“Women’s equality in the context of El Salvador” was the topic of conversation on Thursday, Oct. 22 in the Memorial Union.
Fatima Pacas, regional coordinator of Latin America and the Caribbean for International Partners in Mission (IPM) visited the University of Maine campus to talk about the role of women in her home country of El Salvador.
A group of about 30 squeezed into the Totman Room of the Union to join the discussion. Graduate students, undergraduates and professors alike sat in a circle around a table to hear what Pacas had to say about El Salvador’s past and present, and what IPM is doing to help the economic and social situation in that area of Central America.
Pacas started off with an explanation about the historical context of El Salvador, including the growing coffee industry of the late 1800s and the dictatorship that controlled it. A projection screen behind the table highlighted her words with pictures of the small country — which is not even the size of the U.S. state of Massachusetts — and the countries that surround it.
“Around 1870 and 1880 . . . coffee was the principal product for economic growth,” Pacas began. “The interesting thing is that those military dictatorship governments were manipulated by the people who were owners of the big coffee companies . . . the most wealthiest families.”
In the early half of the 1900s, El Salvador was affiliated mostly with communism. Later in the century, the people were moving farther from communism and closer to social change. While the Salvadoran Civil War didn’t officially start until the 1980s, the ’70s were full of riots in the streets and massacres of the citizens by the hands of the military-led government.
As desperate as the situation was, people were proving to the government that they could get angry, they could protest and they could cause trouble in the face of inequality; all they needed was organization.
In October 1980, this became a reality. Five large social organizations came together to fit under one coalition: the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN).
So where do the women of El Salvador fit into this? They found their home during this social revolution at the forefront. Women had obtained the status of citizenship not even 30 years prior, and yet they made up 30 percent of the guerrilla fighters in the FMLN.
At this point, women weren’t even close to being allowed to fight in the regular army alongside men. The projection screen behind Pacas depicted two armed women, smiling, looking confident.
“I’m not saying that the war is the best way to solve all problems, I’m not saying that. Because I don’t believe in that. I think there are other ways, but for these people who got involved in the war, that was the way,” Pacas said.
As a result of the conflict, thousands of people had to make their escape into neighboring countries, such as Honduras. Many that fled the country still made the decision to go back to El Salvador to help with the fight later on.
Pacas argued that the conflict that took place shouldn’t even be considered a civil war, because the fighting took place between the people and the government, not really among the civilians themselves. The group of civilians that took the side of the government was so small, it was a negligible percent.
As a result of this war, the FMLN became an official political party. Another achievement of the war was the disillusionment of the National Guard; the Guard was recognized for the violent partisan group that it was, and was replaced by the National Police. The National Police is organized by civilians. The National Institution for Human Rights was also established as a result of the war.
Today, El Salvador still deals with a number of issues such as gang wars in urban areas, high homicide rates and a large, stubborn gap of money between the very wealthy and the very poor.
The mission of IPM is to “provide opportunities for partnership that are personal and effective, in part, through our Immersion Experience Program, allowing donors and friends to engage directly with our Partners from across the globe,” according to their website.
“They are self-organized groups that come to us, or we seek them out through community partners that we already have. We provide seed funding,” Melanie Strout, associate director for education and outreach for IPM, said at the round table.
For example, Pacas’ role in El Salvador is connecting with women and their families and crafting plans to help support their families and make their living. She helps show these women how they can achieve their goals.