Women in El Salvador Bear the Invisible Wounds of Economic Violence

Jan 28, 2021
4:20 PM
Originally published at El Faro

Lucía Beltrán’s work in Suchitoto has been so thorough that, out of the 1,200 cases of violence against women opened by her office, only 5 or 6 have not received a ruling. (Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro)

By María Luz Nóchez

One night in 2017, Sonia left the quiet of her home in a bloodied shirt for the hustle and bustle of the emergency room, where a doctor gave her stitches in her lower lip. The stitches were the result of an argument with her husband, who had come home drunk. When she complained about the state he was in, he responded by kicking her in the mouth to shut her up. She kept everything quiet, but the distance between the two grew after this episode. Although it had not been the first act of violence, it was the one that left a permanent mark. The other blows to her integrity, unnoticed until that moment, would come later.

Aware of the relationship’s decline, Sonia decided to stay to save the business that they shared, a motel in downtown Santa Ana. The business, which they built together, was worth the sacrifice, she said. But her husband disagreed: Sonia was entitled to nothing. In February 2018, when he told her that he was leaving, she insisted that he stay. He left without taking anything. “I made him dinner every night, waiting for him to return,” she says.

Months later, he returned on his own terms. He stayed once a week to eat and spend the night. “I had such low self-esteem that it seemed it was better for me to have him, even like that, than for him to leave me altogether,” she says. For a time, things seemed to improve, and they even decided to open a new business —this time a hostel for travelers— which they opened in May 2018.

The decision only brought new problems and accumulated debt. Sonia realized how toxic the situation was. Despite having another relationship on the side, he controlled every aspect of her life: income, outings, and friendships. Nor did the beatings and insults cease, although there was no return trip to the emergency room.

Finally convinced, she got as far away as she could—so much so that she asked a friend to receive her in the United States and help her find work. In November 2019, when she returned to El Salvador, she decided to report him for domestic violence. It wasn’t more beatings that pushed her to do so, but rather something that, for her, transcended his slights and insults over the last six years they were married.

While physical violence is one of the elements that prompts reporting domestic violence, there is another, more subtle type of violence that constrains women and inhibits their actions—and often goes unreported. Once women reach this point, they have often been subjected to different abuses that are legitimized as part of a couple’s relationship‚for example, jealousy, criticism of their body and how they dress and groom, control over their spending and the money they earn, among other things. Sonia had experienced them all. “Since I was so in love with him, I didn’t realize it,” she observes with a hint of shame and resignation.

The economic aspect of violence against women is one of its most invisible expressions, even though its effects wreak havoc on women’s autonomy and status as people with rights. (Illustration by Luisa González Reiche)

A Tale of Long-Suffering

When Sonia returned from the United States and arrived at the hostel, which had also become her place of residence, her employees blocked the entrance. “The owner has asked us to not let you in,” they explained, embarrassed. She asked that they at least let her get her clothing and again they refused. After a while, her husband arrived. He told her that he had appropriated the business because, it seemed to him, she had abandoned it. He repeated that she was prohibited from entering and that if she wanted her things, she should come back for them another day. The hostel’s lease is in Sonia’s name, as are the loans and credit cards that financed the purchase of furniture and items for it to operate. This business was her only source of income and he was depriving her of it. It wasn’t the first time this had happened.

By removing her from her place of residence, which was also her workplace, Sonia’s husband was committing economic and patrimonial violence against her. For years, the understanding of violence against women has been oversimplified to mean physical and sexual violence. Speaking about psychological and emotional violence was considered an exaggeration and anyone who mentioned those forms was accused of being “delicate.” Symbolic violence was considered an invention, and economic and patrimonial violence the invisible inheritance handed down from generation to generation. In a predominantly macho country like El Salvador, these practices are normalized and disguised as conflicts between couples.

These other types of violence appeared for the first time in Salvadoran legislation in 2012, when the Special Comprehensive Law on a Violence-Free Life for Women (LEIV) took effect. Until then, the Salvadoran Penal Code recognized only physical and sexual violence.

Economic violence is understood as any action that limits, controls, or impedes women from receiving income, thus affecting their economic survival. Patrimonial violence also refers to an action, omission, or behavior that affects the freedom women have over their assets, which also includes the “transformation, theft, destruction, embezzlement, damage, loss, limitation of common property or of her property.” The same law nullifies the seizure and simulated sale of personal property or real property, regardless of the marriage’s patrimonial regime, including common-law marriages.

In addition to codifying these forms of abuse in the law, the LEIV established ten new crimes, among them property theft, which according to article 53 entails taking away “some property or asset from the possession or patrimony of a woman with whom he maintained a kinship, marital or cohabitation relationship, without her consent.” In the following days, Sonia received her belongings in trash bags, which she carried in her car from place to place as she searched for somewhere permanent to stay. That was when she decided to report her husband to the Santa Ana Family Court.

Sonia understood that it wasn’t normal to never have received any kind of payment for the work she performed in both businesses. Her husband always managed the money, and the financial benefit for her was that he paid the rent and utilities for the house where they lived. To cover necessities like clothing, shoes, and basic personal items, he always had to go shopping with her. Although he never prevented her from going out with her friends, she had to ask him for money in order to do so. In an effort to be financially independent and pay off debts, in 2015 Sonia started selling food she prepared for orders on weekends and for special occasions (birthdays, weddings, Christmas). She began to grow fruit, but that didn’t last very long. In December 2016, her husband announced that it would be the last time.

“This is the last December that you’ll sell food; instead of taking care of me, you are making food that you are going to sell later,” she remembers him telling her. “But I need money,” she replied. There was no way to convince him. Thus, the fights between them increased. He said that it wasn’t enough money, and she protested that, while it wasn’t enough for their needs, it was sufficient to finance his outings. Sometimes, he would leave the house for as long as three days and “return really drunk. When he came home like that, he would roll me up in the sheets, drag me around, yell at me.”

Impunity Flourishes under Heavy Caseloads

From the beginning of 2012 through July 2020, the Attorney General’s Office recorded just under 7,000 reports of economic violence in its three forms—failure to pay alimony, theft of personal property, and theft of family income. To date, the most complaints —just under one in five— were made in 2019. Of all these complaints, though, only 30 percent were prosecuted and 11 percent led to a guilty verdict.

When the LEIV took effect, a countdown began for the Salvadoran government to create specialized units to serve female victims of violence. The Attorney General’s Office launched its own unit on September 19, 2013. Though the promise of investigations seemed to augur progress, high levels of impunity persist. Data published by El Faro show that, between 2013 and 2016, only one in ten rapes of minors obtained a conviction. Between 2012 and the end of 2019, under ten percent of murders of women were proven to be the crime of femicide. Women represent 52.9 percent of El Salvador’s population, and yet that is not enough to obtain justice—not even in crimes that should be prosecuted ex officio. These shortfalls have several causes, including the lack of interest demonstrated by meager budgets, but in the end, the Salvadoran justice system retraumatizes and places the burden of proof on female victims.

Graciela Sagastume, national coordinator at the attorney general’s special office for women, is honest about the office’s limitations. “There’s a heavy workload in the units, which means that they don’t clear all the cases,” she explained. Of the 19 prosecutor’s offices in the country’s 14 departments, only six have a specialized unit to serve women, making justice an uphill climb for women in a country. Unexperienced or poorly trained prosecutors and judges, furthermore, often hand down rulings based on macho and misogynist prejudices, admitted Doris Luz Rivas, the chief judge of the Supreme Court’s Criminal Chamber.

With the hope of making the service that female victims receive as specialized as possible, the Legislative Assembly approved the creation of specialized courts focused on the crimes included in the LEIV in February of 2016. After a family court judge found that there was sufficient evidence of a domestic violence crime to move Sonia’s case from civil to criminal court, her case was transferred to the specialized court in Santa Ana. These specialized courts have existed in Santa Ana and San Miguel since January 2018, and in San Salvador since July 2017.

Given that the majority of cases begin with a domestic violence complaint, the first stage is settled in a civil court which can impose protective measures to separate victims from their aggressors and prevent continued violence. In this process, both parties undergo a psychological evaluation to look for signs of other types of violence. In the interim before the case passes to criminal court, a period which can last around three months, a piece of paper is the only protection that women have. The restraining orders, Sagastume says, are not bad per se. The problem, rather, lies in the protection mechanisms and the lack of coordination across public institutions. “How are they going to be effective if there isn’t anybody monitoring and following up?” she decried.

The Shackles of Social Security

In December 2017, Janeth was diagnosed with a herniated disk, the immediate treatment of which required that she stop working. Until then, she had worked selling food in the garage of her house. To treat her herniated disk, she depended on her husband, who enrolled her as his social security beneficiary in 2015. That benefit, combined with a monthly allowance of $100, were the only support she received from him while they were together. She never knew how much he earned, but his salary as a government bureaucrat was not negligible; she estimates that he earned about $500.

In the first two years they were married, he only gave her $60 a month. Janeth inherited their house from her father, and she set the table with goods from her food business. “When we got married, he said that there was no reason why I had to know about his expenses, and that the allowance was what he could give,” she remembers. It seemed unfair, but she was so used to covering the household expenses alone since her children left home that she did not object.

Finances, she realized, were the least of her problems. They married in 2014, and after the first six months, he began to get jealous: first, of her clients; next, of her friends; and finally, neighbors and even relatives. At first, Janeth thought the jealousy was proof of his love, but over time the arguments grew more heated.

When she was diagnosed with a herniated disk in 2017, she had already removed him from the bedroom to the living room. The fights were becoming ever more frequent and aggressive, and in May of 2018 she asked him to leave the house altogether. In response, he threatened to drop her as his dependent, which would mean that she would no longer be able to claim disability. She decided not to insist for fear of losing the benefit amid upcoming surgery and postoperative treatment. At the end of August, in the heat of an argument, he struggled so hard with the door to Janeth’s bedroom that he ruined the lock. “That was the last straw. If I didn’t do something, I would be hit next,” she recalled. It was then that she went to the Public Defender’s Office (PGR).

Rather than reporting him, what she wanted was help getting him out of the house. She was desperate and practically living in hiding. During the day, when he went to work, she avoided going out and talking to the neighbors so that he would not have any excuse to be jealous, and when he was in the house, she locked herself in her room to avoid “provoking” any fights. The stress kept her from sleeping, and the anxiety took away her appetite. At the attorney general’s office, they explained to her that to get a restraining order, she needed to file a domestic violence complaint, which she did. Within a few days, her husband, escorted by the Police, removed his things from the house.

“The day he left, I slept so peacefully. I felt that I got my house back,” she says. Even so, a nagging question lingered: “What did I do for this to turn out so badly?” This was her second marriage, and she didn’t understand how the relationship failed in such a short period of time. Approaching the prosecutors, though, did help her recover self-esteem.

A Salvadoran Oasis

On August 29, 2018, Janeth attended a self-help group at the invitation of the social worker handling her case. There, she met other women who were going through, or had gone through, situations like hers. She was nervous, but curiosity won out. She told her story out loud for the first time there. Her voice faltered, but the pressure she felt in her chest from anxiety eased little by little. “Realizing that I was not the only one and that there are other women who have been through the same thing, or even worse, was a relief.”

The Public Defender has opened voluntary support groups across the country for female victims of violence to learn about their rights and find reprieve. In exchange, they must follow three rules: respect the other members of the group and their stories, maintain the confidentiality of what is said there, and not discuss religion or politics.

For Janeth and the other women, the feeling of companionship that the oasis produces is invaluable. And while most women arrive there as part of a restorative process after legal proceedings, there are also those who participate before having completely escaped the cycle of violence.

The women meet in a small room on the first floor of the Public Defender’s office building in downtown San Salvador, where the chairs are arranged in a half-circle in front of a chalkboard. There, crammed together, besides sharing their tragedies, they advise each other on how a hearing might go and what they can expect. There are 14 more groups like this: another one in San Salvador and 13 in the rest of the country. They opened in May of 2013, following the passage of the LEIV, and based their services on the model of a self-help group founded in the capital in 1998.

The San Salvador oasis is led by Betty Medina, who launched the group, and Patricia Mojica, two social workers whose mission has been to create a judgment-free space for women. The room is small, which helps foster a sense of intimacy. Six women attended the inaugural session. They discussed concepts like emotional and symbolic violence, with which they identified immediately even though they never imagined that what they had experienced had a name.

Then, they told the stories that brought them there. “We don’t force anyone to tell us anything they don’t want to, but the need to talk about it is so great that upon telling their stories, for a good many of them the tears are uncontrollable,” Betty explains. The space is a luxury that allows them to talk as much as they want about what happens inside their homes without anyone blaming them for it or criticizing them for not putting a stop to it sooner. They also share their fears, in many cases not just of not having their own income to guarantee their subsistence, but that legal action against their partners will turn them into “the bad guy” for their children.

Over 300 women have been assisted as part of the support process the Public Defender’s Gender and Inclusion Unit offers; it is an extra service that not everyone decides to do and is not required. At least in San Salvador, the assistance that participants receive includes legal counseling, psychological treatment, and social work. There are 15 such units in the entire country, and not all of them have the same services. Because of budgetary issues, according to Janeth Tobar, the San Salvador office’s coordinator, only five of them offer comprehensive care, seven have only legal and psychological assistance, and three others barely provide legal services.

Despite these limitations, Betty and Patty manage to make the San Salvador oasis as welcoming as possible. Out of their own pocket, they buy coffee, cookies, and sometimes even pupusas as snacks for the participants—of which there range from 12 to 15 each week, although there are 30 active members total. “There are women who sometimes barely have enough to pay the fare to get to the group,” Patty explains. The women’s progress became evident over the course of months and years. The group’s goal, they explain, is for women to develop autonomy and be able to apply what they have learned in all areas of their lives. Therefore, each woman continues attending according to her circumstances. Some leave the group after three or six months, when they feel that the group has already served its purpose; others have been attending a meeting per month for three to five years. In this space, beyond finding understanding and mirrors of their own experiences, the women learn to be resilient.

The socialization that women receive as little girls, which favors the male role as a provider versus that of the woman as a caregiver, is one of the factors that perpetuates violence in macho societies like El Salvador. (Illustration by Luisa González Reiche)

When Family Unity Is a Sisyphean Task

On Christmas Eve 2014, Julia decided to go to the salon to retouch her hair color. Once in the chair, the stylist explained to her that it would not be possible to apply the dye; she had an open wound on her head, which would hurt even more after coming into contact with the chemical. Julia was surprised by what she saw and felt. Not because she did not acknowledge the blow, but because she thought it had been much less serious. A couple of days before, during a fight with her husband, he threw her against the edge of one of the columns in the bedroom. The trip to the salon was one way he tried to make up for his behavior.

Like Sonia, Julia had no autonomy over her spending. By then, her husband had monitored her every purchase for a decade; anything she wanted that wasn’t for the household or their children depended on his goodwill.

Julia met her husband in college. She was a business administration student; he studied architecture and was an instructor of computer science. They became a couple two years after they met; after a year of marriage, she was pregnant with their first child. She worked as a clerk in a duty-free shop in the El Salvador airport. “The money I was earning wasn’t bad, and they gave me leave to study,” she says.

But once her maternity leave ended, her husband was upset that she wasn’t the one taking care of their daughter. He suggested that she leave her job, promising that he earned enough to support them. When the little girl turned three, she got sick, and Julia decided to leave work to take care of her. He gave her a credit card so he could control each expense. She never handled cash.

At the start of this new regime, if she went out somewhere, he took her; he did not like the idea of her driving, even if they had more than one car. After six years of that arrangement, her husband informed her that “they could not maintain that lifestyle.” He cancelled the card and gave her $5 to $10 a week for food. Everything soon got worse.

He had another partner, and the screaming that before had been about how she cooked and dressed began to morph into beatings and denigrating comments. She was a virgin when they got married, and he even told her that it was the only reason he had stayed with her once she became pregnant, because he could at least be sure of his paternity.

In looking for a way to generate more income, Julia began to secretly sell traditional pastries from home. After three months, he found out and forbade her business. “What are people going to say, that an architect’s wife is selling pastries to survive?” he complained. Although he worried a lot about what people thought of him, inside the house he didn’t concern himself with concealing anything from their children. In the beginning, Julia recounts, he put her in one of the cars or locked her in the bedroom to beat her, but later he began beating her in front of their children. At one point, when she was angry with him, her son asked her not to complain: “Don’t say anything to my daddy so he doesn’t hit you,” she remembers.

The violence affected her eldest daughter’s academic performance. In October 2014, the high school principal summoned Julia, noticing that her daughter had begun to isolate herself. Days before, she and her husband had an argument, and when she arrived at the appointment, she had bruises that showed it. The teacher recommended that she file a domestic violence complaint. “This was the first time that someone put a name to what I had been living. I thought that what was happening to me was normal,” she recounts. Even so, she was unsure what steps to take.

In the new year, her husband told her that he had gotten a job in Panama and would leave home. For her, that was a relief and the final impetus to file a complaint. In May 2015, three months after starting the self-help group sessions, she initiated legal proceedings against her husband. In October, a family court judge ruled that she should continue living in the house with her children and that he must pay $642. But not even this gave her peace.

At the time, she had a small shop selling meat and dairy products, which she managed to set up with the inheritance that her grandmother left her. Three months after the ruling, her husband’s brother passed along an extorsioner’s phone call that put a price on her peace of mind: she would either pay $400, he warned, or they would kill her and her children. She ran out of income and had to leave her children in her husband’s care. “Now you don’t have anywhere to go. The best thing is for you to get settled, and when you have a good job you can take them to live with you,” she remembers him saying. A friend offered her shelter in her home and she got jobs that, little by little, allowed her to save enough money to get her children back.

First came her daughter, at the beginning of 2017. One of her uncles tried to abuse her. She told her father, but he preferred to insult her and accuse her of being a liar. “I decided to take my daughter with me immediately and bring her to the Public Defender.” Julia felt guilty and responsible for what had happened. Months later, after a forensic evaluation, a family court judge ruled that her husband was liable for their daughter’s abuse. By then, he was working at a government agency, and he was ordered to make monthly payments of $400 to his daughter until she was 24 years old. She is now 19, but she has not received support since June 2019.

In November of 2020, Julia was able to take her second child, who had tired of his father leaving him in a neighbor’s care and not coming to pick him up. He, Julia’s husband, told her that he would make voluntary monthly payments of $300 to cover her son’s expenses, but that he would not continue making payments to his daughter because she was an adult. The money for their son stopped arriving in August 2020.

When Julia met Janeth in the San Salvador oasis, she recognized in her the nerves that she had felt when she first joined in February 2015. “I arrived and couldn’t maintain eye contact with anyone, I felt inferior, that I was worthless.” Her arrival marked the end of her husband’s 14-year-long cycle of violence. Five years have gone by since Julia’s separation, and looking back on her own story, she sees naïveté in believing the promises of a man who assured her that he earned enough money for her to leave her job and devote herself to taking care of him and their daughter. She blames herself for not having put a stop to it earlier and, as if it were her fault, explains that her desire to have a nuclear family of her own —she grew up under her grandmother’s guardianship— made her tolerate too much.

Between January 2008 and September 2020, 1,641 cases of the crime of failure to comply with financial support obligations have entered the civil courts, 1,030 have gone into the investigation stage, and 680 have reached the sentencing phase. Economic withholding is the most visible face of a violence that, as happened with Janeth and Julia, takes many forms. Alimony payments established in court do not always meet needs. In Julia’s case, the payment was based on her husband’s fixed income at the time. But when men work in the informal sector (day laborers, merchants, freelancers) the payments are determined based on what they say they can contribute. Although the payments are unfair, the goal is to establish responsibilities. “In some cases, men claim that they can only pay a certain amount because they have a new household to support,” Betty confirms.

From Guerrilla to Women’s Rights Advocate

Lucía Beltrán is 72 years old and about 5 feet tall. She has lived in Suchitoto all her life, and she has the municipality’s cantons and hamlets well mapped out in her head. She has walked through them so many times that when she appears, they recognize her easily. “The old bitch has come looking for another man to screw,” a man once shouted at her as she went by. In other places, as in the El Barillo community, the catcall is a direct threat: “If you show your face around here again, you won’t get out of here alive.” Lucía was entrenched in the hills of Guazapa as part of the Faribundo Martí Popular Liberation Forces during the war, and although she confesses that her current wanderings are “somewhat frightening,” it is not enough to force her to stay away.

In 1991, before the founding of the first oasis, Lucía Beltrán began to do similar work to support the women of Suchitoto. Since then, she has become such a key figure that the Prosecutor’s Office and the courts have allowed her to enter the hearings and help women cope with the pressure of confronting their aggressors.

Lucía has a stern face that has been useful to her in confronting the men who challenge her, but it softens when she begins to talk about her work. In El Salvador, there is the idea that women “snitch on” their partners at the Prosecutor’s Office as a type of revenge, not as part of demanding a right that belongs to them and their children. Failure to comply with financial support obligations, as specified in the Penal Code, means that men’s payments are deducted directly from their paychecks, they are prohibited from leaving the country if they are in arrears, and it even interferes with their political aspirations. In 2015, the Public Defender reported that two congressmen elected to the legislature were delinquent, and if they did not catch up on their payments, they could not take office.

When Lucía isn’t in her office opening files to assist in domestic violence and alimony cases, she is in the streets compiling information that will allow her to show the violence to which the women she advises have been subjected. Her office is in the Casa de Mujeres —or Women’s House, in English— a project that brings the Feminist Collective for Local Development, Coalition of Suchitoto Women, Association for Women’s Development and Defense, and “Rosa Andrade” Association of Midwives together under the same roof. She serves as social worker, legal aid, and even counselor. At the back of her office, a four-drawer filing cabinet houses some 1,200 complaints received between 1995 and September 2020 alone.

Lucía went from being an ex-guerrilla to a defender of women’s rights in 1991, back when a law like the LEIV was still unthinkable. Along with her husband, she decided to join the Popular Liberation Forces, where she was assigned to the group of women responsible for preparing food for the combatants. Once the peace negotiations began, she organized with other comrades to look for alternative work outside the war zone. The goal was to help them reintegrate into productive, social, and family life after 10 years in combat. These meetings allowed them to establish that, although the bullets had stopped, violence in the home remained.

Lucía’s first cases consisted of rescuing children from the men who had separated them from their partners as punishment for being “bad wives.” Without involving the police or prosecutors, she went with the women to the places where their ex-partners had taken their children. In practical terms, the men had kidnapped the children, because no judge had granted them sole custody in any of the cases. In her view, that was unacceptable. “Children have to be with their mothers,” she explains. For that reason, she took it upon herself to distract the men so that the women could sneak the children out. To prevent the situation from being reversed, the women chose to move to where their ex-partners couldn’t locate them. She accompanied more than one woman to the Terminal de Occidente bus station without knowing their final destination.

Word spread among the women, and in the first year she reunited at least five mothers with their children. She didn’t have any legal or economic support. She did it out of the conviction that the women’s wellbeing depended on reuniting them with their children. Lucía attended school through second grade, and penal codes and anti-violence laws were not clear to her. For Lucía, her work consisted in restoring the balance of power. Since she left the guerrillas, this became her primary job, although she did not receive payment for it until 1998.

It was then that the joint project with Las Dignas (“Worthy Women”) was conceived; there, she received training in criminal and family law, learned about types of crimes and the legal actions that could be taken. Her first salary was 150 colones a month. At the time she had four children and her husband didn’t like the idea of her working outside the home. “You’ve just come back from seeing your lover,” he complained. She chose to ignore him. Unlike her marriage, her job was something that she had chosen to do. “I got married because my parents forced me to,” she confesses. She was 17 years old when her parents gave her an ultimatum, because it seemed to them that if they didn’t, she was going to waste her childbearing years. In El Salvador, until August 2017, the only requirement for a minor to get married was her parents’ consent.

Both were part of the guerrilla ranks that set up camp in Guazapa, but when the war ended, the differences between them became irreconcilable.

When asked about her motivation for fighting this battle for nearly 30 years, Lucía shrugs and struggles to answer. “I don’t know where doing this originated for me,” she says. But as she goes through the story of her life as part of a couple, she acknowledges that doing this work helped her identify the cycle of violence in her marriage. She had inherited two cows from her father. But one day, while she was advising other women, her husband decided to sell them without consulting her. He said that he would use the money to buy a plot of land to grow corn every year to sell and pay some of the household expenses. Rather than supporting the household, Lucía’s husband spent the money on alcohol and a couple of mistresses. After ten years of this dynamic, Lucía decided to leave him. Once separated, he built a house on the very land that he had bought with Lucía’s inheritance money and went to live there with his new partner.

Unlike the advice she gave other women to fight for their alimony payments, she decided not to initiate any proceedings against her husband and, in a way, gave up her money. After living there for eight years, he decided to move to Sonsonate and put the land up for sale. When Lucía found out, she decided to remind him that the money with which he bought that land came from her inheritance, and she managed to have it put in her children’s names.

A Never-Ending Cycle of Violence

When stories like those of Sonia, Janeth, and Julia are made public, the survivors themselves are criticized immediately for having taken years to leave the cycle of violence. They, and not their aggressors, are blamed for not having fled the violent situations that so undermined their self-determination. For them, their endurance was an expression of love and resistance to make their marriages work, because of the children involved and the social pressure on women to make a couple’s relationship succeed, which leads them to take on outsized responsibility. These dynamics reveal how economic and patrimonial violence can be normalized in a couple’s relationship.

But another factor can also be decisive: the idea that men should be the providers and women should ensure the household’s wellbeing, a notion that comes from childhood socialization. “It is not economic dependence that makes women tolerate violence against them. It’s the unequal power relationships that generate the conviction that girls are inferior to boys,” argues Deysi Cheyne, who served as executive director of the Institute for Research, Training and Development of Women (IMU) until 2015.

These unequal power relationships are defined in article 7 of the LEIV as situations of “asymmetry, dominance and control of one or several persons over another or several other persons.” Society, Cheyne explains, plays a key role in legitimizing violence against women, “because it is believed that women must be obedient.” Including families themselves, “those controls that men exercise over women are perceived as normal. They are associated with the idea that he is so in love and he loves her so much that he controls her,” she adds. While the classification of crimes has been an important step in administering justice, greater social condemnation is still lacking, she notes.

Sonia now works as a guest chef at a friend’s café; Janeth sells products by catalog; Julia has a fleet of rental cars. The three women achieved the financial independence that their relationships had denied them, but these new situations, to which they arrive at a disadvantage because of all the years they lost, still do not help them escape state-sanctioned inequality. Working in the informal economy deprives them of healthcare and hinders their opportunities to access credit. And they are not the only ones. In the formal labor market, according to data El Faro requested from the Salvadoran Social Security Institute, between January 2008 and July 2020, for every 10 men enrolled in the Salvadoran Social Security Institute, only six women are entitled to the same benefit.

That means that to access healthcare, the rest of women have to go to the public system or, if they have the means, pay for private care, or depend on their partners to enroll them as dependents.

El Salvador’s debt to women, in acknowledging the violence they suffer, lessened when the LEIV went into effect in 2012. However, it must still expand the concept of economic violence to include a state that offers the opportunities and conditions for women to develop freely. Economic independence by itself is not enough.

Part of what the Public Defender offers women is the connection to support networks that allow them access to free vocational training or connect them with private hiring opportunities. That allows them to earn income on their own, but it does not resolve the deficiencies that the State refuses to redress. “Between 31 and 33% of households are supported by women, that is not a negligible figure, and yet the state does not offer support for their children’s care,” Cheyne points out. Nurseries for employees’s children are one of these support measures, but two years after approving the law that requires employers to implement them, the project still has not gotten off the ground.

Meanwhile, care work continues to fall to women. According to the Survey on Time Usage, conducted by the General Directorate of Statistics and the Census, in addition to the daily workday, working women devote just under four hours each day to housework and care work versus the under two hours that men spend. This extra effort, far from being acknowledged as work, is labeled a labor of “love” based on the notion that women are responsible for ensuring the household’s wellbeing.

Now, Julia can recite by memory the seven types of violence to which she was subjected for 14 years. The security that she managed to build over the last five years, thanks to the oasis group, helped her set boundaries for what she could accept in a future relationship. “Before it was difficult for me to talk about this. It’s a great accomplishment for me to be able to do it without crying,” she says. The traces of that silent violence have left scars, but nothing she can’t handle.

Editor’s Note: For the safety of the survivors quoted in this story, the names used —with the exception of Lucía Beltrán— are aliases.

* Translated by Jessica Kirstein


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