The first goal was to pass a law for gender equality in El Salvador. This has now been achieved. On 17 March 2011, the General Assembly unanimously approved the Law of Equality, Fairness, and the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a set of regulations that improve the judicial framework for the protection of women’s rights. This was pushed through by Salvadoran women’s organizations, with the support of UN Women Fund for Gender Equality through the Fund’s catalytic programmes.
El Salvador screamed out for change. This is a country in which the wage gender gap between men and women is 14 percent and where women do not have the same access to education as men. Five out of every 10 girls drop out of school to help in the home and 61.3 percent of the illiterate population is female. At the same time, women represent 76.8 percent of the inactive economic population. Of these, 42.8 percent are categorized as engaging in “home work.” The data on political participation are also not very encouraging: women occupy only 29 of the 262 existing mayorships and there are only 18 female representatives among the 84 seats in the General Assembly.
It was from within this reality that different women’s movements united with a common goal: achieve equal opportunities for men and women. “We have taken steps forward and steps back, but at a certain point we reached the conclusion that, although it would take a lot of time — for this law — to come out, the most important thing was to get the support of the citizens,” remembers María Elena Alvarado of the Concertación Prudencia Ayala, an organization that combines more than 20 women’s groups including Las Dignas and Las Mélidas, two lead grantee partner organizations of the Fund for Gender Equality who played a crucial role in this process.
With the objective of achieving gender equality, activists began a program to record the demands of as many women as possible, from rural women to domestic workers, from professionals to the politically active. “We listened a lot; wrote everything down. Then we set about reading gender equality laws from other countries and we realized that we were not versed on legal matters. We didn’t know how to go about this,” explains Emma Hernández, an activist also with the Concertación Prudencia Ayala. This was the first obstacle to be overcome.
The need for change, however, was stronger than the temptation to abandon the idea. Therefore, a plan was conceived. “We made a map of power. We sought out alliances with women from all walks of life. We asked for national and international support and we sought to make sure the demands of women from all sectors would be included in the law,” declared Hernández.
A tenacious campaign turned out to be one of the keys to their success. “We went to the General Assembly everyday. We called it guerilla warfare because it was an insistent crusade. We didn’t want them to forget about the law at any moment,” tells Alvarado. To this they added public and media advocacy. They also garnered the support of women with a public presence, parliamentarians, and the female representatives from all the political parties. “They were carrying an enormous weight because we would tell the ones on the right that they were with the left and vice versa. But ultimately they all made the agenda of the feminist movement theirs.”
“When we presented our plan to the Fund for Gender Equality we committed ourselves to an effective advocacy, but we couldn’t promise the law would pass because that wasn’t in our hands. Nevertheless, it was passed,” said Alvarado, who also explained that they are now working on implementing the law. In an effort to make the law effective, they are trying to educate public servants and are struggling to get a budget assigned for the mechanisms of change the Law of Equality mandates. They are also attempting to ensure that the agenda of the Salvadoran government includes the principles of equality and nondiscrimination.
Hernández feels that this is an enormous task, but they have already started to work towards these new goals. “We organized an international forum in August in order to share experiences in the implementation of laws and that cleared up a lot of things for us.” Furthermore, the women’s movement has signed an agreement with the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development (ISDEMU) to develop a plan for achieving equality. “At this time we are united, but with us as the monitoring agents of public financing for the law, and them as guiders of the law, because we are the ones who know it point by point.”
The law dictates, among other things, that women and men obtain the same salary for the same work and that the value of domestic labor, paid or unpaid, be recognized. It also provides guarantees for rural women. For example, it regulates land titles. However, other articles that were included in the initial formulation of the law, like provisions for participation quotas for women in elected positions and the secularization of education, were not included in the final version.
Hernández believes that what was left out of the law now will be included in the future. “When we began this struggle, everyone told us we had to proceed slowly. We have to think that this law will take, as a minimum, 20 years. Achieving real equality is going to take time, but we have to lay the foundations now. We want to do a lot of things, but the most urgent is a plan for equality.”
The work the activists engage in is constant and meticulous. They have begun to give educational workshops for local female leaders and functionaries from some institutions using a vernacular version of the law. This is an initiative that will carry into the communities. “This will create a critical mass of women who monitor the law,” claims Alvarado.
The two activists look back on the work of the last few years and they realize they have accumulated experience. Among the lessons they have learned from the process is the fundamental importance of political alliances between women. “If we want something, we will achieve it together, not divided. Moreover, men always make alliances. That’s why we have to find what unites us,” says Alvarado, who adds that everything was made possible thanks to the fact that the law was a consensual creation done with the participation of all Salvadoran women. “The women feel like the law is theirs, they own it, and that’s why they’re going to demand it.” Hernández and Alvarado both consider the collective construction of the law by women from all circles to have been the best strategy.
The experience has changed the perspective of Emma Hernández’ activism. “As an independent feminist, I now understand that nothing is impossible. You have to learn how to overcome the obstacles and take advantage of opportunities. I realized it’s a myth that only lawyers can make laws since we’re the ones who put together the content. This law has strengthened all of us. It empowers us. We are prepared for the struggle. The fight does not end here.”