16 Days: Building an Alliance to End Gender-based Violence in Central America
Corey Westover, Universal Access Intern
In Latin America, up to a third of women experience gender-based violence, including psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Since 2008, IPPF has been part of a UNFPA regional project, Salud y Justicia Para Mujeres Ante la Violencia Sexual, which has been working to improve access to legal justice and ensure quality health services for victims of sexual violence in Central America.
Last year, four IPPF/WHR Member Associations (MAs) in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador began advocacy strategies aimed at holding governments accountable for providing sexual violence survivors with adequate legal protection and health services. In the context of high levels of violence in the region, sexual and reproductive health services are crucial to avoid STI infections, HIV, and unwanted pregnancy. With this in mind, our initiative was a fundamental step towards advancing an allied response to effectively protect women and girls from sexual violence.
On November 15-17th, IPPF/WHR met with representatives of the four MAs who participated in this initiative for an end-of-project meeting. For three days we reviewed achievements and challenges, discussed lessons learned, and planned next steps for continued advocacy work. Irma Esperanza Salazar, from Aprofam in Guatemala, described what she hoped to gain from attending: “Since the project is coming to a close, we hope to learn from other MAs about their experiences, the strategies they used, and the alliances they developed. We want to discuss how to better engage decision-makers and effectively conduct political analysis.”
Maintaining a transnational alliance met with several struggles—including the technological limitations of some MAs, fluctuating political situations in each country, different social responses to violence, and varying levels of influence with decision-makers—but participants found ways to work through these challenges. Although the scope and context of violence against women is different for each country, high rates of sexual and intimate partner violence and a commitment to women’s rights are places where every MA was able to find common ground.
Suyapa Pavon, from Ashonplafa in Honduras, said she became involved in working to end gender-based violence because “it is an opportunity to contribute to quality of life conditions for the entire population. Family planning is a fundamental part of our country’s development. So, I believe we have a responsibility to contribute.”
Ligia Altamirano discussed her unique position to reduce gender-based violence, as an Ob/Gyn at Profamilia in Nicaragua. She said being a women’s health physician in Nicaragua “is not like a family health doctor. Women say things in their gynecological appointments that they do not say in confession. I hear about their relationships, about family violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence."
Because Altamirano has such personal conversations with her patients, she is encouraged to work to improve their health needs and help them access support services. "We have access to information that is intimate and profound for women, and it motivates us to help stop violence against women,” she says.
During this initiative, IPPF/WHR successfully provided 23 trainings for project partners and service providers to help strengthen their capacity to provide services and advocate on behalf of victims for improved care. The workshops provided tools to analyze the laws and legal advocacy framework that exists in each country and identify areas where the governments lack laws that would guarantee high quality services for victims of sexual violence. The trainings resulted in advocacy initiatives that increased public awareness about the scope of the sexual violence problem and the need for a coordinated and effective response.
This project has been a crucial first step toward developing cross-country alliances that complement organizations’ and countries’ strengths and resources, expanding sexual and reproductive health services, and engaging media in a conversation about sexual rights. Being a part of this group provided members with an opportunity to brainstorm strategies to engage with decision makers, conduct political analysis, and develop ways to meet unfulfilled needs. After sharing their experiences and creatively building their efforts in a collaborative way, the MAs plan to continue working together to improve women’s sexual and reproductive health and quality of life in Central America.
They want to “create an open environment for women to speak about their experiences and a private space for them to receive health services,” explained Salazar. "It is important for women to know there is an alternative to enduring sexual violence."
Through advocacy efforts and political advances, Salud y Justicia Para Mujeres Ante la Violencia Sexual has contributed to these goals. Although the project has come to a close, the organizations involved will not stop advocating for a world that is free of sexual violence.
Cosette Ramirez, of ADS in El Salvador, confidently proclaimed, “Just because the project ends doesn’t mean the work is done. No, we are continuing. We have to continue this work.”