Feed the Future
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Gender-based Violence in Central America Requires a Cross-Sector Response

This blog post was written by Paige Castellanos of Penn State.

Oppressive, traumatizing, paralyzing. These words describe the implications of physical and emotional violence against women. Defined by the UN Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women, the term refers to “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women”. The northern triangle in Central America, comprised of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, has the highest homicide rates in the world. In these three countries, women are particularly susceptible to experiencing violence. Map of Central America with countries and capitals Source: Cacahuate

While gang and criminal violence is prevalent in this region, all too often, violence against women involves intrahousehold abuse and an imbalance of power. The Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) reported in 2012 that nearly 27% of women in Honduras have been victims of physical violence by their spouse or partner after the age of 15. Similarly, in Guatemala, approximately 20% of women have experienced some form of physical violence from their domestic partner. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, homicide rates have steadily increased, and in the first nine months of 2015, there were 267 murders of women and 1,283 cases of intrahousehold violence.  

According to a 2015 USAID report on violence in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, some potential reasons for the violence against women in this region include: traumatization due to the relatively recent civil wars, changing power relations between men and women as more women enter the workforce, males feeling disempowered due to lack of work or income, hyper-violent forms of machismo modeled by gangs, cultural belief that violence towards women is justifiable, and alcohol abuse. A lack of trust in the judicial system and fear of reporting creates a further complicated situation for women affected by abuse. 

No matter what the cause, gender-based violence can result in bodily and psychological damage that can have devastating repercussions, particularly for women working in agriculture. Female empowerment and participation in the agriculture sector, as measured by the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, is greatly affected by the presence of gender-based violence. Key areas in the index such as input in productive decisions, access to resources, and control over use of income, are very difficult to achieve for women who are or have been abused. Additionally, requirements of agricultural production, such as working in the fields alone or with mostly males, leave women vulnerable for added risk (Van Houweling et al, 2015). 

As part of the “United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally”, efforts to “mainstream and integrate gender-based violence prevention and response activities into work across sectors” are recommended to be integrated throughout country portfolios.  Additionally, the strategy needs to support “stand-alone and integrated programs that address gender-based violence” in fields such as agriculture and specifically through farmer associations. 

Different ways to address this issue may include addressing the impact on youth through family based programming. One example of this can be seen in the METAS (Mejorando la educacion para trabajar, aprender, y superarse) project in Honduras which broadly works to improve the lives of young people and works to “strengthen the role of schools in community-based violence prevention efforts” and “provide integrated support to the family.” 

Another example is a partnership between CAWN (Central America Women’s Network) based in London and CEMN (Centre for Women’s Studies in Honduras) that works to improve local conditions for women, particularly after the 2009 political coup. Together they work to “empower women, enhancing their capacity to combat violence and improve their livelihoods” and “promote equitable gender relations through raising awareness in men and promoting new masculinities”. 

Going forward, cross-sector development initiatives can take proactive steps to recognize and overcome violence against women. It is crucial that gender-based violence and its impact on women are considered when creating and implementing programs, targeting improved livelihoods and increased agricultural production. 

Paige Castellanos is currently a post-doctoral scholar at The Pennsylvania State University. She contributes to the Feed the Future Lab for Collaborative Research on Horticulture-funded project titled, “Women in Agriculture Network: Honduras”. She is also a contributor to the Feed the Future project, Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education (InnovATE), funded by USAID.