May, 2021 — A host of issues, including violence, have contributed to an upsurge of outmigration from Central America. Significant investment to strengthen NGO-government partnerships to improve public justice systems’ prevention and response to violence is essential for stability and prosperity, as well as a reduction in outmigration. IJM’s experience in Guatemala and El Salvador, where it partners with the justice system, is that progress is possible and has not been disrupted by changes in national leadership, nor has it been undermined by corruption.
IJM encourages Congress and the executive branch to assist the Northern Triangle’s efforts to increase women and children’s access to justice and protection by increasing assistance through NGO’s that work with justice system authorities. Details follow:
NGO and Government Collaboration:
Guatemala: IJM has collaborated with justice system officials since 2005 to address sexual assault of children and improve and increase prosecution of offenders. The collaboration has resulted in a transformation of the justice system to become more child friendly and trauma-informed and a tripling of arrests and convictions of perpetrators. The office of the Attorney General (Ministerio Publico) has strongly supported initiatives to improve access of women and children to the justice system, and improvements have been sustained in successive presidencies. In addition, IJM has promoted linkages between NGOs and faith-based communities and the public justice system to increase reporting and public confidence and reliance on the public justice system’s response.
Most recently, IJM has worked closely with the newly-launched Victim’s Institute ( Instituto para la Asistencia y Atención a la Víctima del Delito.) The Institute was established by an act of the Guatemalan Congress and has a legal mandate to represent and serve victims of crime, including homicide and sexual assault. The Institute is responsible for providing free legal assistance, emergency health care, counselling, and accompaniment of victims throughout the criminal justice process. The Institute also serves a case management and case coordination function. The Institute is modelled on IJM’s trauma-informed, survivor-centered casework approach. The Institute designed its survivor care model in collaboration with members of “My Story Matters” (Mi Historia Importa), a movement of adult survivors of child sexual violence that has been advocating for access to justice since 2017.
El Salvador: The Government approved comprehensive legislation described by UN Women as “a groundbreaking law aimed at halting high levels of violence against women.” The law is the result of an inclusive effort resulting from a partnership between civil society organizations, international experts, members of congress and government officials to produce a comprehensive response to violence against women. Likewise, in an effort to increase equal access to justice for all, the Judicial Branch partnered with local and international development actors to gradually increase the number of Specialized Violence Against Women courts across the country, improving response models and enhancing protection for women and girls.
While there are clear deficiencies in the criminal justice system and most women in El Salvador still face significant challenges to access justice, the government has proved effective in investigating, prosecuting, and securing convictions in high-impact cases of VAW/G (violence against women and girls.) This is in part due to government’s response, with the support of many organizations such as IJM, creating and enhancing specialized investigations and prosecution units. IJM staff work alongside police investigators and prosecutors on a daily basis to improve their response to violent cases, including homicide, extortion, sexual assault and domestic violence. Recent data from IJM’s evaluations show that in the districts where IJM works, police investigators have improved their ability to investigate crimes, demonstrating that their capacity to counter violence can be increased by providing them with adequate training and technical assistance.
Government Response to Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC): Government corruption is a significant issue in Central America, as it is elsewhere in the region and globally. In IJM’s experience working on violence against women and children in El Salvador and Guatemala, top-level corruption does not undermine the work of duty bearers at all levels of government in the police, prosecution service and courts who take up cases of violence. IJM has been impressed by justice officials and their desire to improve the response to victims of violence.
- Crime data collection and analysis. Example: The Guatemalan Women’s Observatory, a publicly accessible data collection site at the Office of the Public Prosecutor that generates real-time crime statistics and the government’s response in all 22 Guatemalan departments. http://observatorio.mp.gob.gt/portal-estadistico/
- Specialized prosecution and police units. Example: In El Salvador, with the support of international donors and local NGOs, the police has created specialized units to support women victims of violence, providing emergency shelter and crisis care. Furthermore, when victims report crimes, specialized VAW/G prosecutors are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of cases. While these units are not yet capable of investigating all VAW/C in an effective manner, specialized units have nonetheless enhanced government capacity to provide an adequate response.
- Legal assistance and other services for survivors of violence, including women and children. Example: Guatemalan Victim’s Institute: A newly launched, independent government institution that provides free legal and social services to victims of violence and represents their interests in criminal cases against perpetrators. Ciudad Mujer in El Salvador: a government-run center where women victims of violence can access emergency response services, police and prosecutor units, healthcare services, financial advice and career training.
Homicide decreasing but violence still a push factor: Concerted action by all three Central American governments has contributed to a decrease in homicides for the past five years. But levels of violence against women and children continue to be among the highest in the world. USAID’s country strategy for El Salvador stated that while men who attempt illegal migration are primarily driven by economic reasons, women more often cite security and gender-based violence. 1. Similarly, the USAID country strategy for Guatemala cited gender-based violence as a push factor for immigration. 2. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and children to domestic violence even while services have been limited by pandemic prevention measures. The International Rescue Committee cited a 70% increase in reports of gender-based violence in El Salvador since the start of the pandemic; In Honduras, reports of domestic and intra-family violence increased 4% a week since the start of the pandemic.
Recommendations for Assistance: IJM recommends that international donors work through experienced NGO’s that support local authorities to make communities safer and provide technical assistance, mentorship and training to police, prosecutors, courts, and social service agencies.
- Fair, transparent and efficient administration of justice: International NGOs such as IJM are playing a role in improving court’s case management, court-based victim’s support services and the use of technological tools to increase efficiency in criminal hearings. There is also an increasing need in this field to promote greater engagement from civil society organizations to foster accountability, integrity and transparency in criminal processes.
- Community-based services for women and children: Through MOU’s and cooperative agreements, NGOs in El Salvador and Guatemala can and do effectively partner with government agencies to enhance reporting, response, and restoration services. NGOs are part of the government’s referral system for women and child victims and often provide support services to the most vulnerable populations, including women who had been forcibly displaced from their communities or reside in areas that are subject to the control of gangs.
- In Guatemala, IJM partners with the New Horizons Association (Asociación Nuevos Horizontes), a local organization that has been working with women and children in indigenous communities since 1989, providing temporary relief and protection through a shelter and offering additional support services, while also accompanying survivors through the legal process as they seek to hold abusers accountable for their crimes.
New Horizons Association adapted to the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to provide continuity of care and address worsening circumstances of vulnerability by offering virtual and telephonic therapies, providing personal protective equipment, and addressing urgent needs in the community.
- In Guatemala, Kids Alive International provides holistic services (including legal aid) in its residential aftercare program, Oasis, to women and girls victimized by sexual abuse.
- In El Salvador IJM works with the Salvadorean Association for Rural Health (Asociación Salvadoreña Pro-Salud Rural ASAPROSAR), a local organization that assists women’s support groups for survivors of Intimate Partner Violence and Commercial Sexual Exploitation.
Assisting Government partners:
- In El Salvador, it is important to work alongside government partners such as the Institute for Women’s Development (Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo de las Mujeres) to ensure that a minimum coordinated response to violence against women and children occurs. Likewise, it is vital to continue working with the Nacional Civilian Police’s specialized anti-VAWC unit, the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Court of Justice to strengthen specialized investigations and prosecution units.
- In Guatemala, it is important to work alongside government partners such as the Victim’s Institute, the Office of the Attorney General, and specialized anti-VAWC units of the national police.
- In both Guatemala and El Salvador, communities would benefit from police reform to increase safety and stability and victims’ access to justice services. IJM has provided peer mentorship and best practice training for national police (both specialized units and non-specialized agents) in survivor-centered policing nationwide. IJM recommends institutionalizing a peer mentoring model such as a field training officer program to ensure that police agents receive adequate on-the-job training beyond the basics of the academy.
Central American Women and Children Protection Compact Act: IJM supports the Central America Women and Children Protection Compact Act that was incorporated into the US-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act which passed the House in 2019. The bill, which is to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress, if enacted would authorize U.S. government framework agreements with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to reduce VAWC.
IJM Recommends that anti-VAWC assistance be tied to formal agreements with specific government institutions to maximize fiscal accountability and outcome-based measurement, as provided in the Central American Women and Children Protection Compact Act.
Excerpt from HR2836, Central American Women and Children’s Protection Act:
Authorization To Enter Into Compacts.—The Secretary of State is authorized to enter into bilateral agreements with the Governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (in this Act referred to as “Compact Countries”) to be known as Women and Children Protection Compacts (in this Act referred to as “Compacts”), for the purposes of—
(1) strengthening the Compact Countries’ criminal justice systems and civil protection courts to protect women and children and serve victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse and neglect and hold perpetrators accountable;
(2) securing, creating, and sustaining safe communities, building on current place-based approaches to prevent and deter violence against women and children;
(3) ensuring schools are safe and promoting the prevention and early detection of gender-based and domestic abuse within communities in the Compact Countries; and
(4) providing security within the region to families and unaccompanied children fleeing domestic, gang, or drug violence.