Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Migration in Central America

Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Migration in Central America

Article excerpt

Individuals in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) face escalating violence, rampant organized crime, and persecution, forcing unprecedented numbers to flee their homes for other countries. In addition to gang violence, corruption, and poverty, many youths and women from Northern Triangle countries are migrating due to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It is important to note that boys and men also suffer from SGBV; however, girls and women experience SGBV with far greater frequency. Although there is a general lack of accurate, disaggregated data on this issue, studies based on interviews with civil society organizations, government officials, and migrants themselves have detailed the challenges of SGBV and the institutional weaknesses that perpetuate it during each step of the migration process.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence as a "Push Factor" for Migration

Systemic gender inequality paired with a volatile political and economic environment of the region have left thousands of women and children subject to physical and sexual assault. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for global femicide (female homicide), and in El Salvador, there is an average of one femicide every 16 hours. Predatory gangs and drug cartels systemically target and exploit girls and women. Mano dura (iron fist) policies implemented by Northern Triangle governments have been largely ineffective as criminal groups have contributed to a large amount of human insecurity in the region. Iron fist policies are hardline security policies aimed at decreasing crime. They often involve violating civil liberties; there have been reports of law enforcement officials profiling youth based on appearance and disregarding due process. What is more, research has linked harsh prison sentences for drug and gang-related offenses to heightened criminal group recruitment.

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a criminal group that emerged in the wake of the U.S. deportation of Los Angeles gang members to El Salvador, employs tactics such as kidnapping and extortion in that country. Girls and women are routinely threatened by these activities and, and MS-13 fosters relationships with drug trafficking organizations who have diversified operations to include human trafficking. They are increasingly endangered. According to a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report, women in gang-controlled areas are often forced to pay a fee simply for working, living, or taking public transportation in the area. Others are forced to pay ransoms for kidnapped loved ones, often women and children. Individuals who are perceived as successful in business or who are receiving remittances from family members in the United States are of particular interest to gang members.

Gender-based violence is the second leading cause of death for women of reproductive age in Honduras, and domestic violence remains a pervasive and rarely addressed problem for women in the Northern Triangle. Women and children have reported assault, rape, extortion, and threats. Access to emergency contraception is limited or unavailable and abortion is criminalized in all three countries. Often, those affected by traumatic experiences are afraid to file police reports out of fear that the perpetrators won't be brought to justice and are disillusioned due to corruption. Stigmatization of victims and victim blaming also contribute to the underreporting of SGBV.

A Perilous Journey

While gang-related and sexual and gender-based violence are some of the main drivers of forced migration from the Northern Triangle, women and children fleeing their homes face the same threats during the migration process itself and at detention centers upon arrival at the destination country. According to an Amnesty International report, as many as 6 in 10 women migrating through Mexico are subjected to violence and sexual assault. Reports of women taking birth control to prevent pregnancy prior to beginning the journey north point to the pervasive nature of this threat. …

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