SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador— Iliana Aguillón describes her ex-boyfriend as calm and easygoing, the opposite of her abusive, alcoholic father. When she broke up with her ex after discovering his affair, she never imagined he would turn violent.
But shortly after their second daughter was born, he showed up at Aguillón’s house in a fit of rage, and hit her for the first and last time.
“I’ve always said I would not endure being hit because I’ve already lived that, and I’m not going to live it again with my daughters,” Aguillón told me in Spanish. “To make matters worse, the justice system was so difficult to deal with.”
She recalled the condescending social worker who believed her ex-boyfriend when he said she invented the story.
Women like Aguillón face many barriers to justice in El Salvador—including a patriarchal culture, weak justice system, and lack of resources—which all contribute to a culture of impunity for gender-based crimes, according to Miriam Bandes, director of the UN Women’s office in El Salvador.
The small Central American nation has the world’s highest rate of femicide. Despite only being the size of Massachusetts, it sees five cases of domestic violence each day, and many more likely go unreported. Gangs also use sexual violence as a tool to terrorize communities, according to InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Only 1% of violent crimes against women in El Salvador result in conviction. But a new piece of legislation means Aguillón and thousands of other women will no longer watch their aggressors walk free. In February, the Salvadoran congress passed a law to create country-wide courts designed to break down barriers to justice for femicide, rape, and domestic violence cases; they will begin operating in January 2017.
Worldwide, women experience similar hurdles; this is also true of the United States despite recent strides. Passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been key to improving rates of prosecution for domestic violence.
Still, less than 1% of sexual assault cases in the U.S. end in convictions. The case of convicted rapist Brock Turner, who got out of jail after serving only three months of a six-month sentence, suggests that there’s more work to be done.
For the U.S. justice system to improve, law enforcement, judges, and lawyers need to better understand trauma and best practices for handling such cases, especially those involving sexual assault, according to Caroline Palmer, law and policy manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, an advocacy group focused on improving access to justice for victims of sexual assault.
Gender-specific training for law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors will be a cornerstone of El Salvador’s specialized court system from February’s law. In recent years, countries such as Liberia, Nepal, and Chile have also created specialized courts for violent crimes against women. Studies show these justice systems can increase the likelihood of a fair sentence for perpetrators, according to UN Women.
Specialized training corrects stereotypes and misinformation about these crimes and survivors. This is key in El Salvador, where violence against women is normalized, according to Silvia Juárez, director of the violence prevention program at feminist group Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA). El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in any peacetime country, and more than half of Salvadoran women report suffering violence in their lifetime.
“By generalizing societal violence and failing to identify this type of [gender-based] discrimination, it becomes invisible,” Juárez said. That’s why it’s important to call gender-based violence what it is, and create specific initiatives to combat it, she added.
Improving human rights, particularly women’s rights, has become increasingly important in El Salvador. Feminist organizations celebrated a political victory in 2010, when a law created a new protocol for police, investigators, and prosecutors to detect signs of gender-based violence during investigations.
According to this protocol, police should look for physical signs of gender-based violence in female murder victims, such as sexual violence, dismemberment, and mutilation not typically seen in male homicide victims. Afterwards, forensic scientists do tests to confirm these suspicions. The case is then processed in the court system as a femicide, which receives a higher sentencing than homicide. Called the Law for a Life Free of Violence Against Women, it outlines similar specialized protocols for dealing with sexual violence and domestic violence.
However, the law stopped short of creating specialized tribunals because of political constraints, according to Emma Julia Fabián, a congresswoman until 2015 for Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist political party in El Salvador.
“It settled a debt to Salvadoran women to finally create legislation that guarantees them a life free of violence and discrimination,” Fabián told me in Spanish.
Lack of knowledge of the protocol and cultural resistance have prevented the law from reaching its full potential, according to Xochitl Bendeck, director of the Life Free of Violence program at the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU), an organization that oversees the 2010 law’s enforcement. Creating specialized courts will bring more cases of gender-based violence to justice, she explained.
“If the judicial system can reduce impunity, this is going to have an important impact on the lives of women,” Bendeck said. “The aggressors are going to receive the clear message that the Salvadoran state doesn’t tolerate violence against women, and that there are judicial consequences.”
From judges to lawyers and psychologists, everyone working in the specialized court system will receive training designed to cut through a culture of impunity for gender-based crimes. This will make sure that every case receives the proper attention it deserves, according to Fabián. A victim-sensitive process and fair sentencing is the goal, not high conviction rates, she added. Bendeck and Juárez of ORMUSA agree.
“I’m not interested in seeing men convicted only because a woman is convinced that all men are aggressors,” Juárez said. “I would like to see that every sentence is given because there is certainty there is an aggressor, and that a victim shouldn’t have to experience this.”
For Aguillón's part, she still gets uneasy when she sees her ex-boyfriend, although he now barely comes to visit their two daughters. Despite the psychological stress she endured while dealing with the Salvadoran court system, the judicial process holds a deep significance for Aguillón: She wanted her ex-boyfriend to know she wouldn’t endure his abuse. A conviction would send an even stronger message.
Anna-Cat Brigida is a freelance journalist who covers politics, immigration, and human rights in Latin America.