El Salvador Government, Public Health

Women’s Rights Debate Heats Up in El Salvador

El Faro published an article last week discussing the United Nations’ appeal to El Salvador that it amend its laws to accommodate safe access to abortions. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee issued a report last Thursday asking El Salvador to decriminalize abortion and revamp its dismal record of women’s rights violations. The report emphasizes, “El Salvador is one of the only five countries in the Latin America that maintains an absolute prohibition on abortion, including under circumstances when pregnancy endangers the women’s life.”

El Salvador’s laws restricting abortion have become increasingly restrictive in the last two decades.  Until 1998, abortion was illegal except in cases of rape, incest, fetal anomaly, and when the mother’s life or health was at risk.  Starting in 1998, El Salvador instituted a series of reforms restricting women’s access to reproductive service.  Chapter II of El Salvador’s revised Penal Code now “penalizes women who induce their own abortions or give their consent to someone else to induce an abortion; doctors, pharmacists or other health care workers who practice abortions; persons who encourage a woman to have an abortion or provide the financial means to obtain an abortion; and persons who unintentionally cause an abortion.” The penalty ranges from two to eight years in prison. In 1999 the constitution was amended to define a human being “from the moment of conception.” Although El Salvador is party to many international treaties guaranteeing women’s and children’s rights, and although El Salvador’s constitution grants recognition to these treaties and conventions as equal in status to national law, the country continues to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

The UN report also highlights the concern over violence against women and girls in the country, including rape and sexual violence, which it characterized as “pervasive and widespread.”  The report “demonstrates how El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion health services directly violates of women’s and young girls rights to equality, life, liberty, health and be free from torture. Furthermore, it violates every woman’s right to receive medical attention while preserving patient confidentiality, which is violated by medical personal that have been pressured by the police to report these incidents.”

A blog article in yesterday’s Ms. Magazine touched on the concerns over the links between restricting reproductive rights and increased violence against women when discussing the case of Irma Medrano, a Salvadoran woman who fled the country in 1995 and settled in California.  She has been living with her sister and hoped to escape the dangers of her abusive husband back in El Salvador, whom police investigators refused to investigate citing the violence as a private matter.  Although the Obama Administration has previously recognized fear of domestic violence as a justification for asylum, Ms. Medrano is currently in the process of being deported back to El Salvador despite word that her husband will be looking for her once she arrives.

Access to abortion became a subject of public debate earlier this year after Maria Evelyn Martinez, Director of the Salvadoran Institute for Women (Idesmu, for its name in Spanish), ratified the Consensus of Brazil without the President’s explicit consent. The Consensus was developed during the 11th Regional Conference for Women in Latin America in the Caribbean, an event sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations, which took place on the 16th of July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Consensus calls for greater protection of women’s rights, and asks that all signing countries reconsider any laws that punish a woman for seeking an abortion and promise safe and secure access to abortion where it is permitted by law. By ratifying the Consensus, Ms. Martinez agreed that El Salvador would revisit its strict anti-abortion laws. Her action is widely unpopular and was harshly criticized before being overturned by President Funes.

Martinez signed the document with the understanding that she was authorized to participate fully in the forum using only her own judgment. In the governing laws of Idesmu it specifically states that the director is authorized to “create, circulate, and promote effective compliance with the agreements ratified by El Salvador in relation to the improvement of women’s quality of life” (Idesmu Charter). Given this language, Ms. Martinez felt that she was able to sign on behalf of the nation without the President’s specific approval.

However, in a public statement in late August, Funes criticized Martinez’ actions and said that he has “never given any consent for the revision of the country’s laws.” He continued, “the national constitution states that life begins at the moment of conception, and as long as this constitution is in effect we must respect its laws” (El Faro). He also stated that he would communicate with the coordinating bodies of the Consensus of Brazil to inform them that Ms. Martinez was not authorized to sign the document and that El Salvador would be withdrawing its signature from this aspect of the agreement.

Ms. Martinez has defended her actions by pointing out that this is the fifth time she has signed an international document calling for the revision of El Salvador’s abortion laws, but no President (including Funes) has ever criticized these decisions in the past.

Official responses to the event were mixed. Many FMLN representatives have asked for improved communication and coherency between government offices so that misunderstandings like this one can be avoided in the future. The Vice-minister of Health, Violeta Menjivar, and the second in command for the FMLN Legislative group, Norma Guevara, openly expressed their disappointment at the President’s refusal to reconsider the law. El Faro took this opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with Ms. Martinez, questioning her about her role as Director of Idesmu and her personal beliefs.  Archibisop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, publicly announced his support for President Funes’ decision to uphold the constitution.

In contrast, public response to the event has been overwhelmingly consistent, with almost all Salvadorans opposing any changes to this aspect of the constitution. El Diario de Hoy polled public opinion on the issue and found surprisingly homogenous results: 93% of respondents said they were against modifying the constitution to allow abortion; 76% support Funes’ decision to modify El Salvador’s commitment to the Consensus of Brazil, and 32.7% believe that Ms. Martinez is “mentally ill” for signing the document.

With such an overwhelming public response and the clear agreement of the President it seems unlikely that El Salvador will seriously reconsider its abortion laws anytime soon. El Salvador remains one of only 3 countries in the world that have increased restrictions to abortion care in the last 50 years; regulation in every other country has stayed the same or become more lenient over time.

Public Health, violence, Womens issues

Interview with Ana Carcedo

December 1 2009

Ana Carcedo is the Director of CEFEMINA (Feminist Information and Action Center) in San José, Costa Rica.  Partnering with UNIFEM and Horizons of Friendship, CEFEMINA has been conducting much needed research into the past decade’s sharp increase in femicides in Central America.

Ms. Carceredo was careful to distinguish between homicides involving women and femicides where women are targeted based on their gender.  In 2000 the average central American female homicide rate was 3 out of every 100,000 women.  It has now doubled to 6 out of 100,000 and has reached 10/100,00 in the more violent of the countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Dominican Republic.  Their research shows than three quarters of these murders are in fact femicides.

The researchers are finding that these femicides fall into five scenarios. Domestic violence is the most traditionally recognized motivation for femicide, but violence stemming from both organized crime and gangs has become alarming.  Organized crime circuits are responsible for human trafficking, most often victimizing women.  The rising influence of gangs such as MS 13 and the 18 heavily exert control over women in marginalized urban communities.  This scenario has become the most prevalent cause of femicide in several countries.  Femicides are also linked to acts of vengeance. For example, loan sharks will target a debtor’s wife.   Finally, researchers have defined a scenario of misogynist cleansing.  These crimes demonstrate an extreme level of violence against its victims, including mutilated genitalia, degrading words defacing the corpse, and evidence of sexual and/or other forms of torture.

The territory for violence has been re-drawn to increasingly include women.  Where disputes were more often resolved between those directly involved, it has become more common to see violence against wives and daughters.  Also, such acts are more often seen in the street – they are no longer hidden behind private doors.  There are fewer and fewer secure areas for women to find refuge.

Trends show that victims are overwhelmingly young, and the crimes are much more likely to be committed with firearms.  The average age of femicide victims is between 15 and 25.  Younger women are more vulnerable in relationships where they are un-able to set limits, leave their partner, or seek support.  It is also largely younger women affected by gang violence.  They can be either targeted by rival gang members or subjected to violence from with in their own gang’s hierarchy.  Whereas 20 years ago femicides were more often linked to domestic violence and committed with other weapons (armas blancas) such as knives, machetes or other farm implements, today’s crimes are predominantly committed with guns.

CEFEMINA’s research also looks at the judicial and public media response to the incidence of femicides.  The findings come of no surprise, but few investigations provide the necessary documentation of these responses; which are needed for further analysis.  Within Central American judicial systems there is a consistent pattern of negligence.  Police do not investigate, they do not collect evidence, and they do not identify guilty parties.  They often arrive at crime scenes and assume a scenario based on circumstantial evidence.  For example, if a young woman’s body is found along the street of a drug dealing territory, they close the case on the assumption of a drug related dispute.  Evidence of sexual violence is not taken into account and no other hypothesis can take form.  Without proper investigations it is difficult to determine whether a women is a victim of a homicide or a femicide.  Researchers have had to depend on media reports of the crimes to make the distinction. The study has followed several cases all the way through the judicial system to identify exactly what obstacles exist and to offer viable reforms to remove them.  If Central American countries do not take action against the violence and strengthen their judicial systems to decrease impunity, these trends will only grow worse.

Womens issues

Funes Administration Not Yet Scoring Well on Women’s Issues

A recent survey conducted by Las Dignas (Women’s Association for Dignity and Life), found that Salvadoran women give President Funes a score of 6.91 out of 10 for his efforts to address women’s issues during the first 100 days of his administration. Amidst an alarming wave of violence against women, including feminicide, sexual assault and aggression, and domestic violence, Salvadoran women evaluated the new administration and expressed their opinions about steps taken to fulfill campaign promises.

The following are a couple of the questions in the survey, and some analysis of the responses.

Are the Funes Administration Initiatives responding to the Needs of Women? Women acknowledge that within the first 100 days of his administration, Funes has actively worked on stabilizing the economy, improving security, and fighting corruption. To combat the economic crisis the Funes administration has implemented a number of initiatives including; gas subsidiaries, control of basic services such as water and electricity, and educational support. Over 77% of women recognize that the government has eliminated ghost positions in efforts to combat corruption and 73% acknowledge that there has been a significant reduction in unnecessary expenses in public institutions.

Respondents of the Las Dignas survey, however, believe that the Funes administration fails to prioritize women’s rights issues. When asked whether government programs directly benefit women, only 7% responded in the affirmative. A very high 78% of women believe that the government is not doing anything to combat violence against women. In fact, 85% of respondents believe that cases of feminicide have increased, while 76% believe that domestic violence over all has risen. El Salvador reports an average of 14-15 cases of feminicide every month, many of which are the result of domestic violence. Semlac Ima Guirola, the director of Las Dignas, says that the high rates of feminicide are the result of a weak judiciary, impunity, and superficial investigations that follow when women file claims of abuse. With regard to employment rights for women, including discrimination and the lack of employment, only 6% of respondents believe that the government has taken a strong initiative.

Funes’ Campaign Promises and the Expectation of Salvadorian Women

During the campaign, now President Funes stated that we would make the rights of single women, pregnant women, and women with businesses at top priority as they struggle to support and educate their children. In doing so, he promised three central projects: Ciudad Mujer (Woman City); Madre Feliz (Happy Woman); and Madre Productiva (Productive Woman).

When complete, Ciudad Mujer will have a location in each of El Salvador’s 14 departments that will provide services just for women. The services will include health care, legal aid, psychological counseling, microcredit and business planning, training in different trades, and others. Madre Feliz and Madre Productiva are smaller projects that will complement Ciudad Mujer. Madre Feliz will provide free medication, baby food, and transportation to doctors appointments for pregnant women, while Madre Productiva will provide lines of credit to women in rural or urban areas who have or want to start a business.

While these are great projects on paper, they have yet to begin providing services, and as a result 53% of women believe that Funes is not fulfilling his campaign promise.

Despite disappointment thus far, Salvadoran women continue to have high expectations for the remaining of Funes’ time in government. Almost 52% of women expect the government to implement measure that combat violence against women. They also expect the government to take affirmative measures to provide job security, access to loans, and affordable medication.

Just a reminder – We at Voices on the Border are continuing our Virtual Delegation discussion about women’s rights in El Salvador. This past Tuesday we spoke with Tara Mathur from the Workers Rights Consortium about labor conditions of women working in the maquillas in El Salvador.

In the coming weeks we will be speaking with Morena Herrera, who is a founding member of Las Dignas, member of the board of directors of the Women’s Collective for Local Development in El Salvador. Since the early 1990’s she has been fighting to increase public participation among women, and ensure that their voices is heard by those in power. In coming weeks we will also be speaking to Salvadoran Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla, who has been a leader in human rights for many years. We will also be speaking with Dr. Miriam Cramer from Basic Health El Salvador, who will talk about women’s health issues in El Salvador.

There is no fee to participate, though donations are always welcome – just drop us a note (voices@votb.org) and we’ll send you the call in information.