Press Release - ANNEX

Conclusions and Observations on the IACHR’s Working Visit to El Salvador

January 29, 2018

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María Isabel Rivero
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Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) carried out a working visit to El Salvador on November 20-22, 2017. The delegation included Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, in her capacity as IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Women and Rapporteur for El Salvador, as well as specialists from the IACHR Executive Secretariat. The purpose of the visit was to collect information on compliance with IACHR recommendations and decisions related to the human rights situation in the country, particularly the situation regarding the rights of women and girls in El Salvador.

The IACHR thanks the State for its collaboration in organizing this visit, and for the authorities’ willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with the Commission. The IACHR also thanks the authorities, civil society organizations, and international agencies for the valuable information they contributed, as well as the logistical support and cooperation provided.


General Considerations

El Salvador continues to be one of the countries with the highest rates of violence in the region. The IACHR observes that while homicide rates in the country have declined in recent years, these figures are still among the highest in the region and worldwide. According to data from the National Civil Police (PNC), there were 5,278 violent deaths reported in 2016, a decrease of 1,378 homicides when compared with 2015. Moreover, the Minister of Justice and Public Security reported that from January to November 2017, there were 3,610 homicides in the country, or 1,337 fewer than in the same period the previous year. According to the same source, El Salvador’s homicide rate in 2017 was 60 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 103 in 2015 and 81 in 2016.

The IACHR expresses its particular concern over the increase of a military presence in public security tasks. According to information provided by civil society organizations, 7,900 members of the military were participating in public security tasks in 2014, and that figure has reportedly doubled, with 14,000 military forces now said to be involved. The Commission was also informed that in the last three years at least five joint task forces have been created, made up of the PNC and the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES). In this context of violence, the IACHR is concerned to observe the information received regarding reports of extrajudicial executions in the country committed by the PNC and/or the FAES, and the impunity that characterizes these cases. In this regard, in August 2017, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDDH) reported publicly that it was investigating complaints of more than 40 extrajudicial executions allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

In terms of citizen security, the IACHR is cognizant of the State’s efforts to contain and prevent violence. During its visit to the country, the Commission was informed about the operation of the national security plan known as the “Safe El Salvador Plan” (Plan El Salvador Seguro), which aims to investigate crimes in a coordinated and effective manner among the various ministries and institutions, as well as to strengthen confidence in the criminal justice system, ensuring access to justice as well as victim assistance and protection. The Commission welcomes this comprehensive planning in anti-violence efforts, and echoes the recommendations the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) made after its visit to the country, regarding the need to increase the focus on the plan’s preventive aspects.

Disproportionate Impact on Groups at Special Risk

The IACHR observes that the high rates of public violence and the context of criminality have a different impact on women and girls and on other groups at special risk, such as migrant persons and persons deprived of liberty.

In addition to the context of structural violence and discrimination experienced by women and girls in the country, there are risks associated with the control of criminal groups, whose influence extends to the public arena, schools, businesses, and prisons. The IACHR was informed that many women and adolescents in the country are pressured, threatened, and harassed to be forcibly recruited by criminal organizations and forced to participate in illicit activities. For their part, civil society organizations informed the Commission about the prevalence of sexual violence, sexual slavery, and human trafficking for sexual exploitation, whose victims are primarily women. The Commission has also received reports on the practice of utilizing women’s bodies to bring objects into prisons, and on the threats women face as they are forced into relationships and intimate visits with inmates. These forms of violence reinforce gender stereotypes and turn women into sexual objects under threat and against their will. With regard to such incidents, the State has the obligation to protect women and girls from all forms of violence and discrimination and to carry out the necessary investigations to identify those responsible.

With respect to migrants and other persons in the context of human mobility, the current climate of violence has become one of the main factors driving migration. In this context, migrant children—many of them unaccompanied—have been exposed to dangerous journeys and to becoming victims of abuse, physical and sexual violence, human trafficking, or exploitation. According to data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), more than 200,000 people were displaced in El Salvador in 2016. That same year, the Civil Society Roundtable against Forced Displacement by Violence and Organized Crime (Mesa de Sociedad Civil contra Desplazamiento Forzado por Violencia y Crimen Organizado) documented 699 victims of forced displacement, in most cases triggered by threats, homicides, attempted homicides, and/or injuries. However, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons said at the conclusion of her visit to El Salvador in August 2017, there are no accurate current statistics on the number of people affected by the phenomenon of internal displacement caused by violence. The IACHR observes with concern that the State of El Salvador has still failed to recognize the existence of this problem, and appeals to its sense of responsibility to address this issue as a priority.

In order to protect people who have been forced into internal displacement, the IACHR urges the State of El Salvador to recognize the phenomenon of internal displacement, prepare an assessment of the situation, and collect data on the different manifestations of this problem. The IACHR also urges the State to develop and implement public policies and a specific law aimed at preventing internal displacement, and to guarantee protection, humanitarian assistance, and lasting solutions for the internally displaced, in accordance with the international human rights obligations entered into by the Salvadorian State and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These measures should ensure the participation of those forced into internal displacement, as well as the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and civil society organizations. The Commission also urges the State to designate an institutional focal point to address this problem and implement the public policy that is developed to respond to the problem, a public policy that should have adequate budget resources for its effective implementation.

Meanwhile, in terms of criminal policy, the IACHR observes that new repressive measures have been adopted that are leading to increased levels of incarceration. On that point, both government authorities and Salvadorian civil society organizations informed the IACHR about the renewal of the Extraordinary Security Measures, which were adopted by the government of El Salvador in April 2016 and extended until April 2018. These measures establish various actions to combat organized crime. Among them, the IACHR points out the following: a) the creation of new definitions of crimes; b) the increase of penalties for already defined crimes; c) the creation of joint PNC-FAES task forces; and d) the restoration of effective control over the country’s prison system. Specifically, with respect to the situation of persons deprived of liberty, the Commission received information regarding permanent lock-up and solitary confinement, suspension of family visits, and limitations on access to legal counsel. The Commission shares the concern expressed by the OHCHR to the effect that the application of the Extraordinary Security Measures in jails has placed thousands of people in prolonged and isolated detention under inhumane conditions. In this regard, the Commission expresses its concern over what was indicated by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the Ministry of Defense during the visit regarding the willingness to continue extending the measures in question as long as the reasons that gave rise to their approval still exist.


Legal and Public Policy Framework related to Protection of the Rights of Women and Girls

The IACHR recognizes El Salvador’s efforts to develop a legal framework for the protection of the fundamental rights of women and girls and to implement policies, programs, and mechanisms for assistance, protection, and prevention of violence and discrimination. During its visit to the Women’s Hospital, the delegation received information on the comprehensive model to provide services to female victims through Local Victim Assistance Offices (OLAVs). By immediately attending to women victims of crime, these offices make it possible to detect and address situations of sexual abuse, human trafficking, and domestic violence in the country’s public hospitals and in local offices, in coordination with health, police, and justice institutions. The Commission views this effort positively and recommends strengthening this model through greater specialization of the individuals and agents who attend to women and girls at every step, from the first point of service to accompaniment through the judicial process.

Commissioner Macaulay welcomed the State’s efforts, carried out through the Secretariat of Social Inclusion of El Salvador and the Salvadorian Institute for Women (ISDEMU), to develop national plans such as the “National Equality Plan” or the “National Policy Action Plan for Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence.” Likewise, the delegation obtained information on actions taken by the State to monitor the situation of violence against women and the progress and challenges related to compliance with the standards established by the Convention of Belém do Pará.

In addition, Commissioner Macaulay and the technical team from the IACHR Executive Secretariat visited the premises of Ciudad Mujer (Women’s City) in San Martín, where they were able to observe how this program works and its innovative model of comprehensive, inter-institutional, and specialized services for women and girls. According to Commissioner Macaulay’s impressions, the Ciudad Mujer model is one of the region’s best practices for the advancement and promotion of the rights of women and girls, especially those who are in a vulnerable situation or have suffered serious violations of their rights. These facilities not only provide services to women and girls but also give them the support they need to rebuild their lives.

In terms of the child protection system, the Commission recognizes the development of a solid legal framework that includes the Constitution of El Salvador and the Law on the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents (LEPINA). According to information received by the Commission in meetings with authorities from the National Council on Children and Adolescents (CONNA) and the Salvadorian Institute for the Comprehensive Development of Children and Adolescents (ISNA), girls represent a significant proportion of the Salvadorian population, so the State has expressed its willingness to give priority to safeguarding their fundamental rights through prevention campaigns and protection programs. However, the effective implementation of that legal framework remains a challenge.

Despite the efforts and the progress expressed by these institutions in meetings with the Commission, Commissioner Macaulay also obtained information regarding the lack of resources and the budget shortfalls faced by institutions such as the CONNA, ISNA, ISDEMU, or the PDDH. Along these lines, the IACHR urges El Salvador to strengthen the implementation of effective policies to address the rights of women and girls, particularly at the local level, and to secure budgetary support for the institutions charged with protecting women and girls in the country.

Human Rights Situation of Women and Girls in an Especially Vulnerable Situation

During its visit to the country, the Commission obtained troubling information about persistent discrimination and structural violence that continue to be encountered by those who are in an especially vulnerable situation, such as persons with disabilities, members of the LGBTI community, women journalists, human rights defenders, and indigenous peoples of El Salvador. The Commission expresses its particular concern over the information received about human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression; these include, among other things, killings, physical attacks, rapes, hate crimes, persecution, extortion, and threats.

The IACHR also received information regarding the situation of working women and girls in the country. Many women start to work at an early age, even as young as 6, which exposes them to different types of abuse and violence. The structural poverty that prevails in the country particularly affects women and girls, many of them heads of household, who are pushed to work in precarious conditions and without protection, leaving their studies behind.

In terms of women and girls who are victims of violence, the IACHR observes with concern that El Salvador continues to be the country with the highest number of killings of women in the region. According to data from the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), from January through October 2017, 395 women were killed in the country. Despite the general decrease in homicides in El Salvador, the IACHR notes that violent deaths of women continue to occur at a high rate and show signs of especially severe cruelty, such as stoning, asphyxiation, or hanging. The Commission has also receiving troubling reports about the prevalence of disappearances of women in the country, most of them young women and girls. According to information received during the visit, there is a disturbing situation of general impunity, evidenced in the wide gap between the acts of femicide and homicide handled and investigated by the Attorney General’s Office and those for which there has been a final judicial resolution. In this regard, the Commission calls on the State to intensify its efforts to fight impunity by strengthening the investigative capacity of prosecuting authorities and by creating specialized investigative units with a gender perspective that are part of the justice sector.

The Commission also obtained information regarding the rights of women with disabilities, who reportedly face a situation of double discrimination. According to reports by civil society representatives, access to educational or work opportunities are often hampered by the prevalence of stereotypes about women with disabilities, who are expected to remain in their homes and dependent on their families. The Commission has also been informed that the country does not have a census of people with disabilities, which makes their needs invisible and limits the State’s adoption of effective responses.

The IACHR also obtained reports on the safety situation of women human rights defenders in El Salvador, a situation that has worsened in recent years, as civil society organizations told the Commission. Of the 3,800 attacks reported against women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica between 2012 and 2017, 400 are said to have taken place in El Salvador. Two of the 46 women rights defenders killed in the region during that same period were Salvadorian. Furthermore, women who defend the land or environmental rights continue to be threatened, disparaged, and even criminalized, not only because of their work as defenders, but also because of their gender.

The Commission has also received information about threats and harassment suffered by women journalists and women involved in politics who have been victims of ongoing discrimination and violence in the country. According to information received during the visit, at least three women journalists were recorded as having been killed in 2017, events that reportedly have yet to be investigated. In addition, the practice of journalism and the way that deaths and violence against women are handled in the news continue to be widely marked by gender stereotypes that exacerbate sociocultural patterns of discrimination against women in El Salvador and help to perpetrate the cycle of violence against women. Similarly, the delegation received information about the situation of risk encountered by women who are political representatives or candidates.

The Commission therefore calls on the Salvadorian State to reinforce the mechanisms of protection for human rights defenders, ensure the safety of women journalists who are practicing their profession, and promote safe and equal political participation by women in the country, ensuring that the fundamental rights of all of them are protected.

Situation of Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls in El Salvador

Commissioner Macaulay obtained troubling information regarding the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and women in El Salvador. Even though State authorities have demonstrated the efforts they have made related to education on sexuality and reproduction, as well as the implementation of services and access to family planning methods in the country, information obtained by the Commission shows that these efforts fall short. Civil society representatives have reported that birth control methods are not sufficiently available in the country. Likewise, in view of the prevalence of the Zika virus in the country and the potential risks for women and girls linked to infection from the virus, the IACHR calls on the State to implement prevention and sex education campaigns, and to strengthen health-care mechanisms and protocols and maternity care for women at risk or infected by this virus.

  • Sexual Violence

The Commission continued to receive troubling information regarding the prevalence of sexual violence in the country, primarily against women. Despite the notable efforts the State is carrying out to develop legal frameworks, public policies, annual plans, and specific protocols, this type of violence continues to occur in a climate of social permissiveness and impunity. According to information received during the working visit, in 2016 the Attorney General’s Office received 5,970 reports of sexual violence. Threats, social prejudice, and the context of violence and criminality in the country continue to hamper the process of reporting sexual violence, and in general, hinder access to justice for girls and women in the country.

In terms of crimes of sexual violence against adolescents, the Commission was informed that a provision contained in Article 14 of the Family Code had been eliminated, thus banning child marriage. The article in question had allowed minors under age 18 to marry, with their parents’ authorization, if they had a child together or if the girl or adolescent were pregnant. In practice, this provision had led to marriages between girls who were victims of sexual violence and their aggressors, even though the Criminal Code specifies that sexual relations with someone under age 15 constitutes a crime. While the complete ban on child marriage in El Salvador constitutes a step forward for prevention and the fight against impunity for sexual violence, the information obtained by the IACHR show a social reality in which early unions are common.

By the same token, the Commission has received troubling information regarding the prevalence in young women of maternal mortality caused by self-inflicted wounds. According to this information, at least 42 pregnant girls have committed suicide in El Salvador since 2011. These deaths have been associated with cases of pregnant girls who end their lives when faced with the lack of options for unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape, which lead to discrimination and social stigma.

The Commission urges El Salvador to strengthen prevention mechanisms throughout the country and to bring the definition of rape in line with inter-American standards; to expressly prohibit rape within marriage and de facto unions; to strengthen investigation mechanisms so as to combat impunity; to strengthen training with a gender perspective for judges and justice system operators; and to take the necessary measures to eradicate stereotypes about women’s role in society.

  • Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women with Disabilities

The Commission obtained troubling information regarding the practice of forced sterilization and forced interruption of pregnancy to which women with disabilities have allegedly been subjected. In this regard, the Commission notes that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has referred to States’ obligation to reaffirm and recognize the legal capacity of women with disabilities on an equal basis with others. The IACHR calls to mind that all women have the right to timely access to comprehensive health-care services, as well as information and education on the subject so they can make free, informed, and responsible decisions about reproduction.

  • Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Girls and Adolescents

According to data provided to the Commission during the working visit, in 2016 there were maternity records for 11,194 girls between the ages of 10 and 17 in El Salvador. The Commission was informed that the high teen pregnancy rates are boosted by the fact that sex education starts when students are around 12 years old and are already well into their schooling. In this context, the IACHR reminds the State of the need to implement sex education in the curriculum of boys and girls, with information that is impartial, accessible, and progressive at every level of the educational system, making the necessary adjustments depending on age and educational level. This is essential so that girls and adolescents are in a position to make free and informed decisions about these aspects that are so intimate to their persons and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Pregnant girls or those who have become mothers at an early age face an untold number of problems, including punishment—often physical—from their families, which might even include being expelled from home. Often, educational authorities forbid pregnant girls from attending school. In many cases, girls or adolescents have to take on motherhood alone, and are forced to leave their studies and go to work.

In El Salvador, many adolescents are in de facto unions, a significant number of these with men who are older than they are. There is abundant evidence about the negative impacts on the rights of girls and adolescents who enter into de facto unions before age 18. These impacts include school dropout; early, high-risk pregnancies; fewer socioeconomic and work development opportunities; few opportunities for leisure, recreation, sports, and participation in cultural life; and greater potential for suffering violence. These early unions have consequences for girls’ opportunities for personal, educational, and professional development, and for them to make important decisions about their lives, which makes them more vulnerable. The gender roles traditionally assigned to women, the lack of opportunities for adolescent girls to live autonomously and independently, poverty, the lack of information and access to sexual and reproductive health services, and unwanted pregnancies, as well as domestic violence in their homes, push many adolescent girls into the decision to leave their paternal homes to live with their de facto partner. Based on the information received during the visit, public policies are not properly addressing this social phenomenon, along with its causes and prevention, with a view to protecting the rights of girls and female adolescents.

  • Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy under Certain Circumstances

The Commission recognizes the efforts made by the country’s health agencies to reduce maternal mortality, and the results achieved so far. However, during its visit to El Salvador, the IACHR was very concerned to learn about the laws that penalize abortion in all circumstances. As the Commission has reiterated in previous reports, the absolute criminalization of abortion has direct consequences on maternal morbidity and mortality rates. Without legal, safe, and timely options, many women have to subject themselves to dangerous and even fatal practices; they refrain from seeking medical services or experience obstetric emergencies without the medical care they need. The girls and women who are most vulnerable because of their socioeconomic situation and their lack of access to educational and health services are those who most suffer the effects of the total criminalization of abortion.

The Commission notes that the current legal framework does not offer any safe, legal, or timely solutions for women and girls in the country to voluntarily interrupt pregnancies when their lives are in danger, when they have been raped, and/or when the fetus could not survive outside the womb. On April 20, 1998, the new Criminal Code of El Salvador took effect; it eliminated the three grounds on which abortion had been decriminalized until then and introduced Article 133, which now governs the absolute criminalization of voluntary interruption of pregnancy, even when a woman’s life is at risk. Moreover, in January 1999, Article 1 of the Constitution of El Salvador was amended, establishing the recognition of human life from the moment of conception.

In this regard, the Commission urges El Salvador to bear in mind the inter-American standards developed in the judgment issued in the Case of Artavia Murillo et al. v. Costa Rica (“In Vitro Fertilization”), in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that an embryo cannot be considered a person in the terms of Article 4(1) of the American Convention. At the same time, the Commission reiterates that the absolute criminalization of abortion in El Salvador, by imposing a disproportionate burden on the exercise of the rights of women and girls and creating a context that facilitates unsafe abortions, ignores the State’s international obligations to respect, protect, and guarantee women’s rights to life, to health, and to integrity. The absolute criminalization of abortion also has profound consequences on the national health system, the prison system, and the child protection system in the country.

The Commission expresses its concern over the fact that, even though the Criminal Code establishes sentences of up to 12 years for abortion, many women who suffer obstetric complications or miscarriages are convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, based on the suspicion of having induced an abortion and in possible violation of their right to due process. These sentences are said to be occurring in the context of proceedings that allegedly fail to respect the right of the accused to a fair trial by not recognizing the principle of presumption of innocence and not assessing the evidence in accordance with inter-American standards on due process protections. Moreover, negative stereotypes around the concept of the “bad mother” and the “murderous mother” are said to prevail in these sentences. In addition, the law on which these sentences are based appears to be in clear contradiction to the right to medical privacy, which reportedly keeps health professionals from having the necessary conditions of legal certainty to be able to properly exercise their responsibility as guarantors of their patients’ health.

According to information obtained by the IACHR during the visit, 27 women are currently serving these types of sentences. In this regard, sharing the recommendations made by the United Nations High Commissioner following his visit to the country, the IACHR urges El Salvador to launch a moratorium on the application of Article 133 of the Criminal Code; carefully review the convictions in each of these 27 cases mentioned, to ensure that each of the women had a fair trial, free of stereotypes; and, should it be established that this was not the case, release these women.

During its visit to the country, the Commission continued to monitor the various bills to amend Article 133 of the Criminal Code related to the criminalization of abortion. The Commission draws attention to two initiatives. The first, presented in October 2016 by Deputy Lorena Peña of the ruling FMLN party, proposes that interruption of pregnancy be allowed in four cases (when the mother’s life is at risk; when there is no possibility for the fetus to survive outside the womb; when the pregnancy results from sexual violence or trafficking of women; and when the pregnancy results from sexual violence or trafficking of minors). The second initiative, presented by Deputy John Wright Sol of the current opposition party ARENA, proposes that abortion be decriminalized on two grounds (when the pregnancy of a minor results from rape and in the case of therapeutic abortion). In this regard, the IACHR urges El Salvador to adopt legislation geared toward ensuring that women can effectively exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, with the understanding that denying the voluntary interruption of pregnancy in certain circumstances may constitute a violation of the fundamental rights of women, girls, and adolescents.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 011A/18