Sexism: It's to Die For.
Originally written for the Share Foundation E-newsletter, May 2010.
She was 12 years old when she became the reason to finally seek justice.
The girl is from a rural community in the lower Lempa River region of El Salvador. She was born mentally and physically challenged in a country where there are already enough challenges for people who don't face these additional struggles. One day at noon, the neighbors saw a band of men leading her into an abandoned house in the community. When the men left, they found her on the floor, her reproductive organs destroyed along with her childhood.
It turns out that she, along with multiple other girls and women in her community, had long been the sexual playthings of this group of abusers. Two teenagers, 13 and 14 years old, have toddlers fathered by a 60 year old member of the band. Though everyone might have suspected it, no one knew the facts until it went this far; finally, the many violent episodes—some of which the men videotaped—turned into a court case. (The men probably didn't suspect that their movies would one day provide excellent evidence against them.) But until a young girl was almost killed, no one said anything. Why?
The answer is complicated. It could have to do with what happens to people who risk believing in justice in a judicial system whose modus operandi leans toward impunity. For instance, a women's organization in San Salvador called Las Melidas, which picked up the legal defense of the girl, has been receiving death threats from family members of the accused men. Since taking on the case they have also had to take on round-the-clock bodyguards. (It isn't uncommon for key witnesses or other crux people in legal cases to “disappear” before trial.)
It also has to do with attitudes. The community's attitudes about the victim can be further dehumanizing. A woman who works with Cripdes and is accompanying the community as they navigate the case explains that common perceptions about a female victim of sexual abuse include that she is sexually promiscuous; that she tempted the man and therefore received what she wanted; or that she is an “immoral” woman. The victim herself may fear that her “non-marital sexual relations” mean that she has failed her family—or, even more often in this heavily Christian country, God.
These attitudes have a source. Whether spit from the mouths of fearful neighbors or from the pulpit in a twisted religious interpretation, these attitudes are called machismo, and one of El Salvador's big struggles (like most countries in the world) is how to finally shed sex discrimination. This discrimination can be propogated by societal structures, authorities, teachers, parents, etc, and it finds its extreme expression in violence against or the assasination of women, called feminicide. In El Salvador, sexism is so ingrained that the band of men found it completely acceptable to rape multiple women and girls in their own community, in the middle of the day, and not fear retribution. Their male and female family members felt that the Las Melidas team was in the wrong, and that their grandfathers, husbands and sons had done nothing unusual. In short: in this case in the Lower Lempa, Salvadoran "masculinity" was valued over the innocence of childhood. Clearly, it will take a concerted and well-coordinated effort to change this reality.
Luckily, the work has already begun. Ormusa is a peer organization of Las Melidas, and it also works to reconstruct the shards of beauty that oppressive systems leave strewn. This year, they are starting a program aimed specifically at battling feminicide. Silvia J., a young lawyer who is the Officer of Political Advocacy within Ormusa's Violence Attention program, tells us why this program is important. She says that in 2009, 579 Salvadoran women lost their lives to feminicide violence. Between 1999 and 2009, the instance of assasination of women has risen 104%, while that of men 34%. Salvadoran women cannot wait any longer, these statistics show.
Silvia explains what differentiates feminicide from the murder of a female: in instances of feminicide, female victims die in ways that men do not, for reasons that men would not. For example, in El Salvador, 40% of women assasinated are sexually abused before death. Their bodies are often found in the doorway of their homes or in public places, as if the perpetrator wanted the act to be public. The majority of female victims' bodies bear marks of torture, such as messages chiseled into the skin. (Words like “whore” are common.) On the other hand, male victims' bodies are often found hidden far from their homes, and with gunshot wounds to the chest, arms, legs, or head. Their bodies rarely bear signs of torture or sexual abuse.
Silvia also points out that these particular assasinations imply that the victim is an object, and often the property of a man. Women victims are often murdered by an ex-partner after a recent separation or having begun a new relationship. The man's display of jealousy and ownership of the woman reduces her to an object, and ends in her death. This is also a very different result than the one faced by men who decide to make a relationship change, or even to date multiple women simultaneously. In society, men have the tacit permission to make decisions like this, whereas women do not.
Feminicide is a structural phenomenon, Silvia sustains, that is propogated not just by individual perpetrators but also by daily machista attitudes and policies within entities of authority. While protecting citizens from harm is the government's constitutional obligation, it too is culpable. She mentions that she has been at many crime scenes with the coroner where, if the female victim has painted toenails, she is noted as a prostitute. Similarly, if the body displays tattoos, the “possible gang-member” box is checked. Both of these assumptions mark a victim as someone who “searched out their fate,” and thus provide sufficient excuse to avoid the deeper investigation that must go into these cases in order for the State to adequately handle structural phenomena. In the meantime, more pre-teen girls will continue to pay the price for the government's evasion.
In some ways, globalization makes things more difficult, Silvia says. Through CAFTA, foreign companies set their own working conditions without having to follow domestic labor laws, and they often end up violating human rights. In one recent case where a man was found guilty of consistent physical abuse of his wife, his legal argument was that he was so abused by his employer all day at work, he was full of rage upon arriving to the house and had to take it out on someone. (Obviously, the prosecution argued that if he could control himself with his boss, he could also do so with his wife.)
Furthermore, advertisements from companies both foreign and domestic often portray images of women that encourage sexist attitudes. Silvia cites the campaign from a shoe company, MD, which always sports thin, heavily made-up white women in contorted positions and high heels with messages like, “Buy one in every color just because you're depressed.” In 2007, their slogan was “Shoes to die for,” with photos of women's bodies in a morgue, in positions that suggest suicide or assasination, insinuating that the shoes are so desirable that women (as “slaves to fashion”) are willing to kill or die to have them. With constant messages of violence being sent to the public through working conditions and street-side advertisements, the government must make a concerted effort toward combatting feminicide in order to be successful.
Ormusa thus has designed a project to do just that. Silvia says that the Funes administration’s Commission for the Family, Woman, and Childhood has started to make mention of the subject; thus, now is the time to bring the issue to the forefront of the minds of civil society and lawmakers. Ormusa plans to publish articles, increase their political advocacy, and continue educating women about their rights. Silvia encourages us to walk in solidarity with the work of Ormusa and Cripdes in our everyday interactions, whether by using inclusive language or questioning assumptions about gender roles. Only by rooting out our own sexist attitudes can we build a world where childhood isn't sacrificed to errant ideas of adults.
The Share Foundation accompanies both Ormusa and Cripdes in their work. This year, Share is supporting Ormusa's project on feminicide. For more information or to hear about how you can contribute to the struggle for equality, please contact us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.