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El Salvador's Invisible Victims of Domestic Violence

El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. But much of public discourse focuses on gang violence, ignoring the high rates of femicide and intimate partner abuse women in the country face.

Anna-Cat Brigida

A girl takes part in a march celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in San Salvador, via Getty

Years ago, at a dinner party she had thrown, Serafina Rodriguez appeared to live a comfortable and happy middle-class lifestyle on the outskirts of San Salvador. But when her friends left, the amicable vibe of the night went with them: Rodriguez's husband began to pick a fight and accused her of being unfaithful. That was the first night he hit her. After years of enduring physical and emotional abuse, Rodriguez consulted with a lawyer and a doctor about leaving her husband. But in their professional—and male—opinions, breaking up a marriage was not the answer to ending the abuse. It would eventually stop, they advised her.

Rodriguez is far from alone: Statistics show that thousands of women in El Salvador endure physical and emotional violence each year at the hands of husbands, family members, or friends. "Male aggression against women is a constant," said 63-year-old Rodriguez, who eventually left her husband despite advice to stay. "It's discrimination and then aggression. The lack of equality is a constant."

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El Salvador is the most dangerous country in the world outside of a war zone: Recent months have seen as many as 40 murders per day, spurred by intensifying gang violence and organized crime. Stories of violence from the small Central American nation often focus on the violence perpetuated by gangs and organized crime groups, which is an issue that affects all aspects of Salvadoran society—from cab drivers paying extortion payments, to young men being recruited by gangs, to mothers and wives losing sons and partners.

However, in a country where violence is so visible, violence against women remains the elephant in the room. The problem is large in scope but overlooked in public dialogue. Worldwide, El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide, a term for the murder of a woman based on her gender. Femicides and cases of domestic violence have increased in El Salvador, fueled by a culture of impunity and machismo.

The profound root of violence against women is inequality. We are considered human beings of less value.

"What does it mean to be a woman in El Salvador?" said Silvia Juárez, program coordinator for Salvadoran Women for Peace (known by its Spanish acronym ORMUSA) in San Salvador. "We are still not equal [to men]. The profound root of violence against women is inequality. We are considered human beings of less value."

Politicians in the Central American nation are not deaf to El Salvador's violence problem. However, feminist organizations fear political solutions to violence exclude women and instead focus disproportionately on gangs and organized crime, without distinguishing between the different ways this violence affects men and women. Gangs often rape and kidnap women as a tactic to terrorize local communities. In addition, women are more likely to be murdered by someone they know—a UN study estimates that 50 percent of the homicides against women worldwide were by intimate partners or family members, compared to 6 percent for men.

In El Salvador, women make up less than 30 percent of political positions despite recent efforts to increase female representation. Worldwide, women are underrepresented in political office, academia, and the private sector. Their participation in civil society can contribute to strong and sustainable democracy, according to the National Democratic Institute. With men filling more than 70 percent of political roles in El Salvador, male voices dominate the solutions to the violence and security issues that plague the country.

For us to move forward as women we need more participation in the political sphere.

"[Lack of representation] affects us because, obviously, the men are not going to think about us as women," Juárez said. "For us to move forward as women we need more participation in the political sphere."

In September 2014, the government rolled out Plan El Salvador Seguro (Secure El Salvador Plan) to improve security conditions and the justice system. Juárez criticizes the plan, saying that the way in which it determined the 50 most violent municipalities was based on metrics that placed more weight on violence against men than violence against women. Using police and government data, the organization has done its own study to determine which parts of the country have the highest rates of violence against women. The organization hopes that the government's approach to tackling violence could soon incorporate their analysis.

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All over Latin America, violence against women remains a major issue. Acid attacks in Colombia are on the rise. In Mexico, six women are murdered each day on average. In Ecuador, 60 percent of women have been victims of violence. UN officials have emphasized the need for women to be included in solutions to address security, peace, and inequality around the world. Despite these disturbing trends in Latin America, both Rodriguez and Juárez believe important strides have been made in El Salvador, especially in reporting violent crimes against women.

"We have moved forward. We have new laws. People are talking about these things," Juárez said. However, she still doesn't believe these solutions are systematically breaking down the deeply entrenched societal belief that women are second-class citizens. "The way that they [politicians] tackle these issues, they are still telling us that this profound motivation still remains," she said.