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Funes Government Tips Its Hat To El Salvador’s Women

August 5, 2011

(Credit - Lon&Queta/Flickr)

Under the leadership of second-year President Mauricio Funes, the government of El Salvador is beginning to tip its hat to the country’s women, implementing legislation designed – at least on paper – to address long-ignored issues such as income disparity, underrepresentation in politics and gender-based violence.

The government’s most recent women’s rights bill – the Ley de Igualdad, Equidad y Erradicación de la Discriminación Contra la Mujer Salvadoreña – cleared the unicameral Asamblea Legislativa (AL) in mid March. All 84 of the AL’s deputies voted in favor the law, which among other things guarantees women equal pay, protection from discrimination in politics and equal access to education.

“With this legislation, women will have a tool to continue their fight for equal social, political and labor rights,” said Dep. Emma Julia Fabián of the left-wing Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN). “It also serves as a base for the government to create the public policies needed for women to participate more [in politics].”

The legislation also received backing from the opposition Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), a conservative party that dominated Salvadoran politics for 20 years until Funes –with backing from the FMLN – finally shifted the presidency left. “We’re truly happy. This has been a long road. We spent a long time trying to reach a consensus,” said ARENA Dep. Milena Calderón.

As part of the negotiation process, the AL agreed to eliminate from the bill a clause that originally called for a minimum 40% female quota for elected positions. Currently, only 21% (18 out of 84) of the AL’s deputies are women. Female representation in city government’s is even less. Just 11% of El Salvador’s mayors (29 of 262) are women.

The omission drew vocal complaints from women’s groups such as the Concertación Feminista Prudencia Ayala (CFPA), which argue that by failing to establish real benchmarks, the law does little to dismantle El Salvador’s political glass ceiling. Also omitted from the original bill was language guaranteeing women access to “lay” education.

“In order to talk about equality there needs to be parity in politics, and that’s the part they just removed,” said the CFPA’s Dysi Cheyne.

A “City” For Women

Even if it is more symbol than substance, the law still serves important role in raising public awareness about women’s rights, as did the high-profile opening less than two weeks later of a public services center called “Ciudad Mujer,” a project being championed by President Funes’ wife, Dr. Vanda Pignato. The Brazilian-born first lady heads the Secretaria de Inclusión Social and also has a leadership role in the government’s Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de la Mujer (ISDEMU), a women’s right agency.

Joining Pignato for the March 28 inauguration of Ciudad Mujer, the first of seven such facilities the government plans to open throughout the country, was former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), who now heads the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

The event drew a significant amount of media attention, as did the first lady’s late April visit to Washington, D.C., where she spoke about her project before the Organization of American States (OAS). OAS head Jose Miguel Insulza, also Chilean, now plans to make his own first-hand inspection of the Ciudad Mujer facility, located in Lourdes, in the department of La Libertad.

These efforts “initiate a process of building a non-sexist culture, of building a culture of women’s rights in all areas,” said the ISDEMU’s Yanira Argueta.

Deadly Treatment

Divided into five sections, Ciudad Mujer offers women free consultations about basic rights, issues related to sexual and reproductive health, and child care. It also provides counseling services for victims of gender-based violence, a huge – and apparently growing – problem in El Salvador.

In its most brutal form, El Salvador’s culture of machismo can quite literally mean murder. According to a 2010 study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), El Salvador has the world’s highest rate of femicides (murders of women): nearly 130 per million women. As a point of comparison, Romania – Europe’s most dangerous country for women – has a femicide rate of 12.9 per million women.

The UNFPA conclusions were based on 2006 figures. There is little indication, however, that conditions have improved since. Between 1999 and 2009, according to Richard Barathe of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), registered cases of violence against women nearly quadrupled in El Salvador (up 197%).

In November, 2009, just five months after Funes took office, Salvadoran authorities addressed the long-ignored issue of gender-based violence by passing a bill known as the Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres. The anti-violence law, approved by 75 of the AL’s 84 deputies, made homicide against women punishable with up to 50 years in prison. It also established punishment guideless for certain abusive behaviors against women, such as cruel insults and written or spoken threats.

“We have to do away with this scourge, beginning by raising awareness of the issue so that we can eradicate violence against women,” said Dep. Mariella Peña Pinto of the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party. “Every day this [violence] is costing the lives of mothers, workers and wives.”

The ISDEMU is doing its part by publishing annual reports on violence against women. The government agency released the first such compendium in late November, 2009, just after the AL approved the anti-violence law. No doubt an important contribution to public awareness on the issue, the reports are hardly encouraging.

Nearly 600 women were murdered in El Salvador in 2009, more than double the number in 2008, according to the latest ISDEMU report. As of October of last year, the 2010 femicide toll was already at 477. The bulk of those killings involve girls and women in their teens and 20s. Of those 477, 74 were girls under the age of 17. Thirteen of the victims were found with their hands and feet bound, suggesting they were tortured. Eight were decapitated and 14 burned.

Zero Tolerance?

Present for the launch of ISDEMU’s initial study, President Funes summed up his position in two words: “zero tolerance.” “Zero tolerance against murder; against sexual abuse, which often involves girls and preadolescents; against the economic and labor inequality and makes [women] even more vulnerable; and definitely zero tolerance against violations of the women’s fundamental rights,” he said.

Many observers, however, say it’ll take more than good intentions on the part of the president and his wife to really reduce violence against women – especially if perpetrators continue to benefit from a degree of impunity.

According to an article published last November in the Salvadoran online news service Contra Punto, between 2008-2009 the Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) treated 6,803 cases involving sexual crimes committed against women. Of those, only 436 resulted in penal sentences. The same pattern holds for femicide cases. Only 30 of the 477 femicides registered between January and October of 2010 led to jail sentences.

In order to reduce sex crimes and femicides, the state is also going to have to invest heavily in education – to directly tackle misogynistic cultural mores, according to the UNDP’s Richard Barathe.

“Remember, in 85% of the cases that are reported, the victims claims to know the aggressor,” Barathe told Contra Punto. “This is happening within families, within communities. That’s why it’s so important to sensitize neighbors, to educate all sectors…The government’s policies are apparently not enough. There are good intentions. And the ISDEMU has made important progress in raising awareness, but there still aren’t enough resources to attack the problem.”

(This article originally appeared May 12 in LADB)

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