Suyapa Maldonado: a lifelong struggle for justice

By Elizabeth Stevens
“With Suyapa in leadership, women in vulnerable communities of El Salvador have a powerful voice in emergencies.” - Victor Sanchez, Coordinator of Agriculture and Livestock for PROCOMES, a Salvadoran NGO. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

Since she was a child, Suyapa Maldonado has made fighting for the most vulnerable her core mission—and not even hurricanes and the most powerful El Niño on record will make her waiver.

El Salvador is a country at risk. Floods and earthquakes are common, and they often trigger landslides that send trees and boulders crashing into fragile rural homes, and rivers of mud that bury the wreckage. Hurricanes blow in from both east and west, volcanoes erupt from time to time, and drought has devastated crops for years on end. Natural events aren’t the worst of what El Salvador has contended with: for 12 long years, civil war wracked the country, killing more than 75,000 people in a nation the size of Massachusetts. In recent years, gang violence has swept the region, and El Salvador has become one of the murder capitals of the world.

In the midst of the country’s struggles, a coalition of 23 Salvadoran organizations has come together to help manage disaster risks, to advocate for strong national policies, and to address root causes of emergencies. Its goal—to strengthen the most vulnerable communities – is also the lifelong mission of the woman who works at the center of it all: Suyapa Maldonado.

Fighter from an early age

Maldonado is the facilitator of the coalition, which is known as the Permanent Roundtable for Risk Management—a group she represented at the climate talks in Paris in December 2015.

“People in power don’t intimidate Suyapa,” says colleague Moises Batres. And no wonder. She has been a fighter from an early age.

“When I was young, often all we had to eat for the day was one tortilla. To make it taste good, we put sugar on it,” says Maldonado. “I started picking coffee when I was six.”

In the wake of an earthquake when she was 12, she moved with her family to a shack made of wood and plastic that was swept away by a landslide a few months later. By age 13 she had left home and was already an activist in the capital city, organizing youth around issues of social justice in the midst of a brutal civil war.

A bowl of beans grown by América López Enríquez, a widowed farmer who lives near the town of Berlin. Due to the erratic weather El Niño has brought to Central America, López Enríquez lost her first harvest of 2015 to drought; then heavy rains rotted most of her second crop. She salvaged what she could of her bean harvest to feed her children. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

Defending lives and dignity

The armed conflict ended in 1992, but Maldonado’s fight continued. For eight years she worked on behalf of at-risk youth, helping them find training and employment—alternatives to lives of drugs and violence. Now, her struggle against poverty and injustice focuses on people who live in constant danger from hazards like droughts, floods, landslides, and epidemics.  Women are her special concern: she’s seen up close what happens when poverty, discrimination, and disasters collide.

In her role with the Roundtable, she works to bring about lasting change by reforming policies at the national level.

“We are trying to influence reforms to the civil protection law and establish a national policy on disaster risk reduction,” says Batres.  Maldonado, he says, is an unstoppable force in the campaign.

But when a disaster like the El Niño drought strikes, at times you will find her in struggling communities like Mercedes Umaña and Berlin, delivering food and chickens to families that have lost their crops and incomes. “Suyapa is a 4X4 colleague,” says Sanchez, ready to jump into a vehicle and get out into the countryside to be sure the programs in rural areas are going well.

“For Suyapa, humanitarian work is far more than a job. It is a passion,” says Victor Sanchez of PROCOMES, a Salvadoran development NGO and member of the Roundtable. “She has been particularly effective in raising women’s issues in the humanitarian community in El Salvador. She doesn’t settle for organizations meeting gender goals on paper; she insists on quality programs that really help women.”

“She knows how to build trust with people in the communities,” says Batres. “She does it through her language, in how she sits, in how she links to people. She conveys caring and respect.”

And that trust is well-founded. Maldonado is dedicated to upholding the dignity and strengthening the resilience of the people she considers her own.

The guiding principle of her life is rooted in pain and compassion, and she explains it simply: “My family suffered from poverty and injustice. I don’t want others to do the same.” 


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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