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CAF Conference - Session V

Bolstering Democratic Governance Through Foreign Policy

Dr. Rebecca Bill Chavez, president and CEO of the Inter-American Dialogue and Antonia Urrejola, former foreign minister of Chile came together for an exchange titled, “Bolstering Democratic Governance Through Foreign Policy.”

CAF Conference - Session IV

Women’s Economic Empowerment – Fostering an Equitable and Inclusive Digital Economy

“Women’s Economic Empowerment – Fostering an Equitable and Inclusive Digital Economy,” focused on women’s inclusion in the digital transformation, discussing methods to bridge the digital divide between men and women by investing in digital upskilling, online financial management services and social services, and entrepreneurship programs.

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A New Strategic Approach for El Salvador’s Economic Development Challenges

El Salvador’s sluggish economy and outdated economic model present serious challenges for the future. Weak economic performance means that life is hard and opportunities are scarce for large portions of the population. It also has far-ranging implications for a variety of issues, including migration, social inclusion, and insecurity. With the…

˙Manuel Orozco

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Fighting for Reproductive Justice in El Salvador

In 1967 the United Nations and its member states officially recognized women’s rights as international human rights. Despite this historic declaration many of those rights, specifically reproductive rights, are threatened today. As a region, Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws. El Salvador, in particular, has…

˙Laura Shaw

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El Salvador’s sluggish economy and outdated economic model present serious challenges for the future. Weak economic performance means that life is hard and opportunities are scarce for large portions of the population. It also has far-ranging implications for a variety of issues, including migration, social inclusion, and insecurity. With the increase in external indebtedness, fiscal expenditure, and failed monetary policy (with the introduction of Bitcoin), El Salvador needs to accelerate a different economic development strategy.

Towards a New Strategic Approach

In the age of the knowledge economy, a central development challenge for El Salvador is to strengthen the human capital base of their youth and workforce.

Education, skills attainment, and workforce training are not only precarious but also disconnected from the demands of a competitive labor force in the global economy. Moreover, the labor force feels entirely demotivated to stay in their homeland when there are no means to achieve the material circumstances that can be enjoyed in the modern society.

An innovative development strategy integrating migration, remittances, savings, trade, and education, can help El Salvador attain greater levels of development and ensure that Salvadorans have opportunities without having to migrate.

The approach links migration, trade and development through four unique and innovative components:

  1. Financial advising for remittance recipients in order to increase financial inclusion and bring millions of dollars into the financial ecosystem, while making migration less likely.
  2. Leverage these remittance savings to increase access to credit for micro enterprises—especially those in two sectors:
    • Informal merchants
    • Knowledge entrepreneurs
  3. Establish a trade hub facility that enhances competition (through better market access, business intelligence, skills alignment) in the global economy through:
    • The promotion of diaspora-driven trade opportunities (the so-called “nostalgia trade”)
    • Enhance CAFTA’s opportunity at adding trade competitiveness in key exports in the service sector (tourism and other nearshore opportunities) and over 100 potentially competitive commodities
    • Credit access to producers and distributors through catalyst funding
    • Trade partnerships
  4. Diaspora funding of education using remittance platforms, tied to after-school programs in areas of high emigration.

Economic Trends

Sluggish economic growth of two percent on average over the past 15 years has simply not provided enough resources to strengthen the country’s economy. Meanwhile, GDP per capita has only grown at 1.5 percent a year, on average, and one third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Moreover, this very limited growth has occurred as a byproduct of an outdated economic model that presents few opportunities for sustainable, equitable development. As of 2014, 26 percent of the country’s GDP originated from exports (mostly agriculture and maquilas, plus a few services), 17 percent from family remittances, and four percent from tourism. Basically, exports and migration constitute half of El Salvador’s GDP. Now, it is more than 60 percent.

Table 1: Economic Growth Indicators, 2000-2022 

Table 1: Economic Growth Indicators, 2000-2022  

Source: World Bank Data. Accessed February 2016; 2021. Central Bank of El Salvador (remittances) 

But upon closer examination, El Salvador’s export-oriented approach is even more problematic. Its export market has traditionally been vulnerable in that it produces a relatively small number of products for a handful of countries. Its main exports are knit T-shirts and other clothing items, sugar, coffee, and electrical capacitors. Fifteen commodities make 75 percent of US imports. Moreover, an estimated 40 percent of the value of exports is generated by only 10 firms that trade in only a handful of products.

Table 2: US Commodity imports from El Salvador 

Table of US Commodity imports from El Salvador

Source: US Trade statistics. 

Implications for Migration 

Because of poverty, transnational links, and social tensions, many Salvadorans choose to migrate in search of better opportunities abroad. Migration is the byproduct of push factors associated with violence and limited economic opportunities in a context where jobs are mostly informal, low paid and unskilled.  

For example, in a 2021 survey, the intention to migrate (at 36 percent among households) increased among those in the informal economy or were unemployed. Pull factors such as transnational family networks and demands for low-paid foreign labor (a Salvadoran in the US will make 12 times more than what he or she makes in El Salvador) also come into play.  

Table 3: Migration from El Salvador

Table of Table 3: Migration from El Salvador

Source: Authors’ estimates based on US Census, DHS, US Immigration Statistics, and survey data. Orozco, Manuel, Family Remittances in 2021: Is Double-Digit Growth the New Normal? March, 2022. 

Implications for Development 

Overall, given these economic realities, El Salvador is in between two income generation poles (exports and migration), with a 'missing middle,' the informal economy. These economic realities present various problems. 

First, the value chain connecting trade with export business is very limited, with few policy incentives for small businesses to engage with the global economy. Most exporting businesses consist of large enterprises (no more than 30 companies) handling the majority of exports and employing about one third of the labor force, mostly low skilled workers such as coffee pickers, garment makers, or call center operators. 

Second, the economic dimension of migration is completely neglected by policy makers. Salvadorans abroad send home over US$7 billion in remittances annually, supporting over one million households in a country of two million households. In addition, they purchase Salvadoran products, call and visit home, and send money for business investments and philanthropic efforts. The impact of these activities is significant. For example, on average, one in five Salvadorans is interested in investing in their home country. Moreover, ninety percent of Salvadoran migrants purchase Salvadoran products totaling about US$130 in value each month. Despite the fact that this dimension represents opportunities for growth with equity, the government largely fails to capitalize on it. One critical consideration that pertains to migration and development is the fact that financial inclusion leads to asset building, and those who build assets are less likely to migrate. Remittance recipients are the low hanging fruit in financial inclusion opportunities because they have more disposable income but little financial access. Moreover, targeting remittance recipients is important because they are more likely to migrate than non recipients.

Table 4: Key Impact Indicators in the U.S. – Central American Corridor, 2012 

Table 4: Key Impact Indicators in the U.S. – Central American Corridor, 2012

Source: Authors’ estimates based on migrant survey data. 

Third, the "missing middle" continues to be neglected or addressed with incomplete and inconsistent tools. The informal sector works in saturated and non-competitive markets (it accounts for over 60 percent of the labor force and 70 percent of businesses in the country). Therefore, is important to focus on the informal sector through a two-tiered approach, reducing the size of these unipersonal micro-businesses by transferring them into secure and stable jobs through skills and value chain anchors, and second, improving the competitive capacity of small businesses by tackling some of the challenges that prevail: low financial access, business competitive capacity, and no tax incentives, among others. 

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In 1967 the United Nations and its member states officially recognized women’s rights as international human rights. Despite this historic declaration many of those rights, specifically reproductive rights, are threatened today. As a region, Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws. El Salvador, in particular, has extremely harsh reproductive laws. The country stands out for its aggressive abortion ban in all circumstances. Salvadoran Penal Code identifies miscarriage as a self-induced abortion, and therefore a prosecutable offense. From 2000 to 2011, 129 Salvadoran women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes. Even in cases of rape, women will still be prosecuted. To address this social movements have formed in El Salvador to fight for female reproductive rights. This article will lay out the impact of the evolution of reproductive rights laws in El Salvador on women’s rights and highlight the role that women’s groups have had in addressing the problem. 

Under the 1973 Penal Code, induced abortion was officially recognized as a crime in El Salvador. This legislation defined abortion as “the destruction or annihilation of the conception at any moment during the pregnancy before birth begins.” The offense carries a sentence of one to three years in jail. However, this legislation specified that unintentional self-induced abortion or abortion performed to save the women’s life or in cases where the pregnancy was a result of rape were not punishable under the law.

Then came a shift in Salvador legislation, marked by radical Catholic influence that was heightened after the civil war. The Church specifically targeted what it deemed as the unjust termination of life. Under Armando Calderón Sol, the first president post-civil war, the Criminal Code was reformed to align with these values. The 1998 Criminal Code, which is still in place, criminalizes abortion in all cases. Compounding this legislation was the amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution to recognize human life from the moment of conception. However, because abortion was not defined under the Criminal Code nor the Constitution, there is a degree of legal uncertainty. As such abortion is classified as a serious crime and can be prosecuted as a homicide, which carries a prison sentence of up to 50 years. As of February 2022, at least 181 women had been prosecuted for illegal abortions since the total abortion ban was enacted. 

According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute and the International Family Planning Federation, about 25 per 1,000 women of childbearing age (aged 15-44) in El Salvador have had an unsafe abortion. In comparison, there are 44 per 1,000 abortions in Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region each year, with about 76 percent taking place in unsafe conditions.

Two critical factors correlating to unsafe abortion rates in El Salvador are domestic violence and lack of sexual health education. Evidence suggests that young girls are the principal victims of sexual violence, often resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. PAI reports that in 2018 girls as young as 11 were forced to carry to term pregnancies that resulted from rape. “The girls and women who are most vulnerable due to their socioeconomic situation and their lack of access to educational and health services are those who suffer most from the effects of the criminalization of abortion”,  leading to the conclusion that the education system is also failing to provide relevant comprehensive sexual education. Of the 129 women prosecuted for abortion or homicide related to fetal death from 2000 to 2011, 46.3 percent were illiterate or at most finished two years of primary school. While the Ministry of Health provides accurate modern sexual and reproductive health education, it lacks the resources and staff to provide education to women living in rural areas without access to the education system. Even if a country has adequate education programs, not much can be done if there are unsafe conditions on the part of the health care provider. These conditions include a lack of birth control options, withholding information on different birth control methods, and conscientious objection by health care practitioners who refuse to perform medical activities incompatible with their ideology. As a result, only 66 percent of Salvadoran women of childbearing age use a form of modern contraception and over 35 percent use female sterilization. Inadequate sexual health education and family planning are directly correlated to the rate of abortion in El Salvador.

One of the more notorious cases relating to El Salvador’s abortion laws is Manuela v El Salvador. This landmark case ruled in November 2021 that the Salvadoran government was responsible for the death of Manuela, a young woman arrested in 2008 for homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison for a miscarriage. She died two years later in prison from cancer and inadequate health treatment. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) also ruled that “health care staff can no longer refer women to law enforcement who come to the hospital seeking abortion care and other reproductive health services”. Because this case received international attention, the IACHR called on El Salvador to amend abortion legislation so that it aligns with international human rights standards, and carefully review convictions under the current legislation.

The current political situation in El Salvador does not provide an optimistic outlook for the plight of Salvadoran women dealing with unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies. Catholic and Evangelical groups are a strong force in impeding the work of groups in El Salvador. There is a strong Catholic presence in the country and in the government, making it difficult to fight for legislative change. Anti-abortion groups often coordinate protests against the liberalization of the country’s abortion ban. President Nayib Bukele aligns closely with the religious and family values of the Grand Alliance for National Unity Party (GANA). He has made decisive public statements ruling out any type of reform relating to the right to life. In 2019 the Bukele administration made deep funding cuts to several critical women’s social programs. Including the total elimination of Ciudad Mujer, a comprehensive care service that encouraged female economic autonomy.

In October 2021, the Salvadoran Congress struck down a proposal to allow minimal exceptions to the anti-abortion legislation. The proposed legislation would have allowed abortions in three instances: to save the life of the woman, when the pregnancy was the result of “sexual violence”, or in the event of fatal fetal deformity. Along with this proposal, various actions have been taken by grassroots organizations to protect women’s rights in El Salvador. The following organizations are leading the counter movement fighting for progressive reproductive rights: Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local, and Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz. These organizations provide information regarding current legislation, reproductive health information, and legal assistance to the women of El Salvador. They work to promote awareness to change the existing legislation and ensure that women have access to reproductive health so that they do not resort to unsafe abortions. While they work with local governments the bulk of their efforts surround building networks within their communities. 

Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (CGDA) was established in 2009 by Morena Herrera. Currently a human rights activist, Herrera is also a former commander and top military strategist from the civil war. CGDA is based in San Salvador and works to change existing legislation and provide legal defense to women who have been convicted or are being accused of abortion or related crimes. Herrera’s organization has successfully freed 61 of the close to 200 women prosecuted for abortion as a homicide since 2009. For example, they collaborated with IACHR in the 2021 Manuela v. El Salvador case. The organization also provides sexual health education to local and national communities. However, one of the complications impeding organizations like CGDA from providing sexual health education and working with hospitals to ensure that they are providing proper care is that women are discriminated against by hospital staff when suspected of having had an abortion.

Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local, founded in 2009 in Suchitoto, works with the community to advance the economic solidary of women, and provides training on comprehensive sexual health. The Colectiva also works with municipal governments to defend women’s rights and supports the building of shelters for female victims of domestic violence. They also published reports relating to the lack of a gendered approach to healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (ORMUSA) is one of the oldest non-partisan, feminist organizations based in El Salvador dedicated to women's rights advocacy. It was established in 1983 through informal meetings of women from San Salvador, Olocuilta, and Candelaria. ORMUSA works to promote gender equality and the economic, social, and political empowerment of women through political action on the local and national levels. ORMUSA runs a legal aid center to provide legal assistance and psycho-social counseling to women and training on the prevention of gender-based violence. The organization helped bring to fruition the 2021 law that criminalized femicide, and it continues to track cases of femicide in El Salvador. The group also holds events and publishes reports concerning domestic violence, women in the labor market, LGBTQIA+ rights, and reproductive rights.

Next Steps:

Reproductive rights, or more broadly women's rights, have long been promoted in the region, but in El Salvador, little progress has been made. Although grassroots movements are integral to counter restrictive abortion law, it is not only policy change that needs to happen, rather a broader transformation of women’s political representation. The women of Latin America are demanding that their governments follow the lead of legislators in Colombia and Argentina and protect women’s reproductive rights. In the case of El Salvador, anti-abortion legislation disadvantages a large portion of the population with inhumane results that can no longer be ignored. Reproductive rights are human rights and deserve to be protected as such.

Key Recommendations for Grassroots Organizations: 

  • Push to have domestic violence recognized as a government issue, so women are more likely to speak up against sexual violence and fight for their rights. 
  • Support women’s courts with female judges who have been specially trained in gender violence and law, and are likely to be more supportive of victims.
  • Continue working with international organizations like IACHR and UNHCR to influence the Salvadoran court system to free more women prosecuted for abortions and to demand that El Salvador adhere to international human rights law 
  • Continue to push for reform of the 1998 Salvadoran Criminal Code that criminalizes abortion in all cases.
  • Lobby the United States and other international allies to provide financial assistance specifically for reproductive health services.
  • Partner with schools to train teachers on a sex education curriculum.
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