Karen Ramírez: Committed to the unprotected

By Elizabeth Stevens
Karen Ramírez, project manager for Oxfam partner Provida in San Juan Loma Alta, El Salvador Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

For the last 20 years, Karen Ramírez has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of El Salvador’s poorest – especially in emergencies.

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war is seared into the memories of the people who lived through it—survivors like Karen Ramírez.

“My mother and father taught us about fairness,” says Ramírez. “They wanted us to understand that having a roof over our heads and food to eat and access to education was a privilege that many people are excluded from. They taught us to share what we had. My father was very committed to social justice. When I was ten, we watched a death squad take him away. We never saw him again.”

For some, like Ramírez, wartime atrocities spawned a passion for justice, and an unshakeable sense of solidarity with people in poor communities who still struggle to survive.

“What makes Karen so significant,” says Arnoldo Cruz, El Salvador’s director of environmental health, “is her commitment to the unprotected.”

The right to water

It was 20 years ago as a graduate student in chemistry pharmacology studying water quality in western El Salvador that Ramírez took a hard look at water access. She could see that while people with power and money had access to all the water they wanted and more, too often those who lived in poor communities had to invest hours each day getting the minimum they needed for survival. It was an injustice that moved and angered her—and one where, with her technical background, she felt she could make a difference.

And she has.

Ramírez holds meetings with community members to get feedback on PRO-VIDA’s food voucher program, and to help them make plans to face the ongoing El Niño crisis. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

From the capital city to the far-flung rural communities, Ramírez is known for her work on water—from installing wells designed to resist contamination, to improving access to water in emergencies, to advocating for community access to water and safe sanitation.

When Oxfam and partners set out to build a national team of effective local humanitarian responders in El Salvador, Karen became the key technical trainer. For more than ten years, she helped the national team and many community volunteers become experts in providing clean water and sanitation in emergencies—a job once considered the domain of international aid providers. Over time, she has helped boost the government’s understanding of international humanitarian standards, and its ability to adhere to them. Now, much of her humanitarian work is focused on building networks, with the goal of improving communication between those who bear the brunt of disasters and the authorities whose responsibility it is to help them.

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“In rural areas in El Salvador, many communities have poor access to potable water. In some cases, there isn’t enough; in some cases, it’s contaminated, which means families need to buy water. But these are families that have no money to spare. An emergency like drought or flooding intensifies their struggle for clean drinking water.”

“Karen has helped people understand that access to water is a human right, and she helps communities mobilize to make their demands.” says Yanira Cortéz, an environmental rights advocate in the government’s office of human rights, “When there is a need for local voices on an issue, she will show up with 200 women.”

Though she moves easily in the halls of government, her heart is in the communities. Cruz remembers his first impression of her when he started his job in 2010. Heavy rains had triggered floods, and he had pulled together key actors to discuss their plans. “I called her and said, ‘where are you? We are having a meeting.’ But she was already in the flooded communities, hard at work.”

Ramírez insists that what drives her is not compassion. “It is a commitment to support people in their legitimate fight for their rights.”

And for that she is prepared to take risks. In one part of the country, powerful business interests are threatening to deplete an aquifer that 30,000 people depend on, and Ramírez is in the thick of it.  “Now she is facing down a multinational company,” says Cortéz. “Sometimes I am afraid for her.”

Karen Ramírez, project manager for Oxfam partner PRO-VIDA, walks past a water tank installed by PRO-VIDA in San Juan Loma Alta. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

Plain speaking about emergency response

 “Karen says what she thinks and feels, even if some people don’t like it,” says Xenia Marroquín, a colleague in El Salvador’s Water Forum, a coalition of groups working on water rights.

Ramírez’s critique of the international humanitarian system, for example, is blunt: “Traditional humanitarian response does not strengthen communities or local organizations. It weakens us and makes us dependent. What we need to see more of is the international community helping countries like El Salvador handle emergencies ourselves.”

“Oxfam believes in building on local capacity,” she adds. “Instead of bringing in people to do things for us, they have taught us to do the things ourselves, and we have shared that capacity with other organizations.”

Her vision, she says, is of communities organizing around their own well-being and electing responsible governments—and of those governments reducing disaster risks and helping communities become less vulnerable in every way.

From the bottom of her heart

“Karen is sensitive to the pain of other people. She is able to walk in their shoes,” says Marroquín.  “She is generous and honest and inspiring. There may be things that scare her, but they will not make her yield. There is a saying, ‘when I grow up, I want to be like you.’ Karen is the person you want to be like.”

“Some people work for position or money or to see themselves on camera, but not Karen,” says Cortéz. “She works from the bottom of her heart.”


Right now less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance is used to support local humanitarian organizations in emergencies. It’s time to put more aid resources and decision-making where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict, or other crisis.

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This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local humanitarians who are leading disaster prevention and response in their countries – working to ensure communities are protected and empowered in disasters, conflict or other crisis. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.  

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