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Safe spaces and institutional coordination, key measures to address gender-based violence in El Salvador: IRC reports

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As gender-based violence reports continue to increase worldwide, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (ORMUSA), presented a diagnosis of the strengths and opportunity areas of responses to this issue in El Salvador. 

Using the Listen Up! Barometer—developed by IRC and VOICE—ORMUSA assessed the conditions for the implementation of gender-based (GBV) violence prevention, mitigation and response measures in a context of humanitarian crisis. The data was collected in October 2021, considering the experiences of women and girls who are survivors in seven municipalities: Ayutuxtepeque, Ciudad Arce, Izalco, San Antonio Masahuat, San Pedro Masahuat, San Salvador, and Zaragoza. 

Meg Galas, Country Director for the IRC’s Northern Central America response, said:

“Violence, including what people experience at home, is one of the causes that force thousands to displace in and from countries like El Salvador. Women and girls leave their homes in search of safety. Understanding the current context of gender-based violence is critical so that, in collaboration with all sectors and with support from the international community, we can all design and implement an improved response that helps people be safe in their home countries.”

Through Listen Up!, gaps and strengths were identified in four key aspects:

1. Access for women and children to support services that are safe and reliable.

Overall, the analysis revealed that the main strength across municipalities is the proximity of health services, as well as the free access to them and the incorporation of psychosocial support. On the other hand, aspects that need to be improved are:

  • Availability of safe spaces exclusively for women and children.
  • Operational hours of health services, which need to be extended to 24 hours a day.
  • Understanding of existing tools to respond to gender-based violence, from public policies to attention routes or prevention protocols. 
  • Protection for women (public officers or humanitarian workers) who are working in gender issues, as there are reports of threats from gangs related to the execution of their work.

2. Equal access for women and children to humanitarian services and resources. 

Coverage of basic services in places used as shelters (like power and running water) was identified as the main strength across municipalities. Additionally, humanitarian organizations usually have internal frameworks to address cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and to ensure women’s safety in the workplace. However, there are still aspects to improve, including:

  • Insufficient funding for the construction of specialized social infrastructure, more specifically shelters, including appropriate fencing to ensure privacy and safety and incorporation of delivery of complementary services, like dignity kits.  
  • Low representation from women in articulation spaces where discrimination and gender-based violence are addressed. Such spaces are mostly occupied by public institutions and non-profits, which limits the evaluation and feedback from the final users.

3. Use of humanitarian workers’ power in a positive and respectful way

The main strengths are related to the availability of specialized attention services to gender-based violence, including community mechanisms to report cases. There have been legal and institutional changes that create favorable environments through articulation spaces, protocols and the implementation of informative sessions and materials that cover information on services available. 

Current challenges are related to:

  • Accessibility of existing awareness materials, including aspects like language and formats. 
  • Civil protection departments lack knowledge of existing articulation processes, the services that different institutions offer and mechanisms to gain access.
  • Processes to report gender-based violence cases are complex and usually result in re-victimization.
  • High rotation among the staff that are trained to deliver special attention.
  • Changes in policies that have resulted in the reduction of the Municipal Economic and Social Development Fund.
  • Staff working on gender issues feeling at risk and not considered in the identification of protection and safety needs of women.

4. Accountability from humanitarian organizations in addressing sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.

Although the main positive aspect in this category is related to gender-based violence attention being documented in institutional guides, women are usually left out of the processes to create and monitor such tools. At the same time, it has been encountered that the population lacks knowledge of the mechanisms to report violations committed by staff members of humanitarian responses. 

Vilma Vaquerano, ORMUSA’s Coordinator of the Department of Observatories and Research, said:

“Based on the diagnosis, we identified a set of challenges that must be addressed, mainly by government institutions, to respond to the requests and needs of girls, adolescents and women who are in contexts of emergency and facing gender-based violence. It’s essential to strengthen institutionality, capacities and the technical and financial resources with a human rights and gender approach.”

The IRC and ORMUSA outlined a series of recommendations to improve the current offer of services, with potential for rapid implementation:

  • Create safe spaces for women and girls, including investments in the construction of shelters, avoiding the impact on other services that are provided when spaces—such as educational centers—are adapted.
  • Tailor awareness materials to each community’s context, considering friendly language and formats for different audiences and age groups.
  • Promote coordination between institutions (for example, municipal civil protection units and those focused on women's services) to implement comprehensive measures from a humanitarian perspective.
  • Incorporate protection measures for women working in the sector, with special attention to those in the field.
  • Engage women and women's groups in the evaluation of mechanisms and plans.
  • Ensure that regulatory frameworks avoid re-victimization, lack of discretion, and negligence in access to justice.
  • Allocate specific funds for actions to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.

About the Listen Up! Barometer  

The Listen Up! Barometer, developed in collaboration with VOICE, is a planning and assessment tool that examines the lived experiences of women and girls to determine whether the environment of a humanitarian emergency response is able to prevent, mitigate and respond to gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse. The Barometer is designed to create a rapid assessment of strengths and weaknesses of a humanitarian response for women and girls, including those working within humanitarian emergencies and those in the catchment area of an emergency response, for the purpose of creating recommendations for advocacy.  

The Barometer serves as an advocacy tool for women’s groups, organizations and networks, and other GBV actors, to hold those responsible for humanitarian responses accountable to women and girls. During October 2021, the Barometer was first implemented to assess the current context in El Salvador and Uganda and can be used in any humanitarian context.

The project aims to amplify the voices and power of refugee women and girls, and women at work in emergencies, with the goal of catalyzing institutional reform, interagency action, and increased resources to reduce sexual harassment and sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings. Organizations looking to assess the conditions of gender-based violence responses in their communities can access the Listen Up! Barometer at no cost upon request. 

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.