The first time Adelina Ortiz's husband physically attacked her, she wanted to make sure it was the only time. Although he had never hit her before, he regularly insulted her. Ortiz had always endured this, until one spring evening in 2007 when her husband came home drunk and physically abusive.
"He insulted us and beat me up," she says, tears welling up with the memory. Ortiz recounts the ordeal in her dirt-floor house in the department of Ahuachapan, sitting on a simple wood chair, holding her four-year-old daughter Melissa—her youngest. "One of my children said to me, 'Mama, let's get out of here,' so we went outside."
That spring night, outside their blue concrete house, the threats continued. "He insulted me so much... saying I was worthless, I had no future, and that it was better for him to kill me and the children."
Ortiz had to take action because her husband was a police officer and had a firearm. The family took shelter at a neighbor's house, and Ortiz called the police. Her husband was arrested the next morning. She and her children were safe for the moment, but in his drunken rage he had burned all their clothes.
A deadly place for women
The hills in Ahuachapan are bright green after a rainy summer. Blue and yellow butterflies fly lazily among the coffee trees along the dirt roads, and the sun is warm and comforting. It looks peaceful, making the violent confrontation Ortiz describes seem out of place. But in this small country of six million, widespread violence tends to be particularly deadly for women.
El Salvador is still recovering from a 13-year civil war that saw 75,000 people killed and nearly 8,000 "disappeared." It is a politically polarized society, torn between a small business elite, which dominates commerce and the government, and the majority struggling in poverty. Socially, men are dominant: It is a machista culture that holds many women in submissive roles in the family, raising children and doing other work in the home. Roughly half of Salvadorans live in poverty, and women head about 25 percent of households, so the abuse of and discrimination against women contributes directly to keeping them poor and in their subservient role in society.
There is a paucity of data on violence against women in El Salvador, but what few details are available tell a brutal story: In a country about the geographic size of Massachusetts, the rate of "femicide" in El Salvador was 11.15 per 100,000 women in 2005, far exceeding Guatemala's rate (population nearly 13 million) of 7.96 for that same year, according to a 2006 report by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. The same report shows the numbers of women murdered in El Salvador inching up slowly from 2001, when there were 211 women killed, to 260 in 2004, before jumping to 390 in 2005. The 2006 total was 437, according to Yanira Argueta, director of the Association of Salvadoran Women. "The situation is critical," she says at a meeting in her office in San Salvador. "Public officials are not sensitive to the problem, and there is no good application of the laws."
Part of the problem is public perception. A 2006 poll by CS Sondeo found that only about 83 percent of people in El Salvador believe that rape is a crime—which means that more than 15 percent don't consider it a criminal act.
Whether rape, murder, assault, or even psychological abuse, violence against women is more than an injustice or a human rights violation: it is an investment in the social status quo that keeps men on top and women below them. And it prevents women from fully contributing to the two changes El Salvador desperately needs: an end to poverty and the building of democracy.