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Saving lives in El Salvador

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Art, music, and parades are all part of a campaign in El Salvador to change entrenched attitudes about gender violence in the country. At the heart of the initiative is education. Piloted in 53 schools, the campaign has now reached almost 62,000 students and trained more than 2,000 teachers. Photo: René Figueroa / Oxfam America

Oxfam’s work to prevent gender violence in Central America is progressing, but, as an external evaluator concluded, the program is at a crucial juncture.

Our objective

To help to reduce violence against women through systemic changes—from changing cultural attitudes to reforming the national judicial and legal system.

Evaluative approach

Oxfam commissioned a strategic review of its program activities (2013–15) at the national level with a focus on the judicial and legal system. The review was based primarily on interviews with government officials, collaborating organizations, and three partner organizations in El Salvador and Guatemala.

What did we learn?

The reviewer concluded that Oxfam had made concrete progress institutionalizing laws that protect women and facilitating their implementation. She commended Oxfam for its commitment, because advocacy organizations “often fail to follow through once a policy victory is achieved.”

She found the program sustainable and efficient: despite a very modest budget, it was successful at making the most of these resources through cofinancing and collaboration.

Since a primary objective of Oxfam’s work has been to ensure that public officials faithfully support laws that protect women, it was seen as a strong sign of progress that “an increasing number of sensitized officials are in positions of authority.” These include justices on the Salvadoran Supreme Court and higher-ups in key divisions in ministries. This is especially true in El Salvador, given the longer duration of our program there.

Overall, there is evidence that the program’s earlier legislative and policy wins have been significant and that the program has had impact on individual judges, lawyers, students, and teachers. What is disappointing—although certainly not a criticism of Oxfam’s efforts—is that there is not yet any “clear evidence of greater access to gender justice for women, especially when national statistics are considered.”

The reviewer went on to say that the program has had to overcome “enormous challenges given the level of societal violence and the extent of reforms needed in the judicial and legal systems in both countries. Even under the best of circumstances, trying to bring about a major cultural shift is a generational struggle.”

In considering the future of the program and what role Oxfam should play, the reviewer identifies this as a pivotal moment. She recommended that Oxfam think hard about how to translate “training to action on scale.” In El Salvador, she recommended a big push over the next three years.

In Guatemala, despite strong work thus far, the program is small and has not been effectively integrated with other gender justice work by Oxfam. The reviewer’s thinking on this was unequivocal: “This is a lost opportunity, if we take the El Salvador case as a strong ‘proof of concept.’“

Evidence in Guatemala to date suggests that there is both support from the government and communities for this work. The program could potentially move from incremental progress to more accelerated change, especially if it can achieve greater scale. Oxfam has been undergoing review of all our programs and moving money into strategic priorities by cutting smaller projects. The reviewer’s recommendation was as much financial as theoretical: she highlighted the importance of funding to allow Oxfam to invest in growing the program in Guatemala. To do otherwise, she concluded, “would be inconsistent with the gender justice focus of the Oxfam strategic plan … and Oxfam’s profile as a reliable and committed advocate for gender justice.”

Muthoni Muriu, Oxfam America’s director of international programs, explains: “The initial investment in Guatemala’s program to prevent violence against women was tiny, but the need is great. Attracting funding in order to accelerate the pace of change has been difficult; violence against women is a full-scale crisis in Central America, but it is not reported as such.”

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