The Impact Blog interviewed the First Lady of El Salvador Vanda Pignato about development issues important to her in El Salvador. 

The First Lady of El Salvador and Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato meets with Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Feierstein.

First Lady, I know you are very passionate about women’s rights. How are you raising the profile of this issue in El Salvador?

As Secretary for Social Inclusion, one of the main goals during my mandate is to promote public policies based on a human rights approach to ensure the realization, respect and guaranty of rights of historically excluded populations. Women make up over half of the population in El Salvadorand have been excluded from access to governmental services, as these were designed without a gender specific focus. With this in mind, the idea to create a center specifically for women to promote and enhance their fundamental human rights became an issue that needed to be addressed. Ciudad Mujer is a program that has raised awareness of the invisibility women have had when it comes to accessing state services, and has begun to change the model of government by integrating services and having a gender based approach. But what is most important is that Ciudad Mujer is changing the lives of thousands of women and they have begun to recognize themselves as right holders.

Do women in El Salvador have an active voice at the table, be it in politics, business, or civil society? What can be done to enhance the role of women?

As in most societies and countries, women’s visibility within politics, business, civil society and others is not at the same level and condition than that of men. This is the heritage and legacy of secular discrimination based on gender issues, a discrimination that figures some jobs are for men and some jobs are for women, a discrimination that figures some colors are for men and other colors are for women, a discrimination that figures some toys are for boys and some are for girls, and so on. This discrimination has created a cleavage between men and women as an irreconcilable antagonism. No society or country is free of this kind of discrimination. Many countries have developed laws to prevent and punish discrimination based on gender issues. Many societies have advanced in their awareness on women’s rights. But the world itself has a long road ahead to walk. Some countries and societies have to walk more than others, but all have to walk.

Bearing that as a starting point, many actors are responsible to enhance the role of women, as much complex work needs to be implemented. The Government has a role to play: eradicate all de jure discrimination, promote the eradication –in a progressive manner– of all de facto discrimination (even using criminal law if needed) and to take the initiative to promote women in higher seats sharing the same responsibilities as men, as in the military forces, in the non-traditional jobs, etc. But what is most important, as a part of the Government’s role is to recognize –and conduct itself consequently and coherently– that men and women are not equal, but both have the same rights that must be ensured and respected equally.

 How does the spike in crime and violence affect women?

Let me start my point with this view: if discrimination against women is a matter of unequal distribution of power, than that makes women vulnerable –women are not vulnerable per se, however they have been historically vulnerated– so the main victims of crime and violence are women. I am not saying that women are killed more frequently than men; however I am speaking about victimization that is the result of crime and violence.

Many crimes and violent behaviors committed are mainly addressed towards women. Sexual harassment, rape, and all kind of sexually motivated crimes and violent behaviors do victimize women (and children, mostly girls). Domestic violence, in addition, occurs almost exclusively against women. And many –but I think I should say most– of these crimes and violent behaviors fall under the unregistered data, I mean, the system never realizes their occurrence. From this perspective, we will never know how many of these crimes and violent behaviors really occur.

Secondly, I can understand that many other crimes and violent behaviors will victimize men directly. It usually happens with murders and assassinations, but who is the indirect victim? Women. They will alone have to attend to their children’s necessities while growing up, as a widowed mother, as an older sister, as a grandmother. What I am trying to say is that women are indirect victims as a result of crimes and violent behaviors. All the exigencies of reproductive work fall upon her shoulders.

Thirdly, the spike of crimes and violent behaviors is not only a matter of quantity (as the frequency of these events) but also a matter of quality. Violence against women is increasing daily and it is hard to pinpoint the source of it. In the past, for instance, drugs were trafficked inside devices, baggage, etc., but now, women’s natural anatomic cavities are used to traffic or hide drugs. In the past, a crime of passion usually finished in killing the lover and his or her cheater, but now, most of the time, women’s body shows high levels of unnecessary roughness and violence. In fact, this observation applies not only to crimes of passion, but to any other crime or violent behavior where the intention is to kill a woman. The situation of Ciudad Juarez speaks for itself and El Salvador, as well as many other countries, is facing similar situations.

What I have said gives me the opportunity to express something: we cannot continue the traditional approach to analyze and understand crime and violent behaviors. It is absolutely necessary to provide those analysis and understandings with a gender approach too.

As Secretary of Social Inclusion, what are your top two priorities?

It is very hard to pick two priorities, since the Secretariat for which I am responsible for works with various groups; women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, sexual minorities. We have taken firms steps in promoting these groups’ rights and continue to seek social change to include these groups in all public policies. However, the common denominator in my work rests upon two principles: to build and enhance public policies based on a human rights approach (keeping in mind the national Constitution and the international treaties that are operative to El Salvador) and to bring down any form of discrimination. Those principles are linked with reciprocity. I cannot address my work on human rights being tolerant with discrimination; and with the same token, I cannot fight against any discrimination if my work is not supported by an approach based on human rights.

With the intention to answer your question, I must then say, that my top two priorities in my work as Secretary of Social Inclusion is the human rights based approach in public policies and the thorough fight against any form of discrimination.

We work very closely with you and your government; do you have a favorite USAID project in El Salvador?

As Secretary of Social Inclusion I have to thank all the cooperation USAID provides to Salvadoran people and Government. But obviously, I do consider as my favorite, all the aid and help you provide in the coincidence of my work, mainly, the eradication of all forms of discrimination and the promotion, guarantee, realization and fulfillment of women’s rights. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to the contribution you have made directly to Ciudad Mujer; thousands of Salvadoran women appreciate this gesture and would love to express their gratitude.