SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—When police finally found Joselyn Milena Abarca, her body had been cut up into seven pieces and dumped across San Salvador. The 26-year-old had been a psychology major in college and a rising star in her job. She recently bought a house and a car.
But her boyfriend, Rónald Urbina, treated her like a possession. She had to ask for permission to cut her hair; he had previously tried to suffocate her to death. Rónald was subsequently arrested and charged with murdering Joselyn. (He denies all charges.)
His increasingly violent and controlling behavior, however, was allowed to fester for the 10 years they were together without any legal repercussions. That’s sadly common in a country that often dismisses crimes against women. Homicides of women in El Salvador have more than doubled since 2013 to 468 in 2017, according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine. The violence is destabilizing the country and is considered a major push factor in driving up migration to the United States. Women currently make up 27 percent of all migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
But while Salvadoran women’s rights advocates are trying to curb the violence and tackle the misogyny, the United States is undercutting those very efforts. The Trump administration is pulling funding from programs that support women in El Salvador and focusing funding and energy on a border wall to keep them and others out. Women seeking asylum based on domestic violence claims are now being rejected. In 2018, the United States committed only $600,000 to anti-violence programs, which was 1 percent of its aid budget to El Salvador.
Activists say one thing is clear: Slashing foreign assistance is detrimental to the work being done. “The U.S. should increase aid to the region for community-based programs that have a track record of successfully reducing crime and violence,” said Cindy Huang, the co-director of the Center for Global Development’s program on migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy. “Unlike billions for a wall, aid is a smart and cost-effective investment that will improve the security of Central Americans and the broader region.”
Some nonprofits use U.S. funding to do work specifically intended to keep people from migrating. Glasswing International’s Club for Returnees, funded through private donations and USAID, works with young women who have returned from Mexico or the United States. The organization provides trauma support, financial assistance, and referral care support. “We’ve seen real transformations take place,” de Sola said. “These women and girls are already resilient. They’re surviving every day—we just develop their skills. The more you provide them with opportunity to thrive in this context, the better they do.” Glasswing also runs clubs to equip young girls with the skills they need to navigate the daily risks they face. After one year of involvement in these clubs, nine in 10 girls could recognize signs of gender-based violence, including behaviors previously normalized, like pushing and yelling, and knew how to report it.
While there is no quick answer to El Salvador’s problem with violence against women, the United States can make a big difference by supporting anti-violence programs, Huang said, both through development assistance and diplomatic outreach. “So many threats today are transnational, from gangs to human trafficking,” she said. “They require collaboration and joint investment with other government, civil society, and private sector partners. Unfortunately, the Trump administration and other governments are dismissing lessons from the past.”
Efforts to improve violence in El Salvador won’t just help victims, but survivors, too. Joselyn’s mother, Yesenia Juárez, is still grieving her daughter’s death, but she is also spending her time creating a foundation. Set up in memory of Joselyn, the aim is to help prevent further female homicides. From schools to public institutions, she wants to ensure help is available and accessible to any Salvadoran women who need it. “I need to talk about this pain,” she said. “I have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”