Approximately one third of the world’s women who have been in a relationship have been assaulted, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization, the first major global review of violence against women. This includes physical and sexual assault. The abusers are not strangers; they are current or former partners.
According to the United Nations, more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime. Whether it’s considered a crime or not, what can be done about it?
One answer: make a stencil discouraging violence against women, and put it up everywhere. This is what happened in the town of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Suchitoto is about 30 miles northeast of the capital city, San Salvador.
The stencil is written in Spanish: “En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres,” translated in English as “In this house we want a life free from violence against women.” I briefly visited Suchitoto, and though there was much to see there, the signs stood out in their beauty, grace, and boldness.
There was more than one sign. The more I walked around, the more signs appeared, in a variety of colors, though always the same stencil.
I was in El Salvador as a guest with a medical mission. These hardworking folks joined forces with the local Catholic nuns to give aid and support to the people in that area. The group was providing medical aid and was not a religious mission. I was neither medical nor on a mission; I simply observed and absorbed things along the way.
While exploring Suchitoto, I visited the Centro Arte Para La Paz (capsuchitoto.org), where I got a crash course about the civil war in El Salvador. The violence that erupted there starting in 1979 was hard to comprehend. While there, I felt it. And it felt bad. Being there physically is not the same as hearing about it in a filtered and distant way while living in the United States.
After the trauma of learning about the violence against everyone during the civil war, I needed something positive. I had to find out who was behind the beautiful signs. One of the people behind the signs was Sister Peggy O’Neill. O’Neill is the director of Centro Arte Para La Paz, a center for the cultivation of peace, art, and education. She started the idea for the anti-violence campaign, along with the women of Concertacion de Mujeres, a women’s organization, also in Suchitoto.
O’Neill said, “We started using the stencils about five years ago, recognizing that too many women were victims of violence in their own homes.” Morena Herrera and the Colectiva Feminista (a part of the Concertacion de Mujeres) joined the effort as well. O’Neill said that there was not one single artist. Instead the women joined together in a collective and creative approach to the stencil design.
These women are brave. Women and girls in El Salvador are at risk. Beatings and rapes are prevalent. The left-wing FMLN government introduced legislation in 2012 designed to promote human rights and provide a framework to identify violent acts against women. However, several senior judges denounced the legislation as unconstitutional and refuse to implement it.
If you can’t make people do the right thing, promote the right message.
I was moved by the message, the art, the grace, and the strength that came through every sign. Each one had the same level of power. They were perched and placed perfectly throughout many neighborhoods.
“When we were ready to publicize the campaign against violence, we got young people to go door to door, explaining the campaign and asking permission to put the motto on each house. This was a great success and a great opportunity to get the youth of Suchitoto involved,” explained O’Neill.
Suchitoto is one of the areas where you sense the seeds of hope—they are planted, and they are growing.