Vicky is 19 years-old, she lives in El Salvador with her mother and shares her experience of violence as a young girl advocate in her community.
In El Salvador, the phenomenon of gangs and organised crime terrorises the country: several communities and schools are being literally taken by gangs. Inside the schools, there is violence too, and everyone is at risk of being recruited by a gang. Children as young as 9 years-old are sometimes recruited.
Living through a war of violence
Violence exists everywhere in the world, but in my country, its rates reach alarming heights. Through the years, insecurity has taken all Salvadorian families. There is so much crime in our country that it very much looks like we’re living through a war.
Because they are easy targets, not only to abuse of but also to recruit, children and youth are by far the most affected by this violence, which happens a lot in schools.
Last year, 29 schools reported cases of human trafficking, 278 school centres reported having found guns inside students’ backpacks and 580 reported cases of drug-dealing in the school buildings. As a result, last year almost 69,000 young girls and boys dropped-out of school and 313 were murdered inside school or their surroundings.
Being an adolescent girl in El Salvador
In the country girls are usually seen as those who stay at home, clean the house and cook. When walking in the streets or even at school, the threat of being raped is omnipresent. Gang members see girls as sexual objects and nothing else. They can see a girl and choose them as their “wives”. If they girls leave they will kill their parents.
We receive no support to stay in school, even less to go to university. Even though we would do so, the threat of being abused in school is so high that it is a barrier in itself. In the last year, 30 school centres reported several cases of sexual abuse on girls and young women inside the school. In schools, malls and public spaces, girls go to the toilet in groups of three. One to use the toilet, two to look out for gang members who might rape or abuse us in the bathrooms. Bathrooms are dangerous for girls.
Gang violence isn’t the only violence faced by girls, but there is a strong culture of misogyny in the country. Women are not respected, not valued, and abused psychologically and physically. Last year 575 women were murdered, three women every other day, and just 11% of those cases ended-up in trial. For a girl, it is impossible to get justice over sexual abuse: The authorities just don’t even take the time to file a report or investigate those cases. It is expected that some authorities are also threatened and working with the gangs.
This leads all women to think less of themselves, so much that they often don’t even report those abuses. Girls feel like they don’t have a right to education because they have experienced this violence and must stay at home.
For all girls and women of El Salvador, we need to see a change.
Promoting human rights at all risks
I am determined to be part of the change. I provide workshops at a national and local levels, in schools and communities and talk about human rights, protection, gender and participation as citizens. When giving the workshops I like to focus on girls and young women because they face incredible risks every day, and aren’t supported sufficiently. I see them as “unpolished diamonds waiting to shine”. A friend of mine was depressed and lost hope after losing her parents. After joining our workshops, she now works with the local government to hold forums where women can express themselves freely.
Sometimes people in our communities feel they have no opportunity to change their future. Through the workshops, we show them how they can. I understand them because I felt the same way before I starting to participate in these same workshops provided by Plan International. Today I understand those are just mental barriers, and I’m proud to be able to share that with others.
However, we face some challenges in our work. All the territories where we work are controlled by gangs. I am always afraid when I have to walk in rural areas to go give a workshop. I am afraid to be attacked by someone, because the gangs have eyes everywhere on their territories and know whenever someone comes in or out. In schools is the same problem, there are always local observers, checking whether or not we say the wrong things including the numbers associated with different gangs. When giving the workshops, we literally risk our lives.
Of course there are ways to limit the risks and be safer. For example, I am always in touch with the programme unit of Plan International to make sure they know where I am and when. There are also more practical things like leaving at the correct time, and wearing the right kind of clothes that aren’t the colour associated with a gang. I usually prefer to wear Plan International clothes because everyone in the community knows and respect them.
Include youth in decision-making
I am really glad to be participating in the World Humanitarian Summit and have the opportunity to share the experiences of young people living in my country. I hope that the “Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action” will help us we can work with governments and other organisations to find solutions together.
We know that governments want to build a better future for us, young people, but their decisions affect us and must include us. We will be the bricklayers of that future, so today I want to call on world leader to listen to us and get us involved in their decisions. However, we must start by stopping the disintegration of families that promote the situation of violence.
I am just one single girl from El Salvador representing thousands, and I feel I have the responsibility to say on their behalf that we want to be free. Free to go to school and study, free to walk and play in the streets without fear. We want to be treated as human beings, to feel that we are important and valued, that we really have a future, most of all, we want to be the ones shaping that future.