Femicide in Central America: is creating Female-Friendly Urban Zones really the solution?

Female-friendly spaces are on the rise as a means to combat gender-based violence. But do women need to be separated to be protected? 

Over the last decade, 'female-friendly' urban planning spiked in Latin America with women-only passenger cars and buses offering its target demographic respite from the not-so-occasional or accidental fondling. 

Issued across MexicoBrazil, and Guatemala, “pink” public transportation initiatives seemed to stem sexual harassment and provide safety for women. For their momentary relief, the results were praised as much as they were criticized. But as a broader initiative in El Salvador takes off to provide women-only services amid an increase in sexual violence and femicide, the stakes are higher. Can women-only services help quell a wave of gender-specific violence sweeping the country?

The not-so-girl-friendly devil is in the details 

Last March, President Mauricio Funes and First Lady and Minister of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato of El Salvador inaugurated the first of seven complexes designed to provide comprehensive, specialized care for women.

Named “Ciudad Mujer,” the City for Women, the centers will cluster up to 18 government institute modules within a safe, centralized space for women to access a rangeof free services based around basic rights, sexual and reproductive health, child care, and counseling.

The first center hopes to provide accessto an estimated 162,000 women from the neighboring departments of La Libertad and Sonsonate. Supportedbyformer Chilean president and head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet, the initiative cost $3.2 million, withan additional $20 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank earmarked for the construction of new sites.  

But feminist groups have vocalized their criticism against the initiative, questioning whether “Ciudad Mujer” will change the prevalent “machista” culture coupled with “marianismo”, feminine chastity ideals in the country, With a total population of just over 6 million, women represent over half of all Salvadorans. Salvadoran women have one of the highest job-participation rates of women in Central America, yet the average wage of Salvadoran women is 14percent less than men’s average wage, regardless of education level. This leads to exclusion from other areas, particularly management and legislative positions.

But more alarming are statistics relating to gender-based violence. According to an article published by Diario Co-Latino, one in three women have experienced physical, mental, or sexual abuse from someone they know, most often a family member. This abuse is escalating into a different, more disturbing phenomenon. A 2010 United Nations Population Fund report highlighted the alarming rates of femicide in the country—130 deaths per 1 million women—and ranked it among the world’s highest. Between January and April 2012 the National Police, PNC, logged 187 murders of women.

The sudden escalation of violence has prompted new attempts to protect women against gender-based violence and discrimination but miss dismantling other legislation and bureaucratic flaws that hinder women’s rights. The “Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres,” a 2009 anti-violence law with set punishment guidelines for “abusive behaviors against women, including insults and threats”, makes femicide punishable with up to 50 years in prison. The law was followed up by the “Ley de Igualdad, Equidad y Erradicación de la Discriminación Contra la Mujer Salvadoreña” to guarantee women equal pay, access to education, and protection from discrimination in politics. 

These new laws are well intentioned but present a logical impasse. El Salvador has some of the harshest abortion laws in the world. As this New York Times article gruesomely depicts, it is one of only five countries in Latin America that maintain an absolute prohibition on abortion, including in circumstances when the mother’s life is in danger. Moreover, it is the only country that employs an active policing division to investigate suspected abortion offenses reported from state-run hospitals.  The majority of women who seek an “integral life free of violence” and bodily autonomy are still at odds with a state that minimizes the trauma of rape or incest by denying freedom of choice. Coupled with the judicial system’s weaknesses, violence is abetted by the same government that aims to protect and defend. High levels of impunity leave many crimes unresolved or unreported. Between 2008 and 2009, the Fiscalia General de la Republica (Attorney General’s Office) registered 6,803 cases involving sexual violence against women. Only 436 of those crimes ended in a conviction. For the 477 femicides registered in 2010, 30 resulted in a conviction.

El Salvador is not alone in creating women-friendly spaces and legislative protections while simultaneously experiencingan increase in gender-based violence. Central America experiences among the worst rates of gender-based violence and sexual harassment. However, gang and drug trade fueled violence in the region have turned the isthmus into one of the deadliest places in the world for women. UNICEF, UN-Habitat and UN Woman are making inroads to address this issue with the five- year “Safe and Friendly Cities for All” initative, aimed at “making women and children feel safer in their neighborhoods while increasing quality of life.” Slated to receive the program are cities in Honduras and Guatemala, who experience high rates of femicide, judicial indifference and “machista” attitudes.

 Revisiting the “City”

“Ciudad Mujer” and pro-women legislative writs are laudable efforts in areas where there is an urgent need to stop violence against women. The centralization of gender-specific services eliminates the commute to multiple institutes, decreasing exposure to criminal elements and allowing many women to invest more time in education or work. Undoubtedly, this center and the other six slated for construction will offer temporary relief in a city where a catcall is as common as the chirping of sparrows sitting on the power lines.

But abusive attitudes once bound to the private sphere of relationships and family are escalating on the streets with random and brutal efficacy. Femicide is the final concatenation in a chain of gender inequality supported by judicial indifference forged by gender discrimination. Given the high concentration of women in rural areas, even if they can make it to these central spaces, many will return to insecure environments they cannot easily leave due to financial, cultural, or psychological reasons. “Ciudad Mujer” and similarly minded projects should not be treated as the panacea to solve women’s problems or more structural factors like poverty, wage stagnation, and social discrimination.

 As Aleksandr Deejay points out in an article on women-only transportation, the provision of gender-segregated spaces may in fact “perpetuate the perception that women inherently need to be singled out, protected, and isolated. In essence, creating this kind of divide may facilitate the idea, real or imagined, that division is necessary.” This phenomenon is clearly manifest in El Salvador, where legislative powers institute contradictory laws that try to shield women from gender-based violence while simultaneously upholding an abortion ban that enshrines the infantilization and degradation of women. Legislative contradictions like these accomplish little in challenging cultural conventions that lead to violence against women. When the foundations of the house are examined up close, the picture for women is grim. 

About the author

Alex is a graduate student at the University of Chicago's Latin American Studies Program. As part of her field research, she lived at a migrant shelter along the Mexico-Guatemala border. Before studying at the University of Chicago, she worked as a Communications Coordinator at the Florida Immigrant Coalition and as an HIV/AIDS Journalist in South Florida. A native of El Salvador and former resident of Mexico City, her work focuses on migration, youth, gangs, and health.