It’s not a city for women

At least six out of 10 women age 15 and older were victims of public sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women in San Salvador experience verbal harassment, sexual harassment and rape in plazas, parks and streets. Experts say that the city has multiple barriers for women, from architectural to political. Those who govern do not have among their priorities to guarantee safe mobility for them.


I just wanted to scream my lungs out,” says Stephanie*, pointing to the exact spot where two men tried to kidnap her. As usual, that night she walked alone. She still remembers the first thing she thought: “I said: if these guys are going to kill me, let them kill me here. I want my mom to find my body.” Stephanie thought she was going to disappear.

It was not an unfounded thought. Between January and September 2021, 700 women disappeared in El Salvador, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).

Stephanie, 31, was tried to be kidnapped 50 meters from her home located in a private middle-class residential area in San Salvador. Her daily commute was limited from her home to the university, and vice versa; she at a brisk pace she walked the stretch in about eight minutes. She remembers that it was around seven at night when she got off the bus. Ten years later, she still blames herself for what happened to her: she believes that she returned too late, because she had a university test and her final comments with her classmates delayed her arrival.

The street where Stephanie was traveling and was attacked is not marked. “The street hasn’t changed much,” she says. To walk on the sidewalk you have to avoid some roots that grow from the robust trees on the banks. Visibility is very limited: trees and dim light from three lamps on the course make clarity even more difficult.

“The signage for people on foot, where is it? You cannot locate yourself (…). These elements make you feel more insecure, if you don’t know where you are, where are you going”, said Sara Ortiz, Spanish sociologist, master’s degree in urban planning and author of the book “Urbanismo Feminista”.

Stephanie’s entire path is lined with houses. As you walk, one by one you hear murmurs of conversations or sounds of television programs. As she walks, she pauses: “I don’t even remember how many times I’ve been mugged and harassed in the street,” she says.

183 thousand women live in San Salvador, the most insecure department for women according to data from ORMUSA. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto

Stephanie is one of the 183 thousand women who lives in San Salvador, the most insecure department for women in El Salvador in terms of violence against women, according to data compiled by the Observatory of Violence against Women of the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA). Between January and June 2021, in the six-monthly report on acts of violence against women in El Salvador carried out by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, in coordination with the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses (DIGESTYC), 13,348 acts of violence were added. violence against women throughout the country.

“I heard they called me. I pretended that it wasn’t with me and quickened my pace. In a matter of seconds the man was already in front of me and the other was next to me, inside the car, with the door open. He told him ‘hurry up’ ”, narrates the young woman.

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Many of the streets of San Salvador lack sufficient lighting to be able to circulate on foot and at night. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto

The attacker forced her toward the car door, and she recalled screaming at the top of her lungs. None of the inhabitants of the houses in that residential area came out to help her. “No one,” she reproaches.

According to National Survey of Sexual Violence Against Women 2019 conducted by the United Nations Population Fund El Salvador (UNFPA) in urban areas, at least 6 out of 10 women aged 15 or older have been victims of public sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Stephanie is a dark-haired woman, 1.60 meters tall and of petite consistency. The jerk caused her and her attacker to reach the center of the street. “At that moment a car appeared and I think the men were afraid. I yelled at the guy in the car to help me. They only took my wallet, my cell phone, my university folder and my books. The one in the car didn’t stop, but I ran to the corner,” she says.

In the corner was a dining room. “There were customers and one of them saw me crying with my clothes in disarray and scratches on my skin. There they lent me a telephone to call my house”, he recounts. It was her brother who came to pick her up at that place. Her fear was so much that he covered her face to avoid being recognized when he left her..

Women in San Salvador experience moments of verbal harassment, sexual harassment, and rape in plazas, parks, and streets. The most serious thing is that, according to the “Public Space Management Methodology and Strategy”, carried out by the San Salvador Metropolitan Area Planning Office (OPAMSS), “verbal harassment has become the most culturally accepted and least legally sanctioned manifestation of violence against women.” Revista Factum contacted OPAMSS on multiple occasions to seek their comment regarding the methodology, but did not receive a response.

the city in debt

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OPAMSS determined that verbal harassment has become the most culturally accepted manifestation of violence against women. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto

“We can say that the mobility of women in general is restricted. The experience in certain spaces is not the same for a man as it is for a woman. Women always end up taking strategies to avoid certain risk controls, for example: not going out at night, not wearing certain types of clothing, being accompanied, or prevention strategies such as notifying someone where we are going or how we are”, explains the architect and specialist in feminist urbanism, Sofia Rivera.

Rivera points out that the gender approach “is not yet important for urban planning in general”, that is, that cities are not designed to guarantee the safety of women when they move. However, she points out that OPAMSS is clear about what a safe city for women is and hopes that the methodology, developed in 2019, “does not remain a dead letter.”

But, what is there in a safe city with a gender approach? Safe spaces should be marked so we know where we are going; women should be respected, we should see and be seen, hear and be heard, escape and get help; and there should be clean spaces and collective actions where the community participates in the spaces, adds the architect.

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The public space lacks sidewalks and sufficient lighting so that women can move more calmly. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto.

Rivera points out that the right to the city, which according to the United Nations is “the right of all inhabitants to inhabit, use, occupy, transform, govern and enjoy spaces,” ends up being a privilege for a certain group, because women have marked the “geography of fear”, which is delimited in spaces to which women do not attend due to fear, and ensures that many make linear journeys such as home, store and church; for your safety.

In the municipality of San Salvador, six out of 10 women suffered sexual harassment in the streets. Of this number, nine out of 10 suffered oral harassment, two out of 10 were followed and two out of 10 touched or tried to touch them, according to a diagnosis made by the FAD Youth Foundation and the Feminist Collective for Local Development between 2019-2020.

Women are afraid. Although the figures indicate that there are more men affected by violence, fear is greater in women, according to the OPAMSS “Public Space Management Methodology and Strategy”, “there is talk of fear that limits the right to enjoy city ​​and that hinders the participation of women”, she details.

Irma Lima, coordinator of the San Salvador team of the Feminist Collective for Local Development, points out that in El Salvador there is very little budget that is designated in local governments to carry out interventions from an inclusive perspective in cities. She regrets that “some pilot tests of some mayors continue to be: -make a soccer field- and that only perpetuates values ​​that we have tried to deconstruct.” In her opinion, the way physical spaces are designed helps men feel that they are in a position of power.

“Politics is not interested in women’s self-defense,” says Claudia Fuentes, creator of the feminist self-defense workshop “I react.” “One thing is for you to say ¨I want to teach karate classes¨ than for you to say ¨I want to give feminist self-defense classes (…) The physical part is prepared, what is not prepared is the mind,” she details. A municipal government even asked her to replace the word “feminist” with “feminine” in the name of her workshop. “They’re not ready,” she stresses.

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There is, as the experts explain, the geography of fear: spaces to which women do not attend out of fear. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto.

After Stephanie’s attack, the men in her family forbade her to walk alone again. She assures that since that day, there was always one of them waiting for her at the bus stop, or when there was a possibility, she would travel by car. “To wait for me it was always one of my brothers, my dad or my boyfriend. He was always a man, never my mother or my sister, ”she details.

The attempted kidnapping occurred in October 2012. It seems far away, but for her it is as if it happened yesterday. She remembers every detail, such as the fact that it took more than six months for her to move “freely” again. She did not file a complaint because, according to her, the authorities “were not going to solve anything.” According to National Survey of Sexual Violence Against Women 2019 carried out by the Population Fund of the United Nations El Salvador (UNFPA), the most frequent act of sexual violence in the public sphere is having received compliments with sexual insinuation. Of those compliments, Stephanie says that she is “very tired” of listening while walking.

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In the municipality of San Salvador, six out of 10 women suffered sexual harassment in the streets, according to a study by the Feminist Collective for Local Development. Photo FACTUM/Natalia Alberto

Eight years ago, Stephanie purchased a “taser”, the electroshock weapon that disables the mobility of another person for a limited time. Karla Benítez, founder of Kalu Defense, an online store for self-defense accessories, says most of her clients are women. “If men buy a product, it is to give it to their girlfriend, sister, mom or friend. All women. I think these products make you feel more courageous,” she says.

Stephanie says that “luckily” she has never used a taser, however, it makes her feel much safer on her journey. “I think that with those things one always learns to be aware of everything, I even think that being in a car doesn’t make you invincible either. In this country you can never be safe. We have to take care of each other, ”she laments.


*His real name has not been published for security reasons.

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It’s not a city for women