Lutheran Women Share Realities about Violence

This is a story about women telling hard truths, women coming together to support each other, women working to improve the lives of women and girls in their communities. 

Recently, an invitation from the leaders of Gender and Family Ministry of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church was sent out through a communication group of which I am a member. It caught my attention:

The Salvadoran Lutheran Church, working with the Office of the Woman of the Lutheran World Federation, has initiated a consultation process about the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW ...  The purpose of the gathering is to bring together women leaders from their communities for a consultation on community contexts regarding gender policies and all forms of discrimination against women.

Pastor Cecilia giving out vacunas contra la violencia during the Missions of Healing (2011 & 2012)

I thought about Pastor Cecilia giving out "vaccinations against violence" to children and our time together learning about women's empowerment projects in Central America. During the 24 years in which the network of Lutheran Churches from Wisconsin has coordinated with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in the Missions of Healing and Women's Health Initiatives, we have worked hard to create safe spaces for women and girls to talk about their physical and mental health and well-being. I asked the CEDAW consultation leaders if I could come to the consultation and learn. 

Next, I did a little homework. After translating the invitation into English, I looked for the CEDAW online and found the full text. I noticed that the United States is one of just a handful of countries which has NOT ratified this 1979 agreement (no surprise - the US has not ratified most United Nations human rights agreements, including protections for the rights of children). El Salvador signed the CEDAW in August, 1981. As a signatory to the convention, El Salvador is required to submit periodic reports to the UN. This gathering was to be a portion of the work which the Lutheran Church is doing to contribute to that report.

Photo credit: Rafael Menjivar

The consultation was an all-day event, and the turn-out was impressive! Pastors and lay-leaders from all five micro-regions of the Salvadoran Lutheran church participated, representing different generations, varied economic circumstances, rural and urban settings.  Some got up at 2:30 AM to make the long ride into San Salvador. A few men also joined in the conversation.

After sharing pupusas, coffee and a devotion, the leaders defined the context for the work of the day. This included some government statistics from 2022 related to reported acts of violence against women in El Salvador. A video created by El Salvador's Office of the Attorney General was one of two videos which were shared with the group. 

After the general assembly and a coffee break, the women assembled into 5 work groups by micro-region. The task was to discuss 8 questions. Each group designated a note-taker who had the challenge of summarizing the comments and writing them on large paper. I was able to listen in as the groups carefully pondered each question. One thing I noticed was that the note-takers/moderators were young, dynamic, and very skillful at listening to each woman in the group. This caught my attention because sometimes young people are not given the opportunity to shine in a space full of pastors who like to talk.

The 8 questions under consideration and some responses I noted:
  1. How do you define violence?
    • The groups reiterated what they had seen in the video, but also spoke about the importance of NOT judging a victim. For example, a victim who has been physically harmed may not believe that a woman who is verbally abused is actually suffering abuse. The groups discussed the importance of believing and supporting victims. 

  2. How do you perceive violence against women in your surroundings? Do you know of a specific case? Do you know if there was resolution of the case by the authorities?
    • Women were aware of violence against women in their communities, particularly inter-familial violence, including sexual assault of girls and women by step-fathers and uncles. Many of them knew of specific cases. They spoke about notification to authorities (by the victims, family members, health workers, or church leaders), but reported that very often the police do not come. They also said that male police officers are on the side of the men in the "brotherhood of machismo" and make deals off to the side. No one reported knowing of a case that had been resolved by the authorities.
      Photo credit: Rafael Menjivar

  3. Do you take up the subject of sexuality with your children at home? If so, in what ways?  
    • Particularly in the context of this question, I noted that "sexuality" was interpreted by the women to mean "sex education" - as in how our bodies work, how babies are created, and the respect one should have for their own body and the bodies of others.
    • Uniformly among the groups, women said that they have provided sex education at home for two main reasons:  1) The older women said that they had NO education when they were young, and they knew it was very important that their children and grandchildren be well-informed; and 2) The kids all have cell phones and see all kinds of things outside of the view of their parents. The groups voiced the importance of teaching the children correct information before they are exposed to sexually explicit ideas out in the world, to use anatomically correct names for body parts, and to control online access for young children. If the children ask, then it is time to answer their questions with the truth and accurate names for their parts.
    • This question produced some funny stories.
      • "When I was between about 3 and 5 years old, I asked my mom where babies came from. She told me that the stork would land on the roof and leave the baby. At night, I could not sleep because I was nervous, always looking up at the ceiling and listening on the roof in case a baby would come."
      • "In the old days they would just say to the boys, 'You can't go out at night, or the Signuanaba will get you!' Right? They'd really say that. Well, these days the boys all have their cell phones and would laugh and say that is crazy." The mention of the Siguanaba literally had all the older women nodding and laughing, remembering the funny legends that were used to keep teenagers under control "back in the day."
        The Siguanaba appears at the river, seemingly beautiful, but after she lures men to her side, she turns into a horrible witch. So, my dear men, do not go out wandering at night!

  4. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the prevalence of violence against women in your community?
  5. Within the context of the pandemic, did the number of cases of violence against girls and women and the number of pregnancies increase? Do you know of a specific case?
    • During the 9-month lock-down in El Salvador, the women reported an increase in known cases of violence, including sexual violence. The women said being closed up in the house was stressful and the men became frustrated. The conversations about sexual assault by step fathers were numerous. Some pointed out that life in the countryside may have been easier because people could go outside and take a walk in their farms.
    • The groups noted a marked increase in pregnancies, including pregnancies of young teens. One HUGE factor was that women could not leave their homes to go get their birth control.
      Photo credit: Ivonn Jimenez

  6. Is there sex education in your community? If so, who provides it?
    • The number one answer for who provides sex education in the city and country alike:  the Lutheran Church. Every group mentioned the Missions of Healing, the work of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church health ministry training and events, and the work of local church teaching teams. A few groups also mentioned the local Unidad de Salud (health clinic for those without insurance) and the schools. 

  7. Have you participated in a program to prevent violence against women? If so, what was your participation?
    • Some of the women had received training through women's entrepreneurship and empowerment groups. One woman in the North mentioned being trained and being invited into local schools to give anti-violence workshops to students.
  8. What are the work conditions and guarantees of health, education and formal employment that women have in the rural context?
    • "Muy mal." (Very bad.) That was the response to this question. Women support themselves by selling things in their little stands or outside of their homes, in addition to completing all the tasks necessary to care for a family and run a home. The women were quite indignant with respect to the way "women's work" in the home or on the farm is not given economic value or respect. Some had examples of women being paid less than men for the same work. 
The consultation concluded with each group presenting a summary of its responses to the questions. Some of the women needed to leave before this activity, in order to return home before dark or to care for their families. The leaders were very impressed with the broad scope of the information presented. Without sharing statistics or personal detail, the women painted a very accurate picture of the level of violence and abuse which exists in their communities. As the leaders had said at the start of the day, it is one thing to sign and ratify an agreement. It is another thing to keep all of its tenets. El Salvador has some work to do.

Thank you to all the women who took a day to do this important work, and to leaders and educators in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and international companion churches who have worked to improve the health, safety and wellness of Salvadoran women, families and communities.


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