On April 21, exactly one month after El Salvador’s mandatory stay-at-home order went into effect, the sounds emanating from Doris’s house alerted the neighbors in the Los Lagartos canton of San Julián, a municipality in the western coastal department of Sonsonate. For years, the neighbors had heard Doris and her husband argue, but this time, the sounds of shouting, struggling, and crash of objects hitting the ground were signs of violence. Around 7:30 in the morning, they dialed 911 to call for help. While waiting for the patrol car, some neighbors approached the house. They found Doris sprawled on the patio, bleeding and surrounded by her three young children.
Doris, 22, is the head of the household. Her husband, a decade older, is an agricultural worker. He fled the scene after dealing repeated machete blows to her head, chest and hands, thinking that he had killed Doris. Doris dragged herself to the patio in an effort to call for help, but she lost so much blood that she went into shock. Then the neighbors found her with her eyes open, unresponsive and completely silent. When the officers arrived, they lifted her into the patrol car and took her to the hospital in Sonsonate for care. After spending 28 days in intensive care, she is currently recovering from her wounds at home and has developed anemia due to blood loss.
Doris’s case is one of five reports of violence against women during quarantine in San Julián through April 22, and one of 33 cases that feminist organizations have reported in the Sonsonate department since March 21, the day that the lockdown went into effect. Only half have resulted in official reports; beyond seeking justice through the legal system, these women need to find refuge.
Home is the place with the second-most physical violence against women. Of every 100 women, 67 have experienced some kind of domestic violence in their lifetime, but only 34 have filed formal reports, according to the 2017 National Survey of Violence against Women carried out by the Department of Statistics and Censuses. In addition to concerns of underreporting since the start of the national quarantine, authorities and human rights advocates have worried that women with a history of suffering violence, like Doris, would be trapped with their aggressors, unable to flee due to the movement restrictions designed to contain the spread of contagion. The government, furthermore, has failed to coordinate a systemic response to protect these women. Those who have sought help from the authorities report that the local police were fixated on enforcing the quarantine, that the courts were closed, or that the authorities did not come to their aid. In effect, enforcement of the Special Comprehensive Act for a Violence-Free Life for Women has been placed on the backburner.
The pattern of gender-based violence observed during the quarantine is not mere happenstance; in 2018, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) rated El Salvador the most femicidal country in Latin America. The country registers an annual femicide rate of 6.8 of every 100,000 women. Despite a downward trend in 2019, experts fear that the lockdown conditions resulting from the pandemic response will cause the rate to spike this year.
Between March 11 and April 27, preliminary figures from the National Civil Police (PNC) showed a 30 percent increase in activity on domestic violence hotlines over the same time period last year, as reported by the InfoSegura project of the United Nations Development Programme. In times when the country has been ordered to stay at home, an emergency call has, in some cases, saved the lives of women like Doris.
Marina Ortega is the national director for the attorney general’s special office for women, children, adolescents, the LGBTQ population, and other vulnerable groups. She says that, relative to the same time period last year, there has been a mild increase in reports of violence since the start of the quarantine, and that there are possibly more cases of women who have been unable to file reports. “The lockdown is one of the factors allowing this violence to persist. Some cases have been more visible because the women have gone public [with their reports]. And that’s a good thing,” she says. The crime most reported to the attorney general is that of ‘acts of violence,’ leading to just under 1,300 investigations between January 1 and April 24 of this year.
Between March 21 and May 14, the Feminist Network against Gender-Based Violence has reported 21 femicides, a number which surpasses the attorney general’s reports over the same timespan. “We have reports of 10 femicides, of which five have been prosecuted,” said Attorney General Raúl Melara on television. According to the feminist organization, one of the reasons for the reporting disparities is that the prosecutors do not register all killings of women as femicides. This happens, for example, when the death is associated with gang violence.
While waiting for Doris to emerge from the ICU, her children remain in the care of her sister, a 24-year-old single mother and domestic worker raising two children of her own, both under six. Given that the government has not deemed her job an ‘essential service,’ she can barely keep food on the table. The Municipal Unit for Women, a branch of the Mayor’s Office, coordinated with the Feminist Collective to reach out to the National Council on Chidren and Adolescents for support. The council replied that it had shut down due to the pandemic, and requested the aid application via email. The PNC delivered the application both electronically and in person to the council office in Sonsonate. By April 29, they had yet to receive a reply. When El Faro reached out to the coordinator of the welfare authority in Sonsonate, she said that the delay was due to a storm on April 2 that had damaged its equipment. She also said that the authority had sent a social worker on April 30 to investigate the case. At the beginning of May, the last communication from the National Council to the Mayor’s Office said that the council would offer support to the Municipal Unit for Women via mail. At the time of publication, the Mayor’s Office has yet to receive any such communication.
A gender-based blindspot
El Salvador has been historically slow to respond to gender-based violence. The Special Comprehensive Act for a Violence-Free Life for Women did not become law until 2012.
In crafting the act, lawmakers foresaw emergency situations in which women could be especially vulnerable to violence, or in which the response to such violence might be lacking. Article 22, therefore, assigns the National Civil Protection System, a branch of the Ministry of Governance, the task of ensuring “that in times of danger and disaster, outreach to women be designed and carried out with an eye to their gender-based vulnerability and needs.” Of all the Protection System’s publicly-available online resources, only the handbook for the administration of temporary shelters carves out a section on compliance with the 2012 law.
While on paper all appears to check out, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the fact that, in times of danger and disaster, the prevention of violence against women and victim outreach are, in fact, non-priorities.
The government waited 45 days after the establishment of the quarantine before issuing a mass text message with the hotline to the Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women. Until then, feminist organizations had disseminated the information through social media and WhatsApp. On Tuesday, May 5, the government sent out a message saying that women suffering violence could dial 126, but only after May 11 did the hotline extend its hours of operation from conventional office hours to 7:00 am to 10:00 pm.
Elisa Arévalo Romero, assistant ombudswoman for the defense of the rights of women and families for the Human Rights Ombudsman, says that the government has “come up short” in responding to emerging needs across the national territory during the pandemic. “The various institutions are disconnected from each other, which has hindered a comprehensive response,” she argues.
On April 23, the Human Rights Ombudsman presented a report to the Legislative Assembly’s commission on women and equality, revealing that the suspension of administrative deadlines—which took effect on March 14, when the Assembly declared a state of emergency—created a blindspot for institutions managing gender-based violence cases filed both before and during the pandemic.
The government’s beleaguered pandemic response also extends to the Attorney General’s Office, an entity within the Public Ministry of the executive branch which began offering virtual services on March 19. Between March and April 2019, the Attorney General’s Office received 1,539 reports of intrafamily violence and gender-based violence and discrimination, whereas this year over the same time span the Public Defender received only 489, as it was prohibited from going outside.
Irma Guirola, spokesperson for Cemujer, an NGO advocating for the human rights of women, children, and adolescents, underscores that the decrease in reports is in fact a result of the decrease in services. “The [Attorney General] indicated that the number of reports has decreased somewhat, but in El Salvador, violence doesn’t simply disappear on its own overnight. That’s not how it works. What’s happening now is there are more obstacles for women in speaking up,” she says.
Jumbled responses from specialized police units
After two years of silently enduring her stalker’s advances, Esther decided to report him just as El Salvador reached day 20 of the quarantine. Esther is 12 years old, and her aggressor—the husband of one of her older sisters—is 39. Since 2018, he would approach her every time they were alone and tell her how pretty she is. He would also message her over WhatsApp and, on a few occasions, molested her. Jacqueline, her other sister, began to notice the strange behavior of her brother-in-law, so when Esther decided to tell her what happened, she accompanied her to file the report.
The National Civil Police (PNC) has specialized units, known as Unimujer, responsible for investigating cases of violence against women with personnel trained in responding to gender-based violence. The PNC is the institution to which the largest portion of women turn in search of state assistance in case of gender-based violence—40 percent of such reports, according to the Department of Statistics and Censuses. During the pandemic, various of these specialized units have reported that they have not been able to comprehensively assist the women filing these reports.
When Esther and Jacqueline arrived at the station, the Unimujer agents were out of the office because, they were told, they had been sent to guard the banks where the pandemic relief funds were being distributed. The remaining guards at the station wanted to process the report just as they would handle any common crime—that is, in front of everyone in the office and without taking measures to keep intimate details private— which is in violation of specialized police guidelines for responding to violence against women. The guidelines state that such reports should be processed in a supportive environment, respecting the private nature of the victim’s story. Esther and her sister asked for the officers to observe the protocol. More time passed than usual, but the commanding officer allowed them to file the report in a private room.
While the government is devoting most of its resources to Covid-19 prevention measures, even police officers are now reporting that they lack the resources to respond to gender-based violence. Some of the offices offering support to these cases have shut down or cut back their workforces, marking violence against women as a non-priority. Unimujer units have reported challenges in coordinating their work, both internally and with external partners. Six Unimujer agents across different municipalities told El Faro that they have experienced problems coordinating their work with the courts. In practice, this means that women arriving to file for restraining orders against men who harm or harass them receive no response from the courts.
Usually, the National Civil Police receives a woman’s report and then accompanies her to the court to obtain the restraining order, although police officers from stations in Santa Tecla, El Pedregal, El Progreso, Apopa, Nueva Concepción and San Marcos have reported that in some cases women’s requests were unsuccessful and they have remained unprotected.
According to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Law against Intrafamily Violence, “ignoring the call for help of a victim, or failing to take appropriate judicial action, can spell death for the victim, as has unfortunately happened on many occasions.” During the quarantine, which has deepened the isolation of women who are already victims of violence, a court order can offer vital relief.
For example, on April 23, an Unimujer officer in Santa Tecla filed for a protective order on behalf of a woman who had reported abuse over social media from a man who continued looking for her at her home. “I spoke with a judge from the integrated courts in Santa Tecla and she told me that, due to [the Assembly’s March 14 emergency declaration], the court was not issuing protective orders,” the officer said. The emergency declaration, known as Decree 593, mentions the suspension of administrative deadlines for 30 days, but nowhere does it prohibit judges from issuing protective orders to women who request them. “If this woman were to suffer an attempted murder, we would be committing a crime of omission,” the agent continued.
A different officer—from the Unimujer unit in El Pedregal, a neighborhood of El Rosario in the department of La Paz—reports that he responded to three women seeking protective orders in the last week of April because they felt their lives were in jeopardy. “They’re not issuing [protective] orders right now in this sector. The court in El Rosario is open but they’re not processing requests. So what we do is speak with the men so that they stop bothering [the women]. It’s not that effective, because it’s not written on an order signed by a judge,” the agent explained over the phone. “The courts have cut back their hours and sometimes they’re closed. Last time, I brought over a report to ask for protective measures for a person and I found nobody there. And the woman is currently unprotected. All that is left is the record that she came,” admitted another officer in Apopa, a municipality in the department of San Salvador.
“I went to court twice, and both times they sent me home”
Violeta went to the peace court in Santa Ana three times before the court granted her a restraining order against her husband. She decided to report him for physical violence on April 12, after 22 days in quarantine. The first time she went, it was a Sunday and they told her they were closed and to return the next day. She went back on Monday and claims that the court told her that until the Attorney General sent them formal charges, they could not issue her the order.
The Special Comprehensive Act for a Violence-Free Life, though, establishes in article 57 that measures should be taken “immediately,” as part of the due process guarantees for women facing acts of violence.
Violeta never told her family about the abuse from her partner “because some see him as ‘the perfect man.’ In reality, she suffered different forms of violence at the hand of her husband for at least 12 years.
The cycle of violence she endured started with his jealousy. “He must love me so much if he treats me this way,” she thought at the beginning. The jealousy escalated to the point that she preferred not to leave home—even to visit family—unless he went with her, so that he would not ask her if she had been seeing another man. When she would return from her job as a domestic worker, he would go through her bag, and even examine her genitals. He also controlled her Facebook account. One time, he grabbed her and started hitting her on a bus when a stranger sent her a message telling her she was pretty. It was not the only time. On Friday, April 10, after 20 days in the national quarantine, her husband hit her again after she told him she wanted to end their relationship. “We had to separate ourselves before something fatal happened between us. I couldn’t even stand the sight of him,” she recounts.
On her third trip to court on Tuesday, April 14, she was determined not to let her trip from her home in El Congo go to waste, so she brought a lawyer, an acquaintance of a friend. Only then did she manage to obtain the four-month restraining order.
Even though the court has held its first hearing for the crime of intrafamilial violence, the police have been unable to locate her husband. The aggressor’s mother refused to sign for the court’s notification to appear and has called for Violeta to retract the accusation, accusing her of lying. Violeta chides herself for not having filed the report sooner and for allowing the violence to escalate to that point, as if she were responsible for her aggressor’s behavior. “Now that he’s gone, I feel so free, so happy… I’ve been able to cry and let it all out. When I would tell him I wanted to cry, he would ask why I was whining if I had all I needed.”
The president of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court, Doris Luz Rivas, concedes that the courts have been slow to respond to these cases at times and that the Supreme Court never gave the order to close down or alter their services. “The protocols have always been in place, but there has been some delay in implementing them during this crisis,” she said, adding that it is important that the courts simplify their processes as much as legally possible, so that they can offer relief to people “through the most immediate channels.” In her view, the issuance of these restraining orders should be expedited. “Our top priority should be safeguarding the lives of women by coordinating the work to issue preliminary protective orders while waiting for the courts to finish the formal process.”
The lockdown has only made the streets more dangerous
“The streets, which have always been unsafe for us, are now even more so because fewer people are in transit,” explained the female organizers of the Movement of Women’s Associations in Chalatenango in a formal statement in early April. The forced isolation of the quarantine, both at home and in the streets of their department, was not the only reason for their remarks; the catalyst was the discovery of the body of Silvia Yesenia Menjívar on one of those hostile streets.
Silvia, 25, lived in Carasque, a small community of around 80 Salvadoran refugee families who fled to Honduras during the civil war. The mountains of the neighboring country are visible from the heart of the canton. It is a rural, low-income area, but highly organized. There are signs throughout the community prohibiting mining and gender-based violence, speaker systems to sound alarms, WhatsApp groups, and an emergency communication system. But amid the quarantine, nobody was able to protect Silvia.
She would set out each day to work in the heart of Nueva Trinidad, tending to her sister’s children. Traveling on foot, her trips to and from work took around 40 minutes each way. On March 31, she fed and played with her nieces until 4 pm, when she began her trip home. But she never arrived.
She had been missing for 22 hours when her community organized to search for her her. “The whole community is invited to participate in search parties for missing people,” said Miguel Ángel Ayala, a community leader, through a loudspeaker. At 2 pm on April 1, around 50 people broke the quarantine order to look for Silvia. The group, most of them young people, set out with the police. At 3 pm, they found her body in a ravine, showing signs of sexual violence.
Francisco Alberto, a worker in Nueva Trinidad’s Mayor’s Office, was arrested for the femicide. “I hope to God nobody dies during the quarantine, because it would be tough right now to go to the funeral,” Silvia had told one of her friends just days before her death. Due to the quarantine, none of her friends were able to attend her funeral, nor her burial.
Silvia’s death was the first femicide of the quarantine to go viral on social media, drawing condolences from the Attorney General and condemnations from the Human Rights Ombudsman. After Silvia, there have been 19 more known femicides. “If each day they keep a tally of homicides and criminal activity, they should also keep track of whether or not there were femicides,” argues Ima Guirola, spokesperson for Cemujer.
Two months after decreeing a mandatory national quarantine, president Nayib Bukele—who took drastic measures in response to rising homicides—has not said a word about the killings of women during the pandemic, nor about the spike in violence that the lockdown has provoked for women forced to shelter-in-place with their aggressor.
Editor’s Note: The names of some of the victims were changed to protect their identity.
*Additional reporting from Gabriela Cáceres and Roxana Lazo; translation by Roman Gressier