Latin American women organizing to fight sexual violence

They laughed, sang, hooted and danced.

If someone had wandered into this gathering Thursday evening, in a refurbished church hall in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, few likely would have guessed it was about fighting sexual violence, and other forms of gender-based violence. The room was joyful and loud; not serious or subdued.

Nicole Santamaria, a therapist from El Salvador who works with survivors of gender-based violence.

Nicole Santamaria, a therapist from El Salvador who works with survivors of gender-based violence.

“We are sisters, coming together, and it is already having an impact across all of Central America,” said a gleeful Nicole Santamaria, an art therapist from El Salvador who works with survivors of gender-based violence, especially within the transgender community. “Nothing can stop us.”

This was a gathering of Mujeres Adelante, in English ‘Women Forward,’ a joint program of the Seattle International Foundation (a Humanosphere sponsor) and the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues aimed at fighting violence and empowering women.

“Women’s empowerment is critical to building stable and democratic societies,” said Regina Smedinghoff, the U.S. State Dept. representative to this year’s crop of forward-leaning mujeres. “Gender-based violence really undermines human rights and health of millions … We see empowering women as fundamental to achieving our foreign policy goals.”

Sexual and gender-based violence is a massive problem around the world but is especially epidemic in Central America.

As the World Health Organization notes, studies indicate one of three women worldwide have experienced some form of sexual assault or ‘intimate’ kind of physical violence. In parts of Central America, the statistics are often worse and yet still thought by many to underestimate the problem – because so many do not report such incidents.

For Santamaria,  who works with the Salvadoran Network of Defenders of Women’s Human Rights, this is both personal and professional.  Six years ago, she was assaulted by four men who stuck a gun in her mouth, breaking teeth, and attempted to rape her. She fought back and suffered more injuries, but succeeded in preventing them from raping her.

“I was humiliated, afraid, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” Santamaria recalled. But fear and shame were soon replaced by a desire to help other victims of such assaults, which is what led her to do art therapy for others who had suffered similar experiences. “For survivors like me, who early on either cannot or don’t want to talk about it, art is a means to regain peace and strength.”

Maria Xol

Maria Xol

“The problem throughout Latin America is that men still have all the power and the laws protect them more than they can protect against the abuse of women,” said Maria Xol, an attorney and women’s rights advocate from Guatemala who operates a shelter and support group for abused women and children in a northern ‘department’ of the country, Alta Verapaz.

“Women who are assaulted and report it often suffer another problem,” Xol noted. Because Guatemalan women often have no property rights, she said, when judges actually rule in their favor and sign protection orders requiring the abuser to stay away from the victim, it is the woman who gets forced out of the home because the man has the property rights.

“This patriarchal system exists throughout Latin America,” Xol said. Violence against women takes many forms beyond just the physical act, she said, and should be seen in the context of all the economic, social, political and cultural structures that sustain the abuse. “We need to change our laws, our culture and our political systems … And we are, slowly, but we are having some successes.”

Speeding up such change is the ultimate goal of Mujeres Adelante, said Michele Frix, director of programs at the Seattle International Foundation. Frix, who accompanied the 16 participants in this year’s two-week whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C., Santa Fe and Seattle, said raising awareness of this massive problem and empowering change agents in their individual efforts is just one goal of this initiative launched two years ago.

“Ultimately, what we hope to do is create a regional network across Central America so they can support and inform each other,” Frix said. Change is already happening in many communities across the region thanks to dedicated activists like Xol and Santamaria, she said, but it is still moving ahead too slowly. The Seattle philanthropy, founded by Bill and Paula Clapp, aims to help spark a more organized, unified and powerful movement.

“This is not just about violence against women,” said Santamaria. “This is violence against all of humanity.”

Participants with Mujeres Adelante met with King County Prosecutor Dan Sattergberg to discuss legal strategies for reducing gender-based violence.  SIF

Participants with Mujeres Adelante met with King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to discuss legal strategies for reducing gender-based violence. SIF

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.