Trapped: Sexual Violence, Feminicide, Femicidal Suicide and Feminist Demonstrations

The criminalization of abortion, one of the many forms of violence against women, is the main cause of preventable maternal deaths in El Salvador. 

Women in El Salvador face a culture of beliefs and traditions that combine to spin a web of aggression inside which they feel trapped and unable to fully enjoy their freedoms and rights as human beings, especially their right to live a life free from violence. Despite progress in the legal area, belief systems deeply rooted in Salvadorian society continue to perpetuate gender-based violence. 

In this context, the rape of a woman is not considered “such a serious” act. The resulting psychological damage is also not given sufficient consideration, and in the case of pregnancy the only alternative offered by Salvadorian society is to continue the pregnancy in any case and to give up the child for adoption after birth.  

A major difficulty when addressing this kind of violence against women is the transfer of responsibility onto the victim, so as to make the woman or girl feel ashamed or somehow responsible for the aggression, in many cases inhibiting them from reporting the crime and demanding justice for the acts perpetrated against them. It has become somewhat frequent for authorities to question the victim’s dress and behaviour, choice of time to be on the street or reputation of the area where the crime took place, and rape victims who dare to report the crime are fairly soon warned about the penalties for making false allegations. 

For women it is much more difficult and painful to confront sexual violence when the perpetrator is a person from the same family, someone responsible for the victim, or someone on whom the victim is emotionally, economically and socially dependent. A 2015 report entitled Report on acts of violence against women [1] found that around 25% of all violent acts were in the form of sexual violence, corresponding to 5,019 crimes of this nature reported in 2015. The report shows that in 74% of the cases the sexual aggression took place in the victims’ homes, with 7 out of 10 of the victims under the age of 20. 
The Ministry of Health reported in 2015 that 13,146 Salvadorian girls aged between 10 and 17 were registered in prenatal care programs, of which 11% (1 in 9) were 14 years old or younger [2]. Of the total number of pregnancies, 25,132 (30%) were registered for girls or women between the ages of 10 and 19. It is important to recognize that many of these pregnancies are the result of rapes that take place in family units. According to the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life free from Gender Violence (LEIVLVM in its Spanish acronyms), all sexual relations with girls under the age of 15 will be punished with sentences of between 14 and 20 years in prison, and sexual relations with a girl between the ages of 15 and 18, with 4 to 10 years in prison [3]. Teenage pregnancies are directly connected to another reality, early unions and child marriages [4], which constitute another reflection of the social acceptance and toleration of sexual violence.
In this problematic context, one positive development has been the creation of the National System for Data, Statistics and Information on Violence against Women, coordinated by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security along with the Department of Statistics and Census (DIGESTIC). Both bodies have requested assistance from other government departments and institutions [5], connected to violence against women, to develop an information management tool that will help research the facts about both victims and perpetrators of gender-based violence, as well as the secondary effects of such violence. The tool also has the task of evaluating the impact of policies designed to eradicate this violence, and monitor resource allocation for victim support. 
This System, which is the result of the enactment of article 30 of the LEIVLVM, has created standardized instruments for the collection and recording of data, a virtual platform for data feeds and data consolidation, Technical Committees for the verification and validation of data, and Specialized Committees for the Analysis and Review of hypotheses about data systems. The publication of an annual report, based on the systematization of information, has been proposed. 
Due to the dynamics of social violence and criminality in the country, men continue to be the main victims of violent deaths, with a mortality rate of 199 for every 100,000 men. The 2015 Report on acts of violence against women, however, shows that the rate of feminicides continues at alarming levels. In 2015, there were 574 feminicides, which is equivalent to a rate of more than 16 for every 100,000 women. Despite the increased information available, the report also claimed that of the 574 feminicides that occurred, only 64 arrests were made [6]
In another change, the 2015 report recognized the categories of feminicide-suicide and maternal deaths, as they are now considered preventable deaths. According to the data, during 2015 the System registered 108 suicides, of which 74 were due to self-administered intoxication. Girls, teenagers and young women are the main victims of this type of violence, “with those between the ages of 11 and 19 comprising 42.59% of suicides. The data shows that approximately 6 in 10 women who took their own lives were under the age of 24 [7]”. 
While violence against women is still broadly tolerated and while offenders still enjoy widespread impunity, Salvadorian society and its Government will shoulder an enormous responsibility for gender-based crimes. Despite the recent reform of the Criminal Code [8] that included the withdrawal of statutes of limitation for crimes of torture and those committed against the sexual freedom of minors or a person incapable of defending himself/herself, the State is directly responsible for feminicides-suicides in the case of maternal deaths, as women are still put through the torture of being forced into full term rape-induced pregnancies. 
Women´s organizations and movements see the prevention, investigation and punishment of violence against women as their main area of contention with Salvadoran state institutions. The experience of recent years has shown at least three directions for our creative endeavours:  

  • Requesting the application and development of legal and institutional resources for the prevention, investigation and eradication of violence against women. The latest victory in this campaign is the creation of Specialized Courts for a life free of violence and discrimination against women, approved by legislative decree in February 2016. 
  • The struggle for the recognition of all forms of violence against women as a violation of human rights, the reporting of hate crimes and the strengthening of women’s agency to oppose gender-based situations of violence such as street harassment. Women’s organizations and movements, with many young people from the LGTBI movement, have participated in significant initiatives such as NI UNA MENOS (NOT ONE LESS), and WE´RE STOPPING BECAUSE WE´RE SICK OF ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE.  
  • The fight for the decriminalization of abortion to incorporate exceptions to the total punishment imposed more than 20 years ago. A number of platforms drawing together women’s organizations, youth groups, health workers and academics demand the right to health, life, and for women and girls to have the option of terminating a rape-induced pregnancy. They also request the release from prison of women imprisoned for abortion and/or obstetric difficulties associated with abortion.


[1] Ministry of Justice and Public Safety: Report on Violent Actions against Women (“Informe sobre Hechos de Violencia contra las Mujeres”), El Salvador, 2015.

[2] The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) El Salvador: Map of Pregnancies in Girls in El Salvador. First edition, July 2016.

[3] Articles 159 and 163 of Special law for a life free from violence against women (“Ley especial para una vida libre de violencia para las mujeres”).

[4] While this article is being written, there is a pending debate in parliament on the initiative of the MP Lorena Peña, who proposed the modification of the Family Code (“Código de Familia”) that permits the marriage of minors under 14 in case of pregnancy.

[5] Those who participated in the first Report of violent acts against women in 2015 (“Informe sobre hechos de violencia contra las mujeres 2015”) are: Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) (General Attorney of the Republic) ; Instituto de Medicina Legal Dr. Roberto Masferrer (IML) (Institute of Legal Medicine Dr. Roberto Masferrer); Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de la Mujer (ISDEMU) (Salvadorian Institute for the Development of Women); Ministerio de Hacienda (Ministry of Finance); Ministerio de Trabajo y Previsión Social (MTPS) (Ministry of Labour and Social Security); Ministerio de Salud (MINSAL) (Health Ministry); Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) (Civil National Police) along with the Asociación Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (ORMUSA) (Association, Organization of Salvadorian Women for Peace).

[6] The report details that 30 arrests were for feminicide and 34 were for aggravated feminicide. Page 55.

[7] Ibid. Page 70.

[8] Legislative Decree Number 217, 10 December 2015, published in the Official Diary 237, volume 409 on 23 December 2015.