San Salvador, El Salvador — I have never gone up to someone I wanted to interview dancing, but then again, I have never been to a Salvadoran protest march before.
At the Dia de Mujer protest last March 8, the singing and chanting to drum beats made it impossible for me to resist my urge to jiggy up to protesters. Their response to my bailar and lamentable attempt to introduce myself and request for an interview?
A warm hug. Then we danced some more as I asked questions.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Spanish. There was something deeper than language that connected us. Our color, our social standing, our gender–a combination of all of that–assured us of the solidarity of shared experience.
The celebratory atmosphere was palpable at Dia de Mujer, but so was the anger as hundreds of protesters marched to downtown San Salvador demanding an end to all forms of violence against women.
“It’s a happy but weird feeling, to be honest. At a protest like this, at least we can speak out. On other days when you try, you’re told, ‘Shut up. You’re just a woman,’” said our translator, 22-year-old Clayre Oliva.
El Salvador is the smallest but most densely populated country in Central America. Gang violence, high employment rates and low wages drive crime and homicide making the country one of the most deadly.
In August 2015, a homicide was recorded every hour. The government claims that homicides have declined but the 2018 figures show that there were still about 9 murders a day.
The endemic violence contributes to El Salvador having one of the highest rates of femicide or female murder in the world.
National surveys indicate that 67% of women have suffered some form of violence in their lifetime, including sexual assault, intimate partner violence and abuse by family members.
“We always have to fight. The situation is very unfair,” said Greta Beltrand who wearing a green bandana printed with the words, “Decidir es mi derecho” (To decide is my right) in support of abortion rights.
El Salvador has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The country’s total ban prohibits abortion in cases of rape, serious fetal deformities and even when it may save the life of the mother. Women like Zulayma Beltran have been imprisoned for homicide or homicide aggravated by abortion.
Beltran was sentenced to 26 years in person in 1999 but was released after 10 years and seven months.
“They think they can do that to us because we are poor women. The system doesn’t really care about us. The daughter of the president or someone influential wouldn’t go to jail,” said Beltran.
Being at the Women’s March, Beltran said, made her feel free. “I’m here to speak for other women who can’t. I am here because I don’t want other women to experience what I did.”
As an activist, Beltran is part of the organization Mujeres Libres which supports women in prison for abortion-related charges.
The situation is even worse for LGBT people who face constant discrimination and abuse. Homosexuality is not criminalized but the influential Catholic Church condemns gay sex and marriage. The prejudice is aggravated by gang violence.
A 2019 Human Rights Watch said that warring gangs, Barrio 18 and MS 13, kidnap LGBT individuals and subject them to sexual slavery.
In November last year, at least four LGBT+ people were reported to have been killed. Local advocacy group, COMCAVIS Trans, said that about 600 LGBT people have been murdered since 1993.
“There are no laws to protect us. The government does nothing about hate crimes (committed against transwomen). We are nobody,” said transwoman activist Bianca Rodriguez of COMCAVIS Trans.
A few men joined the march to show the women in their life their support.
Gerson Martinez, 23, joined the protest for his girlfriend. “I know my being here means a lot to her.”
Rodrigo Samuel Montoya, 13, accompanied his mother, Maria Gladys. “I feel bad about the way that women are treated. There should be more men at this march but I think their machismo gets in the way.”
Morena Herrera started in activism when she was 15-years-old, right after the civil war from 1980-1992 when leftist guerillas fought against the military-let junta government.
Now 59, Herrera viewed the protest action as an indication that conditions for women in El Salvador are slowly changing. “There was a time when you would be branded as immoral to even speak out or be at protest marches.”
But there is still so much that still needs to be done.
“I just want women to be respected. Not be maltreated. To have the power to decide over their lives. It may seem basic but when you live in a country where it is natural to just touch and violate women, it is everything.” said Herrera.
As the crowd gathered in the plaza in front of the National Palace and the San Salvador Cathedral, I bumped into Greta Beltrand again. A drum was hanging from her neck and drumsticks in both hands. She was getting into position with the rest of the protesters to perform the feminist protest chant “The Rapist is You”.
“You feel the girl power, yeah?” Beltrand asked me.
“Yeah!!” we both shouted at the same time.
That day the whole of El Salvador felt the power of its women.
Ana P. Santos
Adelante Fellow 2020