El Salvador Kills Women as the U.S. Shrugs

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on March 7th, 2019, by Louise Donovan and Fuller Project Editor-in-Chief Christina Asquith.

Women march during International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Nov. 26, 2018. (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington helped start an epidemic of violence against women in Central America. Now it’s washing its hands of the problem.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—When police finally found Joselyn Milena Abarca, her body had been cut up into seven pieces and dumped across San Salvador. The 26-year-old had been a psychology major in college and a rising star in her job. She recently bought a house and a car.

But her boyfriend, Rónald Urbina, treated her like a possession. She had to ask for permission to cut her hair; he had previously tried to suffocate her to death. Rónald was subsequently arrested and charged with murdering Joselyn. (He denies all charges.)

His increasingly violent and controlling behavior, however, was allowed to fester for the 10 years they were together without any legal repercussions. That’s sadly common in a country that often dismisses crimes against women. Homicides of women in El Salvador have more than doubled since 2013 to 468 in 2017, according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine. The violence is destabilizing the country and is considered a major push factor in driving up migration to the United States. Women currently make up 27 percent of all migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.

But while Salvadoran women’s rights advocates are trying to curb the violence and tackle the misogyny, the United States is undercutting those very efforts. The Trump administration is pulling funding from programs that support women in El Salvador and focusing funding and energy on a border wall to keep them and others out. Women seeking asylum based on domestic violence claims are now being rejected. In 2018, the United States committed only $600,000 to anti-violence programs, which was 1 percent of its aid budget to El Salvador.

To get a sense of how small that is, consider that at the height of the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, the United States was spending $1 million to $2 million a day on military and aid. The legacy of that war, and Washington’s direct role in fueling it, normalized the culture of violence that women suffer from today, many say. “[We] haven’t been taught [how] to live in harmony or in peace,” the criminologist Ricardo Sosa explained in a BBC interview. “We prioritize violence as a way to resolve conflicts.”

The Trump administration’s weak efforts to protect women are not only wrong—they’re also shortsighted. The United States should consider violence against women a national security threat and factor it into programs and policies aimed toward stabilizing international affairs. It’s the right move for El Salvador and a smart one for U.S. policy if it really wants to ease the migrant issue.

“Violence is a profound, complex issue—you’re not going fix it overnight,” explained Celina de Sola, the co-founder of Glasswing, a nongovernmental organization that works in vulnerable communities in El Salvador. “But when you consistently invest in prevention work at a community level, you start to build structures around young people.”

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