One morning, Josefina Gonzalez left her house in El Salvador to buy tortillas. When she came back, she found her partner had come home from a drinking binge, according to court testimony. Then, she alleges he accused her of sleeping around, called her a “puta,” and hit her repeatedly.
Gonzalez, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, endured such abuse at the hands of her live-in partner and father of her children for years, she later said in court. Throughout, she chose to keep quiet. Her partner, who we’ll call Luis, allegedly told her there was no point in going to the police, because no one would listen to her anyway.
Nonetheless, for the first time, Gonzalez decided to file a police report. With that decision, she thrust herself into the Salvadoran court system right as the country had just begun to hear cases in its newly created specialized tribunal for gender-based crimes such as domestic abuse, femicide, and sexual violence. The new court, which was formed in March 2016 and started hearing cases in July 2017, specifically trains its judges in issues of gender-based violence, obstacles that victims of such crimes face while seeking justice, and how best to help them recuperate.
In recent years, court systems designed to handle cases of gender-based violence have sprung up all over the world. In 1996, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Model Protection Against Sexual Harassment Bill ordered the creation of gender violence tribunals in its member states, pioneering the model.
New York was the first US state to open domestic violence courts, in 1996, and a 2010 national report by the US Department of Justice counted 208 domestic violence courts in the US and more than 150 “similar projects” internationally. Spain opened a gender-based violence court in 2005, and Brazil launched one in 2006. More have sprung up over the past decade, in countries such as Chile, Liberia, and Nepal.
There’s no country in the world that can claim to be free of gender-based violence. An estimated 35 percent of women worldwide experience sexual violence in their lifetime. The unequal power dynamic that drives these crimes also makes them particularly difficult to prosecute. Targeted justice systems are one way to increase accountability for perpetrators and carry out gender-based violence laws more effectively, according to UN Women. El Salvador is one of the latest countries to try out the approach.
In the Central American nation of 6.3 million people, gender-based violence is a crisis. El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, with just under 4,000 homicides in 2017. The country is also considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. According to the Institute for Legal Medicine, there were 468 cases of femicide in El Salvador in 2017, which comes out to one every 18 hours, and its rate of violent death for women is the third highest globally. According to UN Women, 26 percent of Salvadoran women report having experienced physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime. And as reported by the Atlantic, due to deeply ingrained sexist values, many women and girls aren’t aware of their rights at all, including “the right to safely leave abusive partners and report sexual and domestic violence.”
El Salvador is also among the worst countries in the world for impunity—that is, a failure to bring those who commit human rights violations to justice. Most homicide victims in El Salvador are young men, due to widespread gang violence, and they rarely see justice. But tackling impunity for gender-based crimes poses a particular set of challenges because it requires judges and juries to confront deep-rooted patriarchal biases, says Baires. According to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, El Salvador's rate of impunity for femicide, which is commonly committed by male partners, was estimated to be 77 percent in 2012. In addition, secretary for social inclusion Vanda Pignato told the Guardian earlier this year that women often do not report abuse against them because women are often disbelieved by police.
“One of the objectives is to unlearn behaviors,” said Glenda Baires, a judge in the specialized tribunal. “Unfortunately, in El Salvador, there exists machismo and many patriarchal values. Many judges have grown up and been educated in these conditions and so they often take up those cultural parameters and translate them to their sentences.”
In regular courts, those biases can result in judges and juries blaming a victim for her behavior or way of dressing, saying that a woman in a relationship can’t be raped by her own partner, or ruling that domestic violence problems should be resolved within the home, Baires said. In these specialized courts, judges are not only trained against those biases, but also consider how a woman’s level of education, childcare responsibilities, or economic situation may affect her case.
“We take into consideration all the evidence, with a gender lens, while also trying to understand the social context in which the victim lives,” Baires said. For instance, Baires says that outside of the specialized court system, she has seen judges take the way women tend to normalize abuse by partners and use it against them instead of understand the coping mechanism as a psychological reaction. “We should take these factors into account and never use them against the victim.”
Complicated domestic circumstances are common in her court, Baires said. Women are often economically dependent on their partners, making some hesitant to testify against them. In addition, nearly 15 percent of Salvadoran women over the age of 15 are illiterate, which can increase dependency and make appearing in court seem extra daunting. Baires has also, for instance, tried cases in the specialized court in which the plaintiff has a learning disability and requires more time for answering questions, and cases in which the plaintiff must bring young children to court due to lack of access to a caretaker.
Eleven crimes fall under Baires’ jurisdiction, including femicide, diffusion of porn (as in revenge porn), and three forms of economic violence. As of August 15, 2018, the court has resolved 22 cases, of which half have resulted in convictions. Another 14 cases remain open.
As far as Gonzalez: Based on her original police statement, medical records of her injuries that day, her testimony, and a psychological analysis that showed signs of domestic abuse over time, Baires sentenced Luis to four years in prison for causing physical harm to Gonzalez, the minimum sentence for the crime according to El Salvador's penal code. He was also ordered to pay a $600 fine, the equivalent of two months at a minimum-wage job in El Salvador, for being found guilty of expressions of violence in the form of verbal and psychological abuse against Gonzalez. Baires ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict him on a third charge for threatening Gonzalez.
Gonzalez will also receive psychological therapy and $500 from her former partner as part of reparations. On Baires’ recommendation, Gonzalez will soon begin attending classes through a government-run job training program for single mothers and survivors of gender-based violence.
“One of the challenges of the court is trying to repair the damage to the victim, through reparatory measures,” said Baires. “This is one of the principle differences with our jurisdiction and the general court system. We know that reparatory measures have to identify the damage that the victim has endured because of the crime and try to transform this. Our decisions have to be aimed towards this instead of just determining a sentence.”
A specialized court system isn’t an overnight cure for gender-based violence in El Salvador, or any other country where institutionalized misogyny runs deep. Neither is the purpose of the court to condemn every person who stands before it accused of a crime. Baires is very clear that her court is deeply committed to due process.
“The inequality that exists in the country prevents women from accessing justice,” said Baires. “Accessing justice is not just filing a police report, but going through the whole judicial process.”