Violence Against Women in El Salvador: The Question of Implementation and Protection

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Violence against women is a global problem. But there are some places where the rates are particularly high and the laws protecting women are not implemented nor respected, such is the case of El Salvador. A country the size of Manhattan ranks first for female homicides in the world and fifth for murder rates[1]. Clearly, this recently democratic country is dangerous for everyone, especially women. In fact, more than half of the women in El Salvador have reported suffering violence in their lifetime.[2] While this might all indicate a lack of judiciary say on the matter, in reality there are a couple of laws in place meant to prevent this and protect women who are attacked. To clarify what some might be assuming, The Criminal Code in El Salvador does penalize sexual assault, rape, and other violent attacks against everybody.[3] In terms of precisely targeting this issue, attempt to tackle it legally began in 1995, when the Organization of American States (OAS) passed the convention of “Belém do Pará”. Then that same organization through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2011 created a report called Access to Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence in Mesoamerica. Later, in 2012 a domestic bill was passed concerning the same issue called the Special Comprehensive Law for a Violence-free Life for Women. The real problem in El Salvador is a social and political one, where these laws have an extremely difficult time being implemented, proven by the fact that less than one percent of violent crimes against women result in conviction.[4]

“Belem do Para”, also known as the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, is adopted in 1994.[5] The convention was ratified by El Salvador on the 13th of November of that same year.[6] This convention establishes the fact that women’s rights are human rights, and that any sort of violence against women is a violation of the rights a woman has; therefore, she is entitled to receive justice for the crimes committed against her. It frankly doesn’t provide any ideology out of the ordinary for many countries. However, it is fundamental in protecting women’s rights. After this, the Access to Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence in Mesoamerica was released. It is a report directed towards Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua and addresses, “judicial ineffectiveness regarding acts of sexual violence in Mesoamerica, a pattern that adversely affects the prosecution of cases of sexual violence at every stage in the proceedings with the justice system.”[7] It also sets recommendations to improve the judicial procedures to allow more women to receive justice. While it does not have legal strength, it still plays a major part in addressing the fact that there is a huge flaw — in the implementation of current laws —and what could potentially be done to resolve it. It wasn’t until 2012 when the next major legal step was taken. The Special Comprehensive Law for a Violence-free Life for Women was approved by legislative decree on the 25th of October of 2010 and it became valid for implementation on the first day of 2012[8]. This, once again, is not unheard of. In fact, Article 2 of this bill where there is a bullet point list spelling out what women’s rights are, is nearly identical to Article 4 of “Belém do Pará”. These basic rights include “the right to have her life respected”, “the right to equal protection before the law and of the law”, and “the right to simple and prompt recourse to a competent court for protection against acts that violate her rights.”[9] Considering that these rights are not outlandish in anyway, for some reason there is still push back coming from everywhere, even within the very judicial bodies that are supposed to implement these laws. For example, “an ORMUSA (a women’s right NGO in El Salvador) lawyer interviewed by Al Jazeera indicated that ‘[s]everal senior judges have denounced the Special Comprehensive Law for a Violence Free Life for Women as “unconstitutional,” insisting they would not implement it in their courts’."[10]

To understand the true legal weight of the laws mentioned before, and to check if statements like what these judges are stating is accurate, the Criminal and the constitution are where the answers lie. As mentioned, the Criminal Code, approved by the legislative assembly on February 13th of 1973, does criminalize sexual assaults in “Title IV: Crimes Against Sexual Liberty, Chapter I: About Rape and Other Sexual Assaults”. The time in prison after conviction for those crimes ranges from about three to ten years. Inspecting the constitution aspect is extremely important when looking at some of the excuses for lack of implementation. According to Article 144 of the constitution, the convention by OAS, once it was ratified in El Salvador, should have no problem being implemented, “The international treaties formalized (celebrados) by El Salvador with other states or international organisms, constitute laws of the Republic once they enter into effect” continuing with “In case of conflict between the treaty and the law, the treaty shall prevail.”[11] For “Belém do Pará” ,it is clear that there should be no obstacles towards the use and enforcement of it. Concerning the domestic bill, the Special Comprehensive Law for a Violence-free Life for Women, due to the fact it was approved by the legislative assembly and published, there should also not be an issue in implementing the law in court. The Constitution, in the Second Section, Articles 133 through 141, states that once it is passed and published there should not be any problems with it in practice.[12] If the bill may be considered unconstitutional, there would have to be an official “declaration unconstitutionality”, whereinafter a set of procedures would be followed.[13] It is important to note that regardless of the claims of the judges previously quoted, no declaration of unconstitutionality has been made.

Since there are clear regulations towards how both international ratified conventions and domestic bills which successfully passed the legislative procedure, it suggests that the issue of taking the protections of women’s rights seriously in court should be non-existent. Yet, in line with the statistics provided in the introduction, something has gone terribly wrong. To comprehend the gap, the perspective of a Salvadorian and a politician could be useful. Dr. Marvin Rodriguez, the current mayor of Olocuilta, El Salvador, has some concrete thoughts on the matter. As the third mayor in El Salvador to implement a specialized office for women in need, in partnership with ORMUSA in 2009,[14] along with two other offices to help women legally and to advise them on creating a new life for themselves[15]; he is a true believer of the laws protecting women’s rights and that implementation is the obstacle between women and justice. He sees the main issue as one where women don’t know about their rights and the government isn’t the most efficient in informing them, consequentially the population is not equipped with the knowledge to demand their rights. This is so accurate, he stated, to the point that many women won’t even file a charge after being victimized due to a societal understanding of the static judicial process.[16] When asked about solutions, he claims that a decentralization on the government’s part in this issue would be incredibly useful. If this were to occur, more municipalities would have the capacity to initiate and establish their own offices and campaigns that would better help their corresponding communities, like he has been able to do thus far in Olocuilta. Yet, realistically- he claims- decentralization will not happen any time soon, so a more immediate solution would need to include stronger communication from the government to its people.[17] A more hands on approach, he says, would be beneficial to reaching the provinces that do not have immediate governmental offices around them. All of this would cause a demand of the people towards the government to implement these established laws more effectively. [18]

Average citizens may find comfort in laws, the fact that they are there is a common sign that the people are actively being protected. This goes both ways, allowing victims to receive justice, and avoiding incidence in the first place by scaring off potential perpetrators with possible consequences. However, when the laws are there, but not implemented, it leaves that average citizen vulnerable. In those cases, in the case of violence against women in El Salvador, It is up to the citizen to demand their rights, to demand the implementation of laws that protect them, to unlock the true potentials of the laws in place.

QUOTE VIA TIMES article published in May, 2019

[1] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico”, October 2015
[2] Anna-Cat Brigida, “El Salvador’s female victims of violence rarely see justice. That’s about to change,” Splinter, October 12, 2016
[3] Codigo Penal, El Salvador, Legislative Assembly: Decree No. 1030
[4] Anna-Cat Brigida, “El Salvador’s female victims”
[5] Organization of American States, “About the Belém do Pará Convention”, Follow-up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI)
[6] OAS, “About the Belém do Pará Convention”, (Status of signatures and ratifications link)
[7] IACHR Presents Report about Access to Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence in Mesoamerica, 2012,
[8] Claudia Calero, “Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia
para las Mujeres,”El Salvador Government: Ministry of Health, May 24, 2017
[9] OAS, Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence
against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará)
[10] Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa, “El Salvador: Violence against women, including non-domestic sexual violence, legislation, state protection and support services,” September 15, 2015
[11] Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, 1983, (as Amended to 2003)
[12] Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador
[13] Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador
[14] ORMUSA, “Forjando un futuro digno y de igualdad para la mujer”, La Bolitina de ORMUSA, No. 9, 2009
[15] Dr. Marvin Ulises Rodríguez Álvarez, interview by Sofia Ivanka, November 2, 2017
[16] Dr. Marvin Ulises Rodríguez Álvarez, interview
[17] Dr. Marvin Ulises Rodríguez Álvarez, interview
[18] Dr. Marvin Ulises Rodríguez Álvarez, interview