Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 356 | Marzo 2011


El Salvador

Springtime Innocence Lost

In a decision that bewildered the women’s movement, President Funes dismissed the executive director of the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development (ISDEMU) in December, after 19 months heading this state institution. This is an analysis of the facts by the former director herself, self-defined as a “passionate feminist and incurable idealist.”

Julia Evelyn Martínez

I served as executive director of IDSEMU between June 17, 2009, and December 22, 2010. During that time I learned firsthand that in politics there is no difference between Left and Right when dealing with women’s control of their bodies.

Letter and spirit of the ISDEMU law

ISDEMU was founded in 1996 as a commitment by the Salvadoran State to the Action Plan of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995). It was possible due to the mobilization of various Salvadoran women’s organizations, which had succeeded in putting women’s human rights on the national agenda in the wake of the 1992 Peace Accords.

Thanks to Salvadoran feminists’ successful strategy of alliances at that time, ISDEMU was formally endowed with the institutional conditions needed to sustain it and its political influence. For example, they ensured that its creation resulted from a legislative decree, not an executive one, which was one way to prevent its mandate being subordinated to the incumbent president’s agenda. They also insured that the first article of the law setting up the new institution clearly established its full technical, financial and administrative independence.

To achieve an adequate system of checks and balances in its institutional management, it was decided that ISDEMU would be run by a board of directors, consisting of five representatives appointed by the ministries (Education, Health, Labor, Agriculture and Public Security), two from the Public Ministry (Ombudsman and Attorney General) and two from women’s organizations, plus their alternates. According to the law, the executive director—the post I held—reports to that board and not to the President and/or to the First Lady, even though, by tradition, the First Lady has chaired the board.

According to the letter and spirit of the law, ISDEMU’s objectives are to formulate, direct, execute and supervise the implementation of the National Women’s Policy, and it is endowed with specific attributions to carry out these tasks. First among these are: 1) to conduct and promote studies and analyses to contribute to a better understanding of women’s real situation; 2) to promote new and reform existing legislation to improve women’s situation; and 3) to monitor compliance with treaties and conventions on women’s rights signed by the Salvadoran State, in particular the convention of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará Convention).

The institution I was given

Various evaluations conducted before the change of government on June 1, 2009, agreed in their assessment of ISDEMU’s deep institutional, political and financial weakness, characterizing it as a “prisoner” of the paternalistic and short-sighted agendas of the First Ladies.

In the examination of the seventh Country Report in November 2008, while ARENA was still in office, the CEDAW committee expressed concern over “the Institute’s lack of recognition, as well as the shortage of human and financial resources at its disposal, serious obstacles preventing its effective and efficient functioning.” It recommended the Salvadoran State strengthen ISDEMU “so that it becomes more efficient, giving it appropriate recognition, faculties, human and financial resources at all levels and increasing its capacity to coordinate and supervise the measures adopted in national and local plans for women’s advancement and the promotion of gender equality.”

Similar words appeared in a March 2009 evaluation by Gilda Parducci, a well-known Salvadoran feminist currently director of Ciudad Mujer. According to her evaluation, since its foundation ISDEMU hadn’t been able to rely on a political position within the State or the autonomy needed to play its role. As the main reasons for this weakness, she pointed to “the lack of autonomy; the institution’s dependence on the First Lady as its maximum authority, which doesn’t allow it a technical-political vision but rather turns it into an institution characterized by voluntarist decisions; inadequate political commitment from the ministries represented on the Board of Directors to strongly push forward the content of the National Women’s Policy; limited clarity about the profile of the person who would take on executive management; and its lack of openness toward the board members who come from the women’s movement.”

Another cause for worry in the years prior to the change in government was the distancing, and in some cases clashes, between ISDEMU and the feminist organizations, particularly those that had assumed significant leadership in its institutionalization process. According to the evaluation, this was not only because the governments between 1996 and 2008 were rightwing and authoritarian, but because of existing differences over how to deal with women’s issues. While ISDEMU assumed a gender perspective without analyzing asymmetrical power relations existing between men and women, in many cases implementing actions that maintained this situation, which would explain why it didn’t take sexual and reproductive rights on board, the feminist movement and women’s organizations included in their proposals an analysis of the patriarchy and its multiple forms of oppression.

The ISDEMU I received as director had a paternalistic approach: it perceived women as victims or as a target population for activities or as women it has to help and treat if they suffer violence. It had neither a rights nor a public policy approach. Furthermore it was tied to the political agendas of the First Ladies, to their way of doing things, their priorities and their negotiations.

Penalization of abortion

The distance between the feminist movement and the State transcended disagreements with ISDEMU. The clashes intensified in the late nineties with the growing influence in the government of fundamentalist and neo-integrationist groups, which influenced the Penal Code reform in 1997 that criminalized all abortion. They also had a hand in the government’s refusal to ratify CEDAW’s Optional Protocol considering it “pro-abortion” and “pro-lesbian”. Both the constitutional reform and the reform of the Penal Code that penalized all grounds for interrupting a pregnancy were approved with the votes of FMLN deputies, both men and women.

Three exceptions to the punishment of abortion existed in El Salvador before 1997: therapeutic abortion was legal when the woman’s life was in danger, as was eugenic abortion when the life of the fetus wasn’t viable due to physical malformations while ethical abortion was allowed when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. The 1998 Penal Code penalized these three exceptions with prison sentences of between four and eight years. Subsequently in 1999 a constitutional reform defined the fetus as a human being “from the first moment of conception.”

Big hopes for the FLMN government

The FMLN’s arrival in government in June 2009 marked a turning point in ISDEMU’s history and dialogue with the feminist movement and women’s organizations was reestablished. For 18 months ISDEMU experienced an intense transformation period that raised hopes about the possibility of converting this institution into a real instrument for promoting equality between men and women in the spirit of the Beijing Conference’s Action Plan.

The program content of the “government for change” proposed by the FMLN fed this hope in that it explicitly alluded to a new way of governing that would include these two great promises: 1) Setting up a government with gender equity with “a governmental vision, administration and composition that would direct its steps towards a society, development and long-lasting solutions with gender equity” and 2) Converting gender equality into a public policy for national development. To achieve this, a commitment would be established with “the protection of women’s human rights as a measure to create equal access in the social, political, environmental, cultural and economic spheres. This will require enacting successive institutional reforms to make possible the sustained incorporation of a gender perspective into public policy, prioritizing those measures that have an impact on culture and privilege excluded sectors of the population. Measures will be taken to promote paternal responsibility, the construction of social roles that encourage equal participation in domestic work and a frontal attack on violence.”

We saw signs of a change

The first promise was not kept. The initial composition of the new government’s Cabinet included few women: only 2 of the 13 ministers and 3 of the 20 deputy ministers appointed were women, a step backwards with respect to women’s participation from previous ARENA governments.

It was in the second promise—translating gender equity into public policy—that positive signs of change could be seen almost immediately. One of the first executive agreements signed by President Mauricio Funes was in the appointments to the new Social Administration Cabinet. For the first time ISDEMU was included through its executive director. Other important signs were the incorporation of gender equality objectives and instruments in the 2010-2014 Five Year Development Plan and in the Budget Policy for 2011.

Among the strategic ambitions for the next five years is mention of the construction of a society with gender equity. Also, priority areas were defined within public policy: significant and verifiable reduction of gender inequalities and effective prevention and fight against gender violence.

At ISDEMU’s suggestion, the strategy for making progress in this direction was defined as follows in the Five Year Plan: “We must point out that in order to ensure that the different sector strategies and policies contained in the Five Year Development Plan contribute to the creation of a society with gender equity through reducing the gender gap and fighting all forms of violence against women, a National Women’s Policy will be promoted under the direction of ISDEMU. The policy will aim to strengthen the integral development of Salvadoran women in all arenas of society in conditions of equity and equality with men, and will be put into operation based on two major strategic objectives. Firstly, promoting public policies with a gender approach and, secondly, encouraging observance of the Salvadoran State’s international agreements on women’s human rights issues, nondiscrimination due to gender and the prevention, attention to, sanction and eradication of all forms of violence against women.”

The spirit of the Five Year Plan was reflected in the 2011 Budget Formulation Norms issued by the Treasury Ministry in May 2010. For the first time they included a precise brief for public institutions to incorporate gender guidelines in drawing up their respective budgets. Among these were to: 1) fully identify in the budget structure all programs aimed at preventing and confronting gender-based discriminatory practices; 2) promote the actions needed to help policies, priorities and resource allocations be defined in a manner consistent with public policies focused on gender equity; and 3) strengthen the budgets of institutions whose public administration is directly linked with social inclusion policies and women’s development in different activities of national life.

We were living a springtime

In this favorable setting, ISDEMU was able to make progress in three complementary processes: institutional strengthening, which included the institution’s autonomy; the design of a new National Women’s Policy; and the promotion of a strategy of alliances with the women’s movement and women’s organizations geared to creating a counterbalance to the “triple conservative alliance” made up of the political Right, the economic Right and the religious fundamentalists.

During the period I directed ISDEMU there were more victories than defeats. Women’s organizations returned to its board of directors and we established an ongoing critical dialogue with them. With them we negotiated that the sector platforms of the broad and diverse women’s movement would serve as a base for the new National Women’s Policy.

ISDEMU set itself the task of achieving two big objectives approved by the Board of Directors: to promote public policies with a gender approach (economic policy, public security policy, environmental policy…) and to observe the Salvadoran State’s international commitments to women’s human rights. ISDEMU’s approach, discourse and action underwent a profound transformation, from paternalism to an autonomy and empowerment approach based on acceptance of the diversity of feminine identities.

The women’s human rights agreements signed by the State, together with their recommendations for implementation, were placed at the center of the institution’s work and into the public policy agenda beginning to be promoted in the executive branch institutions, particularly in the areas of security and justice, health, education and culture. They also entered into public debate.

The recommendations of the CEDAW Committee, the Committee against Torture, the Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women began to take shape in the institutional discourse and proposals: the need to tackle violence against women with a comprehensive focus and as a central issue within security policies; ratification of CEDAW’s Optional Protocol; the urgent need to dismantle sexist cultural stereotypes and practices that reproduce gender discrimination and violence; the importance of women’s economic autonomy; cooperation with the Human Rights Defense Ombudsperson and women’s organizations. This also included the need to facilitate “a national dialogue on women’s right to reproductive health, including the consequences of the restrictive laws on abortion,” as appeared in CEDAW’s final observations on the Seventh Country Report in November 2008.

We were experiencing a springtime. That’s the best description I can think of for those 18 months of work. Spring is what certain short intense periods in people’s history have been called—France in 1968, Prague that same year, Nicaragua in 1979—a time when we believe it’s possible to reach utopia and turn our dreams of change into reality.

The well-known saying that a picture is worth a thousand words might be useful to visualize the change experienced in ISDEMU during that spring. From an institutional logo representing a daisy with several fallen petals, we moved to a logo in June 2010 that represented a growing woman-tree with several branches that sustained diverse feminine identities.

I signed in that spirit

It was that springtime spirit that led me the following month to express no reservations to clause f of Chapter 6 of the Declaration of the Tenth Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (Brazil consensus) and to take responsibility for “reviewing the laws that anticipate punitive measures against women who have submitted to abortion, according to the recommendations of the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, including new measures and initiatives for application to the Beijing Action Program and the Action Program of the International Conference on Population and Development and the observations of the United Nations Committee against Torture, and to guarantee the performing of abortions in safe conditions in those cases authorized by law.”

Surely this same springtime spirit had, in February of that same year, motivated El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Relations to inform the UN Human Rights Committee of its willingness to observe the recommendations related to the review of laws restricting abortion with “the creation of a broad and participatory national dialogue with different social sectors and related public bodies on the right of women to reproductive health and the implications of laws restricting abortion.” And it was probably that same spirit that infected El Salvador’s representation to the UN Headquarters in August 2010, when it asked the Secretary General to withdraw El Salvador’s 1994 reservations to the Action Program of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo) relating to the concepts of family, reproductive rights, reproductive health, family planning and the term “individuals.”

Spring ended

By the end of August 2010, spring began to give signals of its imminent demise. The “triple conservative alliance” reacted to ISDEMU’s lack of objections to Chapter 6 of the Brazil Consensus and the media waged a campaign against ISDEMU’s proposal to eliminate “majorettes” because of their sexist symbolism. Both exerted increasing pressure on the government.

First it was the majorette thing. ISDEMU and the Ministry of Education were ready to prohibit them in parades. The Ministry suggested that instead of parading in tiny mini-skirts and high boots, female students could wear regional Salvadoran costumes. ISDEMU argued we had evidence that networks trafficking in people and pedophiles used photos of the girls on parade and posted them on the Internet as bait.

The criticisms focused on ISDEMU. The First Lady, Vanda Pignato, supported the prohibition: “The sexist practice of majorettes denigrates women’s image,” she said. But once the controversy broke out, President Funes revoked the prohibition, undermining ISDEMU and me, and announced that the measure would be taken back up “gradually.”

The sensitive issue of abortion

Next was the abortion issue. I signed the Brazil Consensus in representation of El Salvador, backed up by the authority vested in me by my official credentials and with the moral conviction that my decision was in harmony with my government’s new human rights policy of starting to observe the treaties. I was also backed up by the recommendations of the treaty organizations and the Universal Periodic Examination of the UN Human Rights Committee, which has repeatedly and unsuccessfully exhorted the Salvadoran State to hold a national debate on the effects on women’s health of the absolute penalization of abortion and encourage a review of current legislation around this issue.

My public explanations unleashed an intense controversy, especially when it was leaked that El Salvador had withdrawn its reservations to the Cairo Conference’s Plan of Action, one of three international instruments invoked in the Brazil Consensus to justify the need to review punitive legislation against voluntary interruption of a pregnancy.

That leak led the Archbishop’s delegate for human development to insist excitedly in the media: “I want to know on whose authority this country’s reservations have been withdrawn! Somebody explain this to me!” The ARENA legislative bench requested of the Legislative Assembly that I be asked to explain my “support for abortion” by signing the Brazil Consensus without reservation. Columnists, editorials, sports commentators, radio and television anchormen, leaders of various religious denominations, bloggers and all sorts of personalities aligned themselves with these positions, all demanding my immediate and dishonorable dismissal.

Finally the presidential office reacted to this pressure, publicly disqualifying me as ISDEMU’s executive director and announcing that it would send CEDAW a note saying I wasn’t authorized to sign the document and requesting that reservations be included in the Brazil Consensus, in this way lining up behind the governments of Peru, Chile and Costa Rica.

With that, the Salvadoran government separated itself from the continent’s democratic and progressive current that in Brazil had come out in favor of women’s right to autonomy over their bodies. In doing so it also began to display signs of authoritarianism in sensitive issues that challenge the patriarchy. In its public declarations disqualifying my actions in Brazil, President Funes said, among other things: “I haven’t given any orders for the law to be reviewed... ISDEMU cannot formulate laws and by the same token is in no position to review or propose a possible reform to the legal framework... She had no authorization because it would require plenipotentiary powers to sign this sort of international agreement.”

They “put me in my place”

The reactions to the presidential vote of no confidence were what I expected. While the president of the Yes to Life Foundation and ARENA deputies thanked the President for defending life and “putting her [me] in her place,” the Archbishop of San Salvador publicly congratulated him “for his firm decision against encouraging any review of laws related to the abortion issue in our country.”

At the other extreme, 35 NGOs (feminist; trade unionist; lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual; human rights; rural women, etc.) signed a public letter addressed to the President supporting my administration of ISDEMU, backing my actions in Brazil and complaining about the authoritarianism used to publicly disqualify me. These organizations marched to the Presidential Palace on August 30, 2010, to deliver the letter and request a hearing to receive the reply. When I was called before the Legislative Assembly they also supported me and cheered me on. They did the same later too, when they fired me and I gave up my post.

Leftwing women with posts in government, the Assembly and the FMLN found themselves between these two extreme positions. I received lots of support from them in private, almost in secret, but never managed to get from them a clear, unequivocal and public display of support. My public dressing-down became a “specter” that no woman wanted to deal with for fear of losing points in her political career.

From that moment on, enthusiasm for the transformations in ISDEMU began to wane and the executive branch leadership began to watch it with suspicion and mistrust, including women occupying positions of power within the State. The Treasury Ministry’s refusal to grant ISDEMU a budget increase for 2011 and the lack of support for such an increase from the FMLN bench in the Legislative Assembly’s Treasury Commission were only two of the signs of change: our spring was coming to an end.

Three final results

I’ve been asked why they didn’t fire me after signing the Brazil Consensus, why I didn’t decide to resign when I was publicly undermined and why I didn’t act “politically correctly”: no talking about patriarchy or decriminalization of abortion, instead just concentrating on gender equity or “gender democracy”…

I don’t think I have clear answers to these questions. What I am sure of is that up to the last moment I maintained the firm and sincere conviction that in my position as a public servant in a leftwing government I had the unique opportunity to encourage and accompany the construction of procedures and an institutionality so that women could attain the triple autonomy we deserve: economic autonomy (to earn our own money and take control of economic resources), political autonomy (to take part as peers in decision-making processes locally and at all levels of government), and personal autonomy, which means autonomy over our own bodies.

Right to the end I never had to compromise my principles or my dignity. But by mid- October I knew already that the time for possible changes was running out. So my agenda at ISDEMU began to focus on guaranteeing at least three results in what remained of my administration: approval of the Special Comprehensive Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence, accelerate the approval of a new National Women’s Policy and create the conditions for approval of the Law of Equal Opportunities and Nondiscrimination against Women.

On November 25, as a result of ISDEMU’s alliance with the women in parliament and feminist organizations, we got unanimous approval of the Special Comprehensive Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, which laid the foundations for a state policy that would prevent, treat, sanction and eradicate all forms of violence against women and assigned ISDEMU the role of overseeing it.

Approval of this law coincided with the conclusion of the consultation and validation process for the new National Women’s Policy in ISDEMU’s Board of Directors and the start of the drafting of the Law of Equal Opportunities and Nondiscrimination against Women. The agenda of the Legislative Commission on Women, Family and Children scheduled March 8, International Women’s Day, as the probable date for this new law’s approval. New winds of hope blew for women and made one think that ISDEMU was readying itself to enter a new cycle of political consolidation.

My removal from office

The last ordinary session of ISDEMU’s Board of Directors was held in December, during which the members unanimously confirmed me in the executive director post for another year. Nevertheless, 13 days later, the board’s chairwoman called all the members, including me, to an extraordinary session in the presidential palace. At the outset, she announced that there was only one point on the agenda: a proposal to dismiss the executive director. Then she asked me to leave the room so they could proceed to a discussion of the proposal.

I waited for more than two hours and although I was sure they would fire me, members loyal to President Funes are a majority on the Board, so I hung on to the hope that the agreement wouldn’t be approved unanimously. I was depending on the negative votes of two women who represented feminist organizations. In particular I was depending on the Mélida Anaya Montes movement, to which I had belonged, to vote in my favor and on the abstention of the attorney general, who less than a week previously had told me I could always count on her personal support in my administration of ISDEMU.

After the wait I was called back to the session room to hear the agreement: the First Lady told me my dismissal had been unanimously approved. Yanira Argueta, up to then one of the main representatives of the women’s organizations on the board, was appointed in my place. Officially I had to hand over the institution at 11:00 am the following day, less than 24 hours.

What did my dismissal mean when only a few days previously they’d confirmed me in the post? I only received a terse reply: loss of confidence. Faced with my insistence on knowing the arguments on which this was based, I was told that the board reserved the right not to make its reasons public. When I was leaving the presidential palace I found out that my dismissal was that evening’s headline news and the media had been informed by a press release sent while the meeting was still in progress.

“Your cause is just”

I officially handed over ISDEMU on December 23 at the time stipulated. With three signatures the spring was over. The act ended emotionally because of the surprise entrance into the room where it was being held of a large group of feminist colleagues and some colleagues, both men and women, from grassroots movements (Deysi Cheyne and Cleotilde Guevara from the IMU, Ima Guirola and América Guirola from CEMUJER, América Romualdo from the Feminist Concert “Prudencia Ayala”, Isabel Guevara from the Salvadoran Women’s Movement, Larry Madrigal from the Men against Violence Collective, among others). They carried placards supporting me and demanded respect for ISDEMU’s autonomy.

This improvised demonstration of support gave me strength to send one last message to my colleagues at ISDEMU who had generously and unconditionally accompanied me on this final stretch. I was on the verge of bursting into tears from emotion, sadness and indignation when a voice in my ear stopped me: “Because your cause is just I won’t let you weaken and I’ll protect you from your enemies.” It was Ima Guirola, a young feminist. With her sweet voice she reminded me that I hadn’t been alone, nor am I alone, in this struggle.

Why did this happen?

What happened between December 9 and December 22 that caused the “loss of confidence” on the basis of which ISDEMU’s board of directors revoked my confirmation in the post and agreed on my dismissal? As a preliminary hypothesis I point to the existence of a clear relationship between the hasty presidential decision to push for my dismissal and my disagreement with the reform to the conditions of the law governing ISDEMU, decided on by the President during the last days of the year.

The reform was created by executive decree. It seriously compromised ISDEMU’s autonomy, lowering the executive director’s political profile and concentrating power in the board’s chairwoman, by law appointed by the President and traditionally falling to the First Lady. According to this reform, the executive director will have to consult with and observe the guidelines of the Institute’s chair, the First Lady, before taking part in political debates, media interviews, forums, international conferences and the like. The reform established that if the board has no defined institutional position on an issue, such as the decriminalization of abortion, the executive director must respect the position defined by the First Lady.

President Funes decreed this reform without taking established regulations into account. He approved it and sent it for publication without consulting the ISDEMU board, merely informing its members of his decision.

I don’t think it was my style of saying things or particular things I said that cost me the post, but rather two other things. The first was promoting and achieving ISDEMU’s institutional political autonomy and the second was putting the issue of sexual and reproductive rights on ISDEMU’s agenda and in the National Women’s Policy and placing the issue of decriminalizing abortion firmly on this agenda. When they say why they fired me, two words will suffice: Brazil Consensus.

The innocence I lost

What did I learn on my journey through ISDEMU? I’m sharing some of my reflections in the spirit of wanting to contribute to the definition or re-definition of the strategy of feminist struggle in El Salvador and Central America.

In the first place I lost my innocence. I think this loss of innocence in politics should be considered a step into the initiation of a feminist conscience. I refer to that ingenuousness that you can change things through politics, that you can get there if you work with good will and good intentions, that belief in discourse… I began with all that candor and innocence and gradually lost it over those 18 months. But I gained in political awareness. Losing one’s innocence doesn’t have to be negative. I matured. I lost my innocence, but I gained awareness: that’s my analysis.

Another aspect of that innocence is that for a long time we apprentice feminists have believed that in politics the Right is synonymous with patriarchy while the Left is synonymous with gender equality. Our ingenuousness has stemmed from a Manichean position that leads us to characterize as good all that questions the capitalist status quo and as bad all that defends it. If the Left questions the capitalist system, we assume that leftist movements, including political parties,
must be in favor of equal rights between women and men and against all forms of discrimination and gender violence. Political practice has shown that this classification doesn’t apply when dealing with women’s human rights. We women can’t carry on saying our problems are poverty and marginalization as a result of capitalism. While that is also true, they are far more the results of patriarchalism.

The political realism we achieve when we lose our innocence leads us to understand that a critical position opposing capitalism and its evils doesn’t guarantee an anti-patriarchal political practice. I learned that this system—the patriarchy—that oppresses women, subordinates them and generates violence, isn’t exclusive to the Right. I used to think the Right was patriarchal, that it was what imposed patriarchy on us and that with a government of the Left, with leftwing principles, more possibilities existed for dismantling patriarchy. I learned that this isn’t so. There are machistas on the left as well as on the right, although I don’t how many or in what proportion.

The isolation I felt

A second lesson is that the isolation women feel in politics is no myth. Under the patriarchal code regulating the world of politics it’s assumed that each woman who decides to enter politics does so “on her own account and at her own risk” and must be prepared to shape her public post with her own survival kit.

It can’t be taken for granted that one woman will always support another. We women are alone in politics and we’re also “sleeping with the enemy”: the man or woman who is our ally, who supports us publicly or who gives us the greatest signs of support, may also be plotting our downfall. We don’t know how to differentiate between those with whom we sleep.

An exceptional official, a woman with whom I had the opportunity to share brief moments of solidarity from our respective isolations, used to insist on this reality and encouraged me to link up with other women to share the big and small secrets of feminine political survival. Doing so I realized that women who survive politics learn to be alone, to distance themselves from other women in the same position or else they network with them to share anecdotes, unburden themselves or find consolation in difficult situations. But they make no pacts to defend each other from public attacks or palace intrigues. There are no pacts or agreements to undermine the basis of the patriarchal exercise of politics, not even to transform the political rituals—the protocols—that reproduce the dynamics of discrimination and violence towards women. They’re too scared of being the next victims.

The principles I defended

I also learned that we women and men who participate in politics, who hold positions in public service can do a lot, quite a lot in fact, as long as we’re clear that the post isn’t an end in itself, as some officials perceive it. Those people are ready to do anything, even sacrifice their principles, in order to hang on to their post. But the moment you lose your principles and your dignity and start negotiating your principles, your rights, then you can no longer do anything of worth.

There’s something worse than being expelled from politics. And that’s to lose one’s principles and feminist identity in order to stay inside the tent. Far too often women in politics repeat that sometimes it’s necessary to give way or retreat a step so as to take two steps forward later on. Without denying the abundant empirical evidence that surely exists behind this maxim, I believe we have to put it in perspective when dealing with political negotiations or calculations that imply rolling back women’s rights.

I’ve seen and heard the speeches of many women who have a long history in the struggle for women’s human rights or are active in feminist organizations. When they manage to reach positions of power that allow them to make a difference for women, they end up adapting or submitting to the patriarchy’s agenda.

I’m talking about feminist legislators who have voted in favor of the total criminalization of abortion or who tolerate the sexual harassment of female workers in the Congress; about female ministers who have taken up a State portfolio with an impeccable history of defending women’s rights then later justify the limited presence of women in the Cabinet due to “the lack of women trained to occupy posts” or who prefer to look the other way when “for governmental reasons” the rights of other female functionaries aren’t respected.” What use is it to be in a political post if we don’t use the power we have there to push for what we believe in and have defended? What use is it to acquire power just to turn it into an end and not a means?

Without falling into their traps

The other lesson I learned is that we women need to know we only move forward when we use our own rules and not those the patriarchy imposes on us. Too many women in politics are convinced that the secret of political success lies in knowing how the strings of power are pulled so as to pull them themselves. The risk in this strategy is that by learning how to pull those strings, we women run the risk of being co-opted by the patriarchy and ending up entangled in their webs.

We must always be on alert because the patriarchy has so many diverse ways to exercise its dominion, so many speeches on how to act with “wisdom and prudence,” so many labyrinths where mortal traps await the female transgressor, so many placebos to make women believe they dominate the “art of war” when in reality they’ve become its prisoners.

Women advance when we refuse to act with the rules they impose on us and put our own into operation instead. With my own rules I managed to pull ISDEMU out of anonymity and bring it closer to women’s territory. I’m still convinced that my wisest move was having played according to my own rules and obliged the patriarchy to react and defend itself. Having forced it to defend itself, we managed to put on the table issues that up till then had been vetoed in public debates. Who hasn’t realized that the debate on the effects of the laws restricting abortion is now on the national agenda, despite being a debate banned by the patriarchy?

Women move forward when we establish our own pacts and do exactly the opposite of what we’re expected to do. When we act like this we have the capacity to turn our defeats into victories and our weaknesses into strengths.

Julia Evelyn Martínez is an economist and lecturer at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador. This was a special collaboration with envío.

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