Safety for Women is Key to Central America’s Stability

Essay By
Learn more about Natalie Gonnella-Platts.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts
Director, Women's Advancement
George W. Bush Institute
Learn more about Jenny Villatoro.
Jenny Villatoro
Associate, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute
Women protesting "femicide" and gender-based violence in Mexico City in March 2020. (Soy Sendra/Shutterstock)

Gender-based violence affects one in three women worldwide, making it an urgent and important policy challenge. Violence against women and girls is often excluded from conversations on the nexus of Central American democracy.

“I experienced a lot of violence, beatings, abuse, rape…my third child… was born as a result of rape”.

In El Salvador, Ms. A-B endured over a decade of violent abuse. Multiple reports to the police resulted in total impunity for her abuser. The response was, “He is your partner, he has the right to do whatever he wants with you.” Amidst the violence and threats, she divorced him. Fleeing to other parts of her home country, her ex-husband would track her down and find her – eventually she fled to the U.S. to seek asylum. “I was terrified,” she told authorities.

In 2018 her case would shock the U.S. immigration system when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions intervened to deny her case. He reversed U.S. asylum protection for all victims of domestic violence, labeling domestic violence as “private criminal activity.”

Unfortunately, the case of this individual, whose identity has been changed here for protection, is not unusual in many parts of the world. In Central America and beyond, women suffer egregious violations of their fundamental human rights simply because they are women.

Central American women suffer some of the highest rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence (GBV) in the world. A staggering 95 percent of crimes against women and girls goes unpunished. Populists and authoritarians everywhere thrive on the destabilization of communities that violence against women creates. And the long history of GBV in Central America is no exception.

Deeply entwined with this reality are the complexities of prior U.S. engagement, current immigration policies, and deep-seeded fractures that autocrats and other bad actors have strategically used at the expense of women and children.

That is why support for democratic values that place the status and well-being of female citizens at the center is needed now more than ever.

The realities of Central America

Violence against women and children has a long history in the northern Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These countries were mired in civil conflict in the 1980s, when both the military and guerilla forces systematically used rape, sexual abuse, disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.

Central American women suffer some of the highest rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence (GBV) in the world. A staggering 95 percent of crimes against women and girls goes unpunished.

Heartbreakingly, both sides also used child soldiers, who were often kidnapped, forced to fight, and subjected to horrible mistreatment and abuse. International truth commissions have documented evidence of human rights violations and over 227 massacres throughout the region, including sex-enslavement of indigenous women in the Guatemalan genocide.

The civil conflict, however, is only one period in this region’s history of a larger cycle of violence and poverty. Before the 1980s conflict, these countries suffered under the Spanish conquest. Once independent from Spain, they labored under exploitative plantation-driven economics.

This is especially true in the case of Honduras, the first country to be dubbed a “banana republic.” Landowners, the military, and the police abused peasant farmers, massacred many, and stole indigenous land. The rampant violence and impunity against these marginalized groups is part of what sparked the embers of war leading up to the civil conflicts.

Since then, the region has continued to suffer from endemic corruption and violence. Gangs and transnational criminal organizations continue the violence that military and guerilla leaders once perpetrated.

At each point in this historical cycle of violence, women and children bear the heaviest burden. Coupled with gender norms, this cycle may contribute to a culture that tolerates violence against women.

Impact of border policies

These realities have spiraled into a lack of hope that drives many women to seek safety in the U.S. Unfortunately, they face a gauntlet in Mexico, where just in 2020 over 260,000 cases of violence against women were reported. Impunity persists for perpetrators of violence, including those in the military or police.

Amnesty International estimates that 80% of female migrants are sexually assaulted on their way through Mexico. Asylum seekers know this, and often secure contraception before the journey. They attempt to at least prevent an unwanted pregnancy while pursuing a chance to seek asylum at our border.

Then, at our border, they are turned away under Title 42, the pandemic-related federal health order, which deprives them from their legal right to apply for asylum. Exceptions to being turned away at the border are rare and inconsistently applied. This includes pregnant asylum seekers who are separated from their families or turned away altogether. Both of these traumatic events can affect the health of the mother and baby.

A patch network of shelters in Mexico helps migrants as best it can, although kidnappings and violent crime are a daily occurrence. Basic resources, like water or overnight shelter, are in short supply. And many migrants, even those with small children, sleep in abandoned houses.

U.S. asylum law allows for protection if someone has “a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” They also need to show that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.

There is not, however, a specific provision for gender-based violence or sexual violence. The non-specific language, open to interpretation, has left many women unable to access justice in their own country as well as in the United States. Undeterred, women and girls still seek asylum in the U.S. as it is often their only hope for safety and stability.

Democracy remains the best way to advance peaceful and prosperous societies. And central to that success is equity, inclusivity, and protecting the inherent dignity of all. That is why meaningful action in response to cyclical violence against women and children across Northern Central America is imperative to both U.S. and regional objectives.

Authoritarian regimes are built on patriarchy. Their aspirations for power are advanced through the strategic use of oppression, abuse, and marginalization. And in Central America and beyond, the impact is especially devastating for women and girls.

How populists use social services

At the same time, populists make overtures to their citizens in the form of social services, programs, and cash transfers. Many of these services and programs are needed. Through the historical cycles of violence and poverty, corruption has robbed public funds and eroded basic government services. Citizens are left with inadequate schools and hospitals, crumbling and inefficient infrastructure, and a completely hollow judicial system that only works for those in power.

This neglect (and/or cronyism) has left citizens feeling disenfranchised, a perfect opportunity for a “strong man” to come in and promise to fix societal ills. Unfortunately for women, their well-being and status within society are often undermined further under the actions of these autocratic actors.

Misogynistic rhetoric, rollbacks in legal protections and access to social services, and emphasis and promotion of antiquated gender roles undercut advancements (or needed advancements) in gender equity. Anti-democratic efforts significantly restrict the ability of female human rights defenders and women’s right organizations to engage in support of vulnerable populations.

Startlingly, Latin America has seen a rise in executive control, and a rise in public support for “executive coups” – executives who usurp the legislative and judicial branches of government, effectively governing without them and without democratic checks and balances.

Autocrats are also all too happy to point to the U.S. as another reason for citizen’s disenfranchisement. As a convenient bogeyman, American interactions with the region in the past often take the blame for continuous cycles of violence and poverty. While U.S. history in Central America does warrant reflection, authoritarian strategies manipulate the context, centralizing power by undercutting democratic values as a whole – if the U.S. is the bad guy why should our government look like theirs?

Misogynistic rhetoric, rollbacks in legal protections and access to social services, and emphasis and promotion of antiquated gender roles undercut advancements (or needed advancements) in gender equity.

Buying this argument though is dangerous. Both gangs and government actors use this tactic to fortify obedience, authority, and control. As long as citizens are grateful for the “gifts” from the government they are not targeted for oppression.

The U.S. has past and current policies that many think warrant criticism. The difference is that U.S. citizens are free to criticize their government. The democratic institutions of rule of law and human rights in the U.S. are such that journalists and civil society actors don’t fear being “disappeared.”

When our government takes steps antithetical to our principles and values as a nation (such as the family-separation policy of 2017) – public outcry can outweigh executive decree. This is one of the most sacred tenets of democracy, when freedom of expression is under threat it’s the proverbial canary in a coal mine – take heed.

Democracy remains the best way to advance peaceful and prosperous societies. And central to that success is equity, inclusivity, and protecting the inherent dignity of all. That is why meaningful action in response to cyclical violence against women and children across Northern Central America is imperative to both U.S. and regional objectives.

A country cannot succeed when half of its population is undervalued, unprotected, and denied agency to decide and act upon their choices.

Women are one of the greatest assets in the pursuit of growth and stability. When women are educated, their children are more likely to be educated. When they are healthy, their families are healthier. And when they have equal and active access to economic participation communities and countries thrive. But for women to contribute, they need to be safe.

In the pursuit of a more prosperous, safe, and democratic future across Central America, immigration and development policies must ensure efforts to uproot and dismantle gender-based violence are a central focus of both private and public sector investments. As current circumstances in Central America and at the southern border of the United States demonstrate, stability and prosperity are not possible without them.