“About six of us from the collective were in the pickup truck.” Aurora, co-founder of Mujeres de Xochilt, a Salvadoran organisation supported by Mama Cash, is talking about one of their community visits. “We were carrying materials for the girls’ workshop, and we had money to pay for their lunches hidden in our shoes. Three boys, between eight and twelve years old, stopped us to inspect our backpacks. We knew that they were armed with a machete or a pistol. We were trembling with fear. We were able to demonstrate that we weren’t informers for the police. When we promised that we wouldn’t extract information from the community, they let us through.”
Sexual abuse by schoolteachers
Aurora and her companions from the Mujeres de Xochilt collective often find themselves in this kind of situation when working with girls in communities dominated by the various Salvadoran maras (gangs). “There are cases of 11-year-old girls who have been forced to have sex with gang members. They are told that if they don’t do what they’re told, their mother or someone else in their family will get killed,” Aurora explains. “We always see very young girls who are pregnant when we arrive in the communities, girls who don’t dare to say anything or even to look you in the eye. We know that many of them are suffering sexual abuse: not only by gang members, but also by schoolteachers and even family members.”
Aurora and her companions from the collective have designed a strategy to attract the greatest possible number of girls to their workshops. They create safe spaces to discuss topics such as self-esteem, self-care, and reproductive rights. “We always dress up the first time as if it is a party. And although our interactive activities revolve around the topic of girls’ rights , we also provide food, music and fun games. When we feel that we have their trust, we start talking about the big taboos: sexuality, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.”
A chain of solidarity at the national level
Aurora notes that after these sensitive issues have been raised there is usually a drop in attendance at the next workshop. On one occasion, gang members even threatened Mujeres de Xochilt facilitators with a machete for having brought up the use of condoms in one of the sessions. However, Aurora and her companions have persisted with their work for more than 12 years because they are now seeing results: “The greatest satisfaction is in seeing these girls continue to grow and develop, in watching them bring the information to other girls and in turn changing their lives. We are creating a chain of solidarity at the national level to help lower rates of early pregnancy and feminicide.”
According to the United Nations, El Salvador has one of the highest rates of sexual assault among adolescents between 15 and 19 years of age. But Mujeres de Xochilt is having an impact, and that is getting noticed: “As we continue to grow, we receive more support from municipalities and other associations that provide us space. They see that our work is producing results.”
A safe space
Yet the most satisfying result is that Mujeres de Xochilt is succeeding on the community level. The girls finally have a safe space where they can talk with other girls about their fears; where they can develop their self-confidence through games; and in particular where they can make use of tools to increase solidarity and sisterhood, which in turn inspires other communities to join in. The strength of Mujeres de Xochilt continues to spread all over the country.
And best of all is that the dream that Mujeres de Xochilt has for the future is already coming true: some of the girls who started participating in their workshops at age 11 have now become workshop facilitators!