In Wake of Bukele Election, Feminist Movement Vows to Continue Fight for Structural Change
In El Salvador as throughout the world, women and girls face a daily reality of violence, subordination, and exclusion. This reality intersects in especially brutal ways for women and girls who additionally occupy marginalized spaces of race, class, sexual identity, and disability, among others. As an emancipatory project, El Salvador’s feminist social movement has been increasingly powerful in drawing attention to the structural, capitalist roots of this reality and demanding that change occur at this level (liberal white feminism: take note). To this end, more than 50 feminist organizations came together before the Salvadoran presidential elections to develop and present a cohesive platform, titled Nada Sobre Nosotras Sin Nosotras (Nothing About Us Without Us), outlining what this change would look like. The platform calls for systemic reform that would build on the advances of the previous FMLN administrations and move Salvadoran society toward gender equity and justice. Its priorities include economic autonomy, sexual and reproductive health, water and environmental rights, and freedom from violence, among others.
These demands were presented to all presidential candidates. Although Nayib Bukele did not respond to the demands during the campaign, he did incorporate some into Plan Cuscatlán, his plan of government, vowing to analyze root-level causes and seek root-level solutions to gender disparities. Plan Cuscatlán likewise pledges a “gender focus” (although what that actually means is unclear) in all state functions including those mentioned in the feminist platform: economy, health, security, education, and others. Some of the proposed programs in these areas, especially those around sexual education, are promising. However, Bukele’s many contradictions have left the feminist social movement dubious at best that his platform will advance feminist principles or improve the material reality of women in El Salvador.
The first and fundamental contradiction arises in Bukele’s vow to support women’s economic autonomy. Plan Cuscatlán proposes a number of measures to address gender-based economic subordination, including access to tax incentives for women’s enterprises, programs to reintegrate formerly incarcerated women, accessible bank loans, vocational training, paid labor, and guaranteed labor rights, especially in the care/informal sector. And encouragingly, the plan specifically mentions ratifying Convention 189 of the International Labor Organization (ILO/OIT189)—legislation that the feminist movement has pushed for some time—which would guarantee access to public benefits for workers in the informal economy. Many of these measures are indeed responsive to the feminist platform and to a proposal presented by the Human Rights Ombudsman. However, contextualized in Bukele’s broader economic policy proposals, which are overwhelmingly neoliberal, these programs are incompatible with any root-level social reorganization that has gender equity as its goal.
Capitalism by definition relies on divisions of labor that exploit and invisiblize the work that women do. In El Salvador specifically, the increasingly neoliberal policies that the right-wing ARENA party implemented for 20 years only ever harmed women by forcing many into precarious/low-wage maquiladora work, displacing others from their communities, eroding labor/organizing rights, dispossessing indigenous women of land and infrastructure, contaminating water resources, and intensifying poverty for the majority of Salvadorans. Yet two cornerstones of Bukele’s plan for economic growth are increased attraction of direct foreign investment and further development of special economic zones—two pillars of neoliberal strategy.
Contrary to “new ideas," therefore, many Salvadoran feminist economists see in this plan only more of the same neoliberal policies that devastated families and individuals after the war. Further, they have denounced the futility of Bukele’s plan to “fight neoliberalism with more neoliberalism,” stressing the devastating effects that tax deregulation, privatization of resources, and the exclusion of working class representatives from public policy decisions have upon local communities. In sum, although Bukele pledges significant state support to women, his policy will likely only serve to bolster institutions of power and the capitalist class—all the while exploiting low- or unpaid (disproportionately women’s) labor.
When it comes to reproductive autonomy under Bukele, the feminist movement faces some uncertainty. El Salvador has a total abortion ban, no exceptions, and carries up to a 40-year sentence, even, and often, in cases of stillbirth, miscarriage, and other obstetric complications that result in termination of the fetus. Bukele has discussed abortion publicly saying he “agrees with it” only when the mother’s life is at risk. In Plan Cuscatlan, he mentions reproductive rights via free health care for women, but focuses on prevention and education (which would be a welcome advance) with no actual mention of abortion reform. Some in the feminist movement see Bukele’s recognition of at least one of the “4 causales” as a place to start, although the fact that he has not yet met with feminist leaders leaves this hope fragile. Others in the movement view the new administration as, at best, a period of protectionary struggle for achievements already won rather than a time for big progressive steps forward.
Regarding women and environmental issues, more contradictions surface. Women are the most impacted by environmental degradation and lack of water access in El Salvador. In many rural areas where the infrastructure does not exist to supply water to homes, it is women and girls, via systematized gender roles, who take on the responsibility of procuring water for their households. In many cases, this entails walking a significant distance—often miles—to access clean water and bringing it back. Not only is this a physical burden, but it prevents girls from attending school during the time they are obligated to procure water. Likewise, women compose the majority of care-workers—whether for children, elders, disabled family members, or others—which requires a substantial, constant supply of clean water. If water is privatized, access will be even further limited and women and girls will suffer the most. The fight against privatization, therefore, is a feminist issue. And it is deeply concerning that, although Bukele positions himself as a progressive, he has aligned himself with the very forces that are threatening to privatize water and revert the mining ban.
Last, but among the highest priorities for the feminist movement, is gender-based violence. Women and girls in El Salvador routinely face a continuum of gender violence that includes harassment; domestic and intimate partner abuse; rape, incest, and other forms of sexual assault; virtual sexual ownership by gangs; and femicide. The reality is dire; a recent study reported that between 2014 and 2018 a total of 2,134 women were killed in El Salvador (in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras combined, the figure was nearly 7,000, making the region the most dangerous place for women in the world).
Bukele has proposed several violence prevention initiatives, including police expansion to enable better response to gender violence; the creation of a national program of education and prevention and another program to assist the families of femicide victims. Here too, he has also pledged to address the root causes of violence against women. However, there is nothing in Bukele’s rhetoric or in Plan Cuscatlán that indicates a critical awareness of what these root causes are much less the political will to challenge them. Violence against women is directly linked to the unequal distribution of power and the asymmetrical gender relations that a capitalist system requires. It is a way of enforcing this system and keeping women devalued and subordinate—from harassment and degradation, to sexual/physical abuse, to femicide. And the violence is institutionalized even beyond death via law enforcement that refuses to investigate, courts that grant immunity to aggressors, and legislation that withholds reproductive choice after violation. In El Salvador, as around the world, therefore, capitalism and patriarchy, are the root of gender violence. And although President-Elect Bukele has discursively promised to address gender inequality, concretely he is aligning himself with the very forces that keep oppressive systems in place. The true root-level work that gender equity requires will need to take place beyond discourse and below the surface, where the tangled structures of capitalist patriarchy lie. And to this end, the feminist movement has found Bukele’s initiatives insufficient.
Navigating Bukele’s contradictions is difficult, and predicting how they will translate to actual legislation and cultural change even more so. The feminist movement in El Salvador has responded so far with analysis, vigilance, and a vow to fight structural oppression no matter how it’s disguised. Organizing strategies may need to shift, new coalitions may need to form, and sites of leverage may need to move, but the movement is ready. Despite the change in administration, what remains constant is the commitment, vision, and strength of the feminist movement to take the struggle forward.