In El Salvador, ‘Girls Are a Problem’

SAN SALVADOR — I don’t want to go back to El Salvador. I felt afraid as a woman there more than in any other country in Latin America. I realized I had entered hostile territory while chatting with the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport, the first Salvadoran man I met. He told me he had a baby, a little darling called J. J., and showed me a photo.

When I asked him if he’d like more children, he said yes, but only boys.

“You know you can’t choose,” I said.

“I know, but I don’t want a girl,” he answered. “Girls are a problem.”

Girls are indeed considered a problem in a country where women are raped and killed daily. For the past few years El Salvador has been listed among the world’s deadliest countries for women, and ranks first in Latin America.

In 2016 alone, 524 women were killed, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine, the organization charged with identifying the dead and figuring out what killed them — one in every 5,000 women. But this number understates the extent of the slaughter. Only the bodies that are taken to morgues are counted, not those found dismembered in clandestine dumping grounds.

Dead Salvadoran women are not considered a problem. They are, at best, an afterthought. Over the past few years, the Salvadoran government has attempted to establish truces with the criminal gangs, known as “maras,” that operate in nearly every Salvadoran city in an effort to curtail the horrific trail of dead men left by the gang wars. The level of violence rises and falls — it’s tempered when truces between the maras and the government are brokered and soars again after government crackdowns. In contrast, the murder rate among women has remained steady, according to the Observatory of Violence Against Women.

It is the women who survive violence and sexual assault — 10 per day — who pose a problem for Salvadoran society. Even more so when they turn to the police, the district attorney’s office or hospitals for help, or when they dare report their attackers.

I understood this after spending a morning at the office of Dr. Zulma Jennifer Méndez, who leads the H.I.V. program at the San Rafael Public Hospital here in San Salvador. For hours, I listened to her patients’ stories. One had escaped from the gang that kidnapped her. Her brothers didn’t want to join the gang, so they were killed in retaliation. Gang members raped her and gave her H.I.V.

Doctors who help Salvadoran women who have been victims of gang violence — including female gang members — are horrified by the brutality their patients have suffered. But gang members are not the only ones responsible for the violence against women. The men who rape them are also their husbands, fathers, uncles, acquaintances, neighbors. Nearly three out of every four acts of sexual violence take place in the victims’ homes, and seven of every 10 victims are under the age of 20.

And the victims who become pregnant and do not want to be know not to expect help from the authorities. Abortion in El Salvador is illegal in all circumstances, even in cases of rape. Some women who have had abortions — or like 19-year-old Evelyn Hernández, who gave birth outside of the hospital and whose baby didn’t survive — have been convicted of aggravated homicide. The punishment is a 30-year prison sentence, the same as for a gang member who is convicted of murder. It’s common for doctors to report women who have had an abortion or attempt to obtain one.

“I was threatened with jail time once,” Dr. Méndez told me. “I wanted to help a woman whose emergency contraception didn’t work after she was raped. Naïvely, I called the Institute of Legal Medicine and told them what had happened. I was told not to get involved, as I could be put behind bars.”

What kind of society threatens those who try to take care of the physical and mental health of women? A society that is also incapable of protecting them and taking care of women when they are the victims of violence. The kind of society that lets crime go unpunished.

Many Salvadoran women feel that they cannot trust the system. Despite laws passed since 2010 to protect them — notably one that ordered public institutions to begin providing special attention to the needs of women — the state at all levels has been slow to respond.

Special courts that deal in violence against women are only just beginning to operate, a district attorney told me. While the police have created dozens of “unimujer” units that focus on women who are victims of violence and their children, they cannot keep them safe from retaliation by their attackers.

If I were one of these victims, or if I had to face the Salvadoran system and society, I would have most likely left the country. Nothing happened to me while I was there, but I was constantly being told by Salvadorans I could be in danger just by doing what I normally do: walking down the street by myself, taking taxis or buses, going out at night. Thousands of women have fled El Salvador in the past few years because they don’t believe they can live peacefully in their own country. They don’t want their sons and daughters to grow up in a society that accepts, perpetuates and often justifies violence against them.

I asked various specialists and Dr. Méndez, “Where does this machismo and misogyny come from?” I wanted some clarity and, above all, some hope. Several of them responded, with the kind of answer a foreigner never wants to hear: “That’s the way we are.”

If society dismisses these patriarchal attitudes or excuses them as normal, programs by the public sector or civil society organizations geared toward changing the way women are treated will have little impact. Machismo and misogyny are not genetic traits. They are sexist behaviors that must be changed.

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