A dedicated group of volunteers help women and girls navigate the justice system
Marta Sanchez knows a survivor when she sees one. “When I see a couple on the bus, and the female has suffered violence, you can see it in her eyes, in her face,” Sanchez says. “You can see she is suffering.”
Sanchez is an energetic woman in her 50s, ready to talk and help other women. She and a small group of women volunteers lead an effort to stop violence against women in rural Ahuachapan, about an hour from San Salvador, operating out of the Shaira Ali Cultural Center. It’s a small house on a dirt road where women can get help, if they have been beaten and want to report it to the police, Sanchez and her colleagues can make it happen.
Their work is part of a decades-long campaign by dozens of groups in El Salvador, including Oxfam, to raise awareness of the epidemic of violence against women, and help women to encourage their local government to respect the rights of women to live free from violence.
“We document each case, the date of the attack, name of alleged attacker, how many times it happens,” Sanchez says. “Then we refer the survivor to the correct institution.” She says not all women are ready to take the step to report their cases, and she understands why. “Women are afraid to file complaints, they have no trust in the institutions, so why do it?” One thing she tells survivors is that she and the other women at the Center will accompany them, to make sure they are treated properly by the police and attorney general’s office. And they will follow up on the case, to find out if it is being investigated properly.
The attorney general’s office in particular is aware that Sanchez and others are watching their work. “Now when we go there they get nervous when we ask questions about cases, like ‘why are you always saying it is the woman’s fault when she is beaten?’”
Women from the Shaira Ali Center are working in 29 communities, where they train women and students how to prevent violence, and teach other activists how to do the same training so more and more women and girls can learn about their basic rights and how to protect them.
Karla Gutierrez is the registrar at the Center, she keeps the records for all the active cases they are following. Right now they have 11 cases, and in the past year she knows there have been 14 murders of women in Ahuachapan. She calls them femicides: the murder of a woman for reasons specific to her gender.
One of them was her friend, murdered by her husband. Gutierrez’s friend told her he was eager for more children, but as they already had two young girls (the youngest six months old) she wanted to wait. The husband, a police officer, thought she was being unfaithful. The battered wife had finally made up her mind to report him the night she died, when he came home drunk and killed her right in front of their daughters and then took his own life. “It was because of his macho attitudes and jealousy,” Gutierrez explains.
“I was in a bad way, and my friends supported me,” Gutierrez says. She sat down with Katherine Perez, Marta’s daughter and one of the volunteers at the Center, and they agreed to step up their efforts to help children in the area.
Working at schools had been difficult for the volunteers in the past. Marta Sanchez says at one they found “10 or 12 girls between 14 and 17 who were pregnant… Gang members followed us everywhere, and we really could not work there. There are places where we just can’t work.”
More recently, with help from the Association of Santa Tecla Women (known by its Spanish initials AMT) and Oxfam and several other groups, they are now training students in nearby schools about their basic rights and how to prevent violence. Oxfam’s partners are also teaching students entrepreneurial skills, how to save money, healthy habits and environmentalism, and their rights and obligations as citizens.
“We teach them about their sexual and reproductive rights,” Gutierrez says. “We ally with nurses and doctors in the community so students can learn about birth control methods, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.”
“I’m satisfied if women can know their rights, and they can denounce their aggressor,” Marta Sanchez says, sitting near a small coffee tree outside the Center. “We can save her life if she is about to be murdered, and if we can save her life, we are committed to help and support survivors to live a life free from violence.”