For This Group of Feminists in El Salvador, Change Begins From the Ground Up
La Colectiva serves to protect girls and women from gender-based violence
“In this house, we want a life that is free of violence against women,” reads a spray-painted message on the walls of Suchitoto, a small town in El Salvador’s Cuscatlan Department. The street art is hard to miss; not for the graceful hummingbird that accompanies it or the fact that it’s almost everywhere in town, but for its transgression.
El Salvador is a country where 79% of recorded sexual violence cases this year have involved girls younger than 19, abortion is strictly criminalized, and one in three pregnancies belongs to a teen girl. It is one of the deadliest countries in the world; femicide rates rank high according to international standards and a considerable number of girls die by suicide to escape violence.
Violence against women in El Salvador comes in many forms and it’s not always direct.
The urgent declaration on the walls of Suchitoto contrasts sharply with the town’s soft colonial curves. More declarations can be seen leading up to the premises of La Colectiva Feminista, a grassroots women’s rights organization that works directly with women in communities across the country and with the government. “My body belongs to me; it’s my choice,’’ reads another. “Not even a small kiss if it’s forced,” and, “The right to choose is my right,” are some of the others.
La Colectiva is housed in “La Casa de las Mujeres” (The Women’s House), an airy, grand structure which served as a hospital before El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Three other organizations also occupy the building and work with La Colectiva to provide services to women in an effort to address gender-based violence in the community. The organization was founded in 2004 by Morena Herrera, a prominent feminist activist who is leading the fight against the country’s abortion ban. She also served as a left-wing freedom fighter for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) against the U.S.-backed government during the civil war.
“A lot of times, our systems oppress women,” says Juliette Alvarez, an organizer who has worked with La Colectiva since 2011. “Starting at home, we begin judging women who want to be leaders and bringing them down,” she continued. Alvarez has received trainings in women’s reproductive rights, which she saw as an opportunity for her personal growth, and is now in charge of teaching sex education to women and girls.
La Colectiva’s approach to sex ed deconstructs myths around sexuality through accurate, scientific information about the body, contraception, relationships, and gender, among other topics. Virginity, for example, “is a social construct and losing it doesn’t take away your worth as a woman,” she explains. “My training has helped me to make changes in my life first,” she admits. So now she tells young girls that virginity is not the most important thing in their lives; it’s their “dreams, education, independence and their choices which are more important.”
With their sex-ed trainings and grass-roots organizing, the group hopes women and girls will advocate for themselves, be able to identify abuse, and know where to go to report it.
The feminist organization works closely with local governments, but the bulk of its efforts rest on building networks in the communities. Suchitoto is not new to this kind of organizing. The town was a hotbed of unrest during El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which left between 30,000 to 70,000 casualties in its wake. La Casa de la Mujer and its commitment to activism is a continuation of its fight for social justice.
The issues La Colectiva rallies strongly around are sexual violence and abortion rights. According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, there were 4,621 investigations into sexual violence cases in 2017 of which only 488 resulted in sentencing of the perpetrators. Impunity blocks victims’ access to justice. With their sex ed trainings and grassroots organizing, the group hopes women and girls will advocate for themselves, be able to identify abuse, and know where to go to report it.
“Our goal is that women implement what they’ve learned, organize, seek their own funding, build relationships with institutions and make demands,” Alvarez argues. She also trains public officials whenever there’s a lack of awareness about the laws that protect women against violence.
Violence against women in El Salvador comes in many forms and it’s not always direct. It’s in the parents who pull their daughters out of school since “they will get pregnant anyway,” the judging of married women who plan when they want to have children, and the conservatism of public health providers who might refuse to give out birth control to minors, even though it’s their right.
Flor Elizabeth Rodriguez, 21, sits in one of her old classrooms at the Centro Escolar Comunidad Milingo in Suchitoto. Her five-year-old daughter is there with her, waiting still. Rodriguez had to drop out of school when she was 14, a reality many girls in rural communities in El Salvador grapple with. She became pregnant at 16 by her partner, who was 25 years-old at the time.
“I didn’t know what contraceptives were; no one taught me at home or in school,” says Rodriguez. She recalls the surprise she felt when she got her period since she didn’t know what it was or how to use a pad. “I don’t regret getting pregnant,” she continues, “but had I received sex education maybe I wouldn’t be where I am at this point in my life.”
Teen pregnancies are, in part, a result of sexual violence and laws that prohibit abortion under any circumstance. But many are the consequence of taboos around sex and the lack of sex education. The government of El Salvador has made great strides in recognizing sex education as a reproductive right and has created a curriculum to teach it in public schools. But implementation has been slow. The government is partnering with civil society and international organizations to train teachers and push the curriculum in schools.
At the encouragement of her teachers, Rodriguez began taking sex-ed workshops at La Colectiva after she returned to school. Everything was new to her; from the names of the reproductive organs, contraception, and abortion rights, to the importance of self-esteem, healthy relationships, and her reproductive rights.
“I grew up with my grandmother who thinks that sex education is inciting young people to have sex, but that’s not true,” she says as her two-year-old daughter plays quietly at her side. “Now I am in a position where I can offer advice to others.” At the moment Rodriguez is not working nor did she ever imagined the implications of having a child at this age. UNFPA reports show that 40% of teen moms in 2015 were in school before they got pregnant of which only one in four went back. Teen pregnancy will cost the Salvadoran government about $352 million USD, according to the UNFPA, which measured the impact that a lack of education and limited job opportunities has on 40 years of the women’s productive life.
The young mother dreams of becoming an English teacher and working more closely with La Colectiva. “When you have the knowledge, you can plan when to have kids,” says Rodriguez. “As a country we are suffering financially, why do we bring so many children into this world only so they can be poor? We will never prosper this way.”
La Colectiva is present across the country, relying on volunteers and community leaders to reach remote rural areas. Anabel Recinos is one of them. On her way to a sex ed workshop one morning in early May, Recinos talked about the challenges that lay ahead. She was heading to a middle school in Panchimalco, a community riddled with gang violence just outside of San Salvador, and spoke bluntly about the issues that make conservative policy makers uncomfortable.
“I don’t understand this society that doesn’t want to teach sex ed, but at the same time young girls are being raped and getting pregnant because of it,” she stated. Despite the government’s efforts to implement sex ed in school, teachers, parents, and conservative sectors of society still pushback. Religious groups have a history of organizing against gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, the decriminalization of abortion, and sex ed in schools. Some politicians in congress are also outspoken when siding with religious groups and referencing God to oppose legislation.
The young law student recalled the time she was teaching teenagers about reproductive rights at a school when a principal told her the content was not apt for kids that age. “I told him, how come?” she exclaims. “There are nine and 10-year-old girls giving birth right now because they were raped,” she continued. According to feminists and human rights activists, these are the ugly truths that are hard to reckon with as a society and are thus normalized.
El Salvador’s newly elected president Nayib Bukele took office this June, and Salvadorans are hopeful for systemic changes. His administration has not taken a stance in regards to abortion rights and they remain hopeful he will at least lessen the restrictions on abortion. But the women at La Colectiva know they can’t just sit back and wait; they want to be participants. This is the reason why they invite all women to their feminist schools, conferences, workshops, marches, and events. As Morena Herrera, La Colectiva’s founder, puts it: “The goal is for women to know their own rights and those of others so that they can defend them together and become activists, together.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice in the Americas.
Hiba Dlewati contributed to this reporting.