The United Nations has called for an investigation into unprecedented violence against transgender women in El Salvador.
The investigation comes after the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded seven deaths of trans women in the country so far this year; local LGBT organizations put the toll at 17.
“We urge the government of El Salvador to take urgent measures to ensure the protection of activists and individuals who are under threat,” OHCHR Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva last week.
The U.N. office, which in 2011 declared its opposition to discrimination or violence against people based on sexual orientation, linked the recent spike in killings with ineffective investigations of LGBT-related crimes.
Last year, local organizations said at least 25 transgender women were killed in the Central American country. One prominent transgender human rights defender, Karla Avelar, told Reuters about the threats she encountered and insisted that she has no protection from authorities in her area.
“Criminals operate within the same institutions of government. So how can you entrust your life to them? How can you entrust your security to these institutions?” Avelar told Reuters.
The activist is a finalist for an international prize for human rights activists – the Martin Ennals Award – but said the gang members have already sought to extort some of the future prize money if she wins. She said was shot and wounded multiple times, and was forced to flee her home six times over the last two years because of threats from local gang members.
“Many transgender people have been forced to migrate to other countries to safeguard their own lives,” Avelar told Reuters.
This exodus of trans people from the region has been labelled a ‘refugee crisis’ by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The conservative country has one of the world’s highest murder rates outside of conflict zones, with 81.7 reported homicides per 100,000 residents last year. Activists say LGBT people face a double threat from such violence; anti-LBGT rhetoric from religious figures and politicians perpetuates already entrenched social prejudices, activists say, while the influential Roman Catholic Church furthers anti-LGBT sentiment by publicly condemning gay marriage and sex.
Transgender people are not allowed to change to the gender they identify with on public documents, and same-sex marriage is not recognized by Salvadoran law. Activists warn that laws restricting gay rights will be slow to change, citing a 2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center that found that nearly two thirds of Salvadorans believe that society should not accept homosexuality.
Anti-gay sentiment is common across Latin America, which is the world’s deadliest region for LGBT people, according to research group Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide. Gay rights activists say that LGBT people fare better economically in countries that have legalized marriage and other basic rights.