First I would like to get women to know about their rights and duties, and to increase their self-esteem." She says there are practical reasons for this, which leads to the second goal: "We need jobs for all the women. We can help ourselves and our families, care for our children, and earn income to change our lives." For Molina de Vasquez, respect for women and fighting poverty are part of the same struggle.
The changes in Molina de Vasquez's family are hard to compare to the earlier, oppressive days. "I have overcome it—so why can't I help other women? That is my goal: to help many other women."