Progressio has been working on gender in El Salvador for several years. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Progressio’s El Salvador Country Representative, Carmen Medina, talks to us about being a woman in El Salvador.

What would you say are the main challenges facing women at present in El Salvador?

Gender violence and the feminisation of poverty.

How is gender inequality visible in El Salvador?

The problems facing the country in general, such as insecurity or lack of employment opportunities, are particularly felt by women because, aside from the insecurity they face when walking in the streets, women face intra-family violence, discrimination in the workplace and they often earn lower salaries.
Is poverty gendered?  By this we mean, do women and men experience poverty in the same way or differently in El Salvador?

Yes, in the last decades in El Salvador (and in the rest of the world) poverty has been studied with desegregated figures. As a result, increasingly the term ‘feminisation of poverty’ has been accepted. All the indicators that measure the salaries, employment, access to health and education, reflect a clear gap for women.

If you compare your generation with that of a girl today in El Salvador, have you noticed any changes when it comes to women’s rights or gender equality? If so, which and what has caused this change?

I am 58 years old. My generation paved the way in Latin America and El Salvador through what was called the Feminist Movement, while in other developed countries they had managed to move towards equality of conditions.

I can recall a joke from when I started working with Progressio, 22 years ago. I proudly started saying that I was a feminist and part of the Feminist Movement in El Salvador… and a colleague told me that in the UK, the debate had moved on to post-feminism, and therefore it would be better if I stopped saying I was a feminist!

In El Salvador in the 1980’s, the country was at war and, as a result, feminism suffered a delay when compared with other countries. When I visited Progressio’s programme in the Dominican Republic, in 1994, I was amazed to meet Centro de Investigación para la Acción Femenina (CIPAF), a phenomenal feminist research centre. I thought that El Salvador would never have such a centre, but now we have some NGOs that are very well prepared and that have contributed with research on women’s issues. Furthermore, universities in El Salvador are increasingly researching these issues.

I believe our daughters have better legal conditions in El Salvador, this ensures they are less discriminated against and experience less violence. However, we cannot claim that all is solved. We need to continue working and strengthening our daughters’ awareness, and also that of our sons, who should be raised to be non-aggressive men, away from the hegemonic masculinity, which in turn has significantly hampered El Salvador’s social development.

How you define women empowerment?

As a matter of principle, I do not like the term, because it is often connected with patriarchal hegemonic power, and I am against it. Years ago, I refused to use the term, afterwards I had to get used to using it because it was widely used.

I prefer to speak about gender awareness and use it for women and men. I believe if women and men are aware of women’s rights and respect them, we do not need the term empowerment.

In your view, what has been achieved since Beijing’s Fourth World Conference on Women, including its Platform for Action in 1995?

Well, I was there, in Beijing, representing Progressio (in those days Progressio’s working name was Catholic Institute for International Relations). We continue demanding that our governments fulfil their obligations and that they make a bigger effort to end discrimination and gender-based violence around the world. I have not stopped fighting since Beijing. The issue is that governments have not acted to end the patriarchal culture. This lacuna is reflected in things like the current wars and conflicts around the world.

If we consider present day El Salvador, how would you rate women’s representation in government and in other key institutions such as the judiciary, academia or the media?

Well, there have been advances but there is still a long way to go. I think that the fact that today there are more women studying in universities, working in academia and in the media, is very positive. However, their participation in government, in the legislative institutions, in the judicial system or other institutions remains low.
If you had to recommend a book or a women’s rights campaigner who has influenced you, which or who would that be and why?
I would recommend all of Marcela Lagarde’s books. Marcela is a Mexican sociologist who, alongside other women, developed the feminist theory, which is today used in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Progressio has been working in El Salvador for several decades. From the time you joined Progressio until now, what would you say has been Progressio’s contribution and impact on gender equality in El Salvador?
I would say that Progressio in El Salvador has contributed in terms of changing the patriarchal culture, and in strategic matters, including:

- We were the first NGO to deliver a workshop on political advocacy for women in 1995.

- We developed the first investigation manual with a gender focus in 1996.

- We contributed to the first Women’s National Policy (this was an effort by all our development works at the time).

- We contributed to the definition of the concept of Economic Violence.

- We contributed to the development of the Gender and Masculinities methodology, which was implemented by Centro Bartolomé de Las Casas, and then by other women’s (and mixed) organisations.

- We contributed to the development of the Gender Strategy for the Prevention of HIV.

- We contributed to the struggle for the rights of Sex Workers.

I could also mention the programme’s environmental work, amongst many other, which involved over the years some 60 development workers, who all had a strong gender commitment.
And how has this contribution or success story changed you personally and professionally?
I think that I have not changed that much. I feel that my feminist convictions have further deepened as I came into contact with the lives of other women and also those of men who support our cause. My daily interaction with my community, my two daughters and two sons, my two grandsons and with my partner, have also influenced my convictions.
And now I observe young people and ask myself if we have actually done something for them and I think we have. I really enjoy seeing community leaders who are daughters (and sons) of my feminist comrades, I love it. I deeply believe in the young people we are working with as part of Progressio’s International Citizen Service (ICS) and other community youth leaders. I feel very fortunate to work with all of them.
If you had the power to make a decision tomorrow that would contribute to greater gender equality in El Salvador, what would it be and why?
I have been trying to tell men in power that we have to address the problem of social violence (particularly the gangs), using the Gender and Masculinities methodology. However, I don’t think that the conditions for this are right at the moment. I am aware that there have been some efforts to address this issue, however they are more to do with prevention.
Progressio has been sending ICS volunteers to El Salvador who work alongside national volunteers and local organisations since 2011. Have you witnessed any changes in the UK and national volunteers, both male and female, as a result of their intensive 10 week placements? 
The changes can been seen in the blogs that both national and UK volunteers write while on their Progressio ICS placements. I believe that ICS volunteers are the ones who decide whether or not to make their own personal changes. However, in the final placement evaluation, most tend to say they their ICS experience in El Salvador was a life changing experience that it will remain with them forever.
I may be repeating myself but I feel very fortunate to meet all these beautiful and committed young people.
What can Progressio’s supporters in the UK do for the women’s movement in El Salvador?
Strengthen the Central America Women's Network (CAWN). CAWN is the most consistent and marvellous British organisation that I have ever met. They were in existence since the first time I travelled to London and they are still in existence, which is sensational.
What message would you like to leave for men and women on International Women’s Day?
I would leave a very simple one: respect, tolerance, love and joy among men and women, and particularly towards women!