Blog post by Samin Huq, American University School of International Service
By late 2022, at least 1 million people found themselves leaving the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) – which comprises El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – to go elsewhere in Latin America or to the United States due to poverty and insecurity, environmental crises, and rampant violence. Tens of thousands of women and girls across the NTCA find themselves forced to leave their homes due to extreme sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This blog aims to pinpoint the role of SGBV as a driver of forced migration, assess current practices to combat violence, as well as outline a potential path forward.
The NTCA experiences some of the highest rates of homicide, to the point it has received consideration for being the most violent region in the world. According to a 2018 study by the Inter-American Dialogue, a 1% increase in homicides caused a surge in migration from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, with violence-induced migration rates climbing by 120%, 100%, and 188%, respectively. Studies have demonstrated that in Central America – particularly in Honduras and El Salvador – “homicides, victimization, and fear of crime” positively correlate with migration intent.
SGBV against women and girls is prevalent in the NTCA, and additional intersectional factors such as race, ethnicity, income, and residence further exacerbate the dangers. According to an index measuring violence against women (VaW) globally, Honduras and Guatemala had high VaW (with VaW indexes of 0.3233 and 0.3414), while El Salvador had very high VaW (0.3534). In addition, femicide – the murder of women for their gender – was the cause of death for 1.8, 3.3, and 6.1 out of every 100,000 women in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, respectively (in comparison to 1.3 out of every 100,000 women in the US).
A University of Washington study found that the percentage of people migrating from the NTCA citing violence as their reason to flee doubled from 33.7% to 71.2% between 2011 and 2016, and more women cited “fleeing violence” as the cause than men. In addition, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, titled Women on the Run, found that over 80% of asylee women from the NTCA and Mexico who underwent screening at the US border may be eligible for asylum or protection under the UN Convention against Torture.
Much of the violence women asylees face comes from criminal gangs or maras like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). While recent numbers are difficult to come by, the US State Department indicated that just these two gangs combined had about 85,000 members in 2012 (and some sources suggest as many as 117,300 people were associated with gangs in El Salvador alone). 85% of the NTCA women asylum-seekers interviewed by the UNHCR reported living in communities under tight gang control, while 64% described rape or abuse as a significant cause for their exodus. Additionally, two-thirds of women from the NTCA are mothers and migrate to protect themselves and their children from abuse, gang violence, and economic turmoil.
The gangs comprise direct and indirect threats to women in the NTCA. On the direct side, the gangs rape and murder women. On the indirect side, they recruit children, enlist husbands, and encourage all men in their orbit to engage in drug use and violent behavior, the latter further inflaming domestic abuse. Gang violence, characterized by a “hyper-masculinity” that seeks to control women (as if they were property) and punish “disfavorable” men by harming women they care about, is considered one of the worst types of regional violence.
Furthermore, gang violence has elicited comparisons to both slavery and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Gangs are active participants in both traditional and more de facto forms of human trafficking; they not only exploit women and girls via sex trafficking but also engage them in domestic servitude, childcare for gang members, and forced labor as couriers or lookouts. In the UNHCR report, the asylee women interviewed found themselves unable to find safety from their attackers by moving elsewhere in their country. The situation in El Salvador had proven so incredibly suffocating–with gangs making girls disappear or murdering them and leaving their bodies to be found–that women and girls adopted the survival strategy of staying at home instead of going to school or work.
Women face gender-based violence not only at the hands of gangs but also their partners. Domestic abuse, including sexual abuse, is prevalent in the NTCA – in comparison with 21 other Latin American countries, Guatemala and Honduras had an IPV rate of 24% and ranked among the top five of the aforementioned countries for rates of sexual violence by a partner. There is great cultural acceptance of interpersonal violence (IPV) in Honduras (59%), Guatemala (56%), and El Salvador (47%), with evidence linking it to the prevalence of actual domestic abuse itself. The hyper-masculinity of gang violence stems from a broader “violent machista culture with little respect for females”, according to Oxfam America.
A national survey in 2017 shows that 67% of Salvadoran women have experienced some form of violence, but only 6% of survivors had reported it to authorities. Lack of access to necessary public services and fear of not being believed may account for underreporting. Indeed, 60% of female asylum-seekers in the 2015 UNHCR report disclosed that they had reported the threats and attacks they faced to the authorities, yet all maintained that they received little to no protection. The remaining 40% chose not to report, deeming it futile based on the experiences of others.
What has the NTCA done about gang and gender-based violence?
Despite the adoption of the 1995 Convention of Belem do Para (the Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence against Women), IPV survivors in the NTCA continue to face dire situations, and legislation against domestic abuse has not been effective. Major obstacles include confusion over the law, as well as limited access to shelter and legal aid.
Since the early 2000s, NTCA governments have implemented tough-on-crime policies that expanded police powers and enacted harsher punishments for gang members. However, these mano dura (“iron fist”) policies have historically and largely failed to reduce crime and may have even increased gang membership. While El Salvador may have achieved genuine success under President Nayib Bukele (going from having a homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, the second highest in Latin America, to 7.8 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, the fifth safest nation in the region), this success may have come about via negotiations with the gangs (the perpetrators of violence) and the suspension of civil and political rights for suspected gang members; even so, 87 people lost their lives in a mass killing in El Salvador between March 25 and 27, 2022.
In addition, empirical studies by the International Crisis Group (ICG) demonstrate that murder rates do not exactly correspond to the areas Bukele targeted for anti-gang action under his Territorial Control Plan. In fact, not only were homicides already falling throughout the nation before implementation, they continued falling by comparable amounts in municipalities not covered by the Plan and even increased in some zones under the purview of the Plan. Instead, the ICG attributed the reduction to gangs having more community control and more autonomous leadership outside jails.
Non-punitive strategies revolving around early prevention via focus groups, provision of vital services, shifting cultural attitudes toward gender, and empowering survivors have seemingly borne fruit. Cure Violence, an NGO, successfully managed intervention programs in San Pedro Sula – a city in Honduras with high homicide rates – by treating violence like a transmissible disease and intervening before it breaks out. Following the implementation of the model in 3 zones over 9 months, shootings and killings fell by 73%. In El Salvador, USAID’s Community-Based Crime and Violence Prevention Project – which partnered with Creative Associates and RTI/CECI to provide entrepreneurship and vocational training, job opportunities, counseling, and psychological support – resulted in a 40% drop in reported murders, a 52% decline in extortion, and a 40% fall in residents’ fear of crime.
Various other groups in El Salvador have long worked to promote the rights of girls and women. The Shaira Ali Cultural Center in Ahuachuapan, a rural part of El Salvador, understands that many survivors of SGBV distrust the authorities or are hesitant to report the violence they endured. Thus, it carefully documents each case and has its staff physically accompany survivors when reporting to law enforcement, ensuring the women receive just treatment and following up afterward to ensure their cases undergo proper investigation. Oxfam and the Shaira Ali Center also run programs in schools in violent areas, establishing “coexistence” committees that promote awareness of sexual rights and respect for one another (regardless of gender), as well as teach girls and boys how to resolve conflicts nonviolently.
In 2005, Oxfam America – alongside eight other groups – also launched the Una vide diferente (“A different life”) program in El Salvador to reduce gender-based violence. The program trained 360 women leaders from 25 municipalities in human rights, as well as provided training to 45 women legislators in GBV prevention. After completing their training, the 45 legislators collaborated to create the Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Eradication Bill, which subsequently became law. as the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women.
The aforementioned programs have great potential. However, for longer-lasting and wider changes in the conditions that force women and girls to leave their homes, these programs need to be scaled up and supported further across all members of the NTCA. The respective governments of all three countries should support the implementers in this regard financially and operationally.
Charting a new course for Central America’s Northern Triangle
Despite the prevalence and severity of these heinous crimes, it’s important to remember that there is always hope for a better future for the girls and women who call the NTCA home. In addition to the aforementioned programs that have already been in effect in the NTCA, there are many programs in other countries that have yielded positive results in the fight against violence or IPV against girls and women more specifically and may be worth replicating in the NTCA.
The Right to Play NGO has been running a school-based social education program in Pakistan since 2008, aiming to shift gender norms away from peer violence and engaging over 400,000 children via regular play-based learning sessions for every child for 2 years. The program, which trained school teachers and recruited volunteer youth from the community as coaches and junior leaders, saw boys and girls demonstrate a reduction in patriarchal gender attitudes by 14% and 18%, respectively, and peer violence by 25% and 56%, respectively.
The REAL Fathers program in Uganda helped reduce IPV by working with men to develop parenting and conflict resolution skills and reshape gender roles. Physical IPV declined from 66.2% to 59.4% by the end of the intervention and fell to 36.5% by the time of long-term follow-up. In addition, Tearfund and HEAL Africa partnered to train local faith leaders and community members in the Congo to facilitate a safe environment and access to services for survivors of VAW in conflict-affected communities, which led to a significant decrease in IPV among women, with only 29% reporting it (though attitudes in favor of physical violence and rape remained high – from 71% to 55% and 80% to 55% – despite a notable decline).
Other countries where a large proportion of the population identifies as religious can also likely gain from similar strategies, and it so happens that the church and Christianity have a prominent place in the societies of all three NTCA countries. In the case of Tearfund and HEAL Africa in the Congo, 40% of survivors sought help from faith leaders, compared to just 2% before the intervention, and 74% of survivors perceived faith institutions as supportive.
Violence against women and girls in the NTCA runs rampant, with some of the highest rates in the world. That this violence has forced many to migrate elsewhere, not finding safety in their homes, is an injustice that requires quick and effective redress. Yet we must remember that extreme SGBV does not have to be an everlasting crisis. Various projects on the ground have produced positive results in helping girls and women find safety or preventing SGBV by targeting those at the highest risk for committing violence. Other tried-and-true strategies may also have applicability in the context of the NTCA.
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