This month we feature an interview with the colleagues from Colectiva Amorales, in El Salvador. The organization was selected as 1 of the 6 winners of the Legal Empowerment and Community Lawyering Innovation Lab initiative for Latin America, organized by the Legal Empowerment Network, with the support of the Tinker Foundation.
We are a group of women -artists and multidisciplinary academics- that works on political advocacy through arts and digital campaigns.
Our legal empowerment work is related to the attention of women victims of violence covered by the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women (Ley Especial Integral para una Vida Libre de Violencia para las Mujeres), which came into force in 2012.
Unfortunately, not only is this law not widely known by women, but also the legal system is deficient. For example, in the city of San Salvador there are only two specialized courts that receive cases related to this law, and there is only one court of this kind in the whole country at the departmental level. The consequence is a long procedural delay. We have become a reference for initial legal assistance precisely because the courts and other institutions are not adequately assisting women.
We started developing protocols for the assistance of women victims of violence, and giving advice through the internet. We had to prepare a document to systematize all of the cases, including those that were not reaching the judicial sphere. With this we realized that the users of our services were young women who didn’t have the purchasing power to carry a legal process forward (there are no institutions providing free of charge accompaniment), and whose families didn’t know that they were being victims of violence. Most of them didn’t know how to use the law, or that symbolic violence existed.
It is because of this that we started to develop information campaigns. In the first place, about the issue of sexual harassment, something that we were working on in universities -mainly at the public university- since 2015. We started to implement performances linked to legal empowerment and the knowledge of the laws. The idea was to recognize oneself as a rights holder, because if you don’t recognize yourself as such then you don’t think that there is anything wrong when you are suffering from violence. In 2016 we scaled our work to private universities. Always talking about sexual harassment, consent, and the right to decide, in a broad sense.
Before the pandemic, we did all of this work at the universities in person. With the pandemic, we continue with our awareness raising work but through social media, given that complaints through social media have increased. Since sexual harassment has also moved to the internet we decided to start with the Innovation Lab project and with social media campaigns.
Another of the issues that we work on is the decriminalization of abortion, even though we cannot address it in a public way because in El Salvador it is a completely forbidden practice, including providing support to abort or the induction of abortion. We implement information workshops, explaining that the country used to have a law that allowed the interruption of pregnancy on certain grounds.
We work on legal empowerment through feminism. What we propose is the re-appropriation of our bodies, together with the idea that laws can be changed if they don’t favour us, and that we can make them work in our favour through advocacy. For all of this accompaniment and organizing are necessary.
We use legal empowerment strategies according to the situation, depending on the case or what we want to propose or denounce in each activity. For example, we have a strategy where we put in place a performance circuit called “old circus”, that aims to encourage students to denounce for the first time. We know that system violence against women at the university is not easy to report. For us, it is important to start denouncing anonymously. The “old circus” is a kind of fair where we dress up and face people that have the faces of men who have been sentenced for sexual harassment or abuse -all of them known cases-, throwing them darts or bags with water.
We use these strategies as a first approach to women. Theater is like an essay of some parts or reality… this way, the next time that somebody asks, the person will more easily be able to say something than when she was acting. We see this as a process in which we encourage women to report. Nowadays, because of impunity, there is no reporting culture. But it is a circle: if citizens don’t demand that institutions and law work, they will not work.
As part of the same performance methodology, at times we have put in the walls of the University of El Salvador (UES) a pen with a sign that says “write the name of the person that has harassed you within the University”. In the afternoon, when picking the sign up you see incredible results, that show that women are not likely to report because of their fear of academic violence. We have filed reports for sexual harassment and abuse at UES against students. As a consequence, we are not allowed to implement workshops there. We have been able to implement them in private universities, though. There we have managed to build alliances with the gender units and chairs. Until last year, UES was the only university to have masters studies in gender without having a gender unit within the university. At private universities, where we have access to the students, we have been able to work with both female and male students through theater-forum, giving presentations on sexual violence and street sexual harassment, which is not yet criminalized. The team is made of four women. One of them is also a teacher and she is in charge of ensuring that after the theater presentation, there is space to reflect and discuss certain terminology.
With these mixed groups we also work around the issue of consent, through artistic workshops, juggling, etc. We have been to different institutions to implement awareness raising workshops about human rights with a theater methodology. We are artists and we sustain that art is political, it is a human right, and through art we can access other knowledge and sensitivities that allow us to empathize with other people and to recognize ourselves as rights holders. This way we connect emotional health with the law: we have a right to art because it allows for better mental health.
The women who approach us are young, between 18 and 35 years old, and do so for initial advice. First they want to know if what happened to them can be denounced. Even though most of them come to us not wanting to file a complaint, we always ask them if they want to do so. If they don’t, we suggest they keep the evidence, in case they want to file a complaint later on. We refer those who want to file a complaint to allied institutions. We also ask them if they would like to have psychological support and if so we also refer them to allied institutions. If they want, we can also do an escrache (type of demonstration), a public complaint or the option that they prefer. What is important is to offer them options.
Through partnering with other institutions we have managed to accompany different cases. For example, we have accompanied in the media a femicide case through the campaign “We are all mothers” (“Madre somos todas”). We have also provided psychosocial support to relatives of femicide victims. All of this has been possible by building alliances with other institutions.
The use of technology has also been important. First, because of the opportunity to raise awareness about our work. In El Salvador we don’t have media outlets that manage to counteract existing desinformation and fake news. For us, social media have become important to inform women and also as a possibility to broadcast a counter narrative. We worked on social media before the pandemic, but now the work has increased; everything has moved to the internet. Work in social media is important so that women can have information about their rights. For many of them it is also easier to send us a message through the internet, instead of calling on the phone, especially if they live with the perpetrator of violence. Many of them have created different profiles through which they have reached out to us for legal advice. Because of this, we do some work through our profile as Colectiva, and then we have another profile that is anonymous.
It is possible to have a theater or circus workshop without talking about the law; we can talk about visual communication, corporal spatiality, stretching, team work, but without talking about legal empowerment. Which is the difference? In the same circus or hula hoop workshop for girls aged 10-15 we talk to them about how close a person can get to them. We talk about the space marked by the hula hoop as a kind of “legal sphere” that nobody can get close to. Through a game we explain to them that whoever invades their legal sphere or touches their body, is invading their space, and that they have a right to establish limits. Legal empowerment allows us to get knowledge to girls, teenagers and women without having to sit them down in front of a screen to recite articles of the Constitution; they learn by playing.
For example, we have worked with domestic workers. They are currently fighting for the ratification of ILO’s 189 Convention, so that employers are obliged to guarantee minimum working conditions such as social insurance, 8-hour working days, and holidays. We worked with them through theater to empower them to denounce. We interpret and create an exaggerated character of the patroness, so that they learn to report. Another character is also in charge of the work interview, through this conversation we discuss labour rights with them. This way they also learn to talk about these things out loud, which is very important to us. This is the key about how art can help you to become empowered about your rights, express it out loud and with your body. These are powerful tools. They allow for incredible transformations in the way we see and perceive ourselves with regards to our rights. In this process, the domestic workers themselves ended up doing theater.
This is why we connect both tools. You can do theater or circus in multiple places. This is why empowerment, feminism, recognizing oneself as a rights holder, as a creator of new laws and norms, is important. We train them on their opportunities as citizens to propose new laws and functionalities for the government, that public servants work for them, and not the other way around.
Threats and legal persecution have been one of the greatest challenges. At the moment, we are victims of criminalization by a teacher from the University of El Salvador, who was reported by different students in a public event. Because of the accompaniment of the complaint that Colectiva Amorales did, we have been criminalized under accusations of defamation. The case is now proceeding in Cassation because, although we were given the opportunity to conciliate, we decided not to do so. Despite there being five women reporting a sexual harasser, the judge dismissed the victims’ accounts because, according to her, we were friends and therefore our testimonies were not credible. We had met these women at another denounce act that didn’t have anything to do with the case. In that event, a girl reached out to us saying that she wanted to file a complaint, and then another one came forward and we discovered that there were more than 10 women that were victims of this teacher. Some of them didn’t want to file a complaint, while the cases of others had already been prescribed. This criminalization case has been one of our biggest challenges because, being confident about our work as human rights defenders, we have been questioned a lot. There was a horrible re-victimization by the media, the lawyers and even the judge. We were denied an appeal, and are currently in Cassation now. As Colectiva and as a movement of young women we have decided that if at Cassation they sentence us again, we will go to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. This is a big obstacle that remains, because the case is still open. Despite this, we have managed to make the most of the situation, building alliances and networks with other groups and with women who are going through criminalization processes after filing complaints. Even though we have felt supported during this process, it still damages us, we never imagined we would be accused. In any case, if we were criminalized it is because the complaints had traction and were heard. Now we have a protocol to avoid criminalization and to act diligently in the face of new criminalization cases.
For example, the empowerment work that we do about the right to decide is very difficult, because helping or inducing abortion is punishable by law. Anybody could think that by talking about abortion in our workshops we are inducing abortion, and could criminalize us. These are our biggest challenges.
Financial support has also been a challenge. We have been recently working in our physical space, we have created a cultural center with the same dynamic to have a safe space for women, and a training space so that they can know arts, law, philosophy, feminism, always with a humanize and feminist coexistence.
As for social media, we also had to reinvent how we see ourselves. Since now knowledge and information move faster, we had to see how to go about so that our work is not only limited to social media and the internet, but without losing this component. We had to find the balance between not exclusively devoting our time to cyberactivism, but also maintaining activities offline. Learning to find such balance has been another challenge.
Additionally, we had to learn to take care of ourselves in social media, and take care of our social media. It was important to learn about digital security, especially because we had a case in which a performance of ours was removed from its context and our images were used in the news for other purposes. Despite filing a complaint, we learned that on the internet our information does not belong solely to us anymore. In addition, after filing the complaint we have received attacks to our web pages, which meant that we had to learn how to protect not only the social media of Colectiva, but also our personal accounts.
How has being selected to be part of the Innovation Lab impacted on the work your organization does and the communities you work with?
It is impacting positively, in the sense that many women have expressed the importance of having a space that informs specifically about the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women (the Law) in an easy and comprehensible way. It has given us the opportunity to, first, inform, and second, implement more specific activities with regards to such information. With the Innovation Lab we address general, public, legal and psychological queries, online, free of cost, once a week. We also think about other ways of informing using social media: with videos, informative posts, statistical data. At the moment we are developing a comic about the Law, which has been fun and prompted reflection at the same time. Thinking about how to portray it in images, re-reading the Law and finding things that we hadn’t seen before… has been a process of internal growth. We are building ourselves in this project and we are supporting others to grow, starting from the day to day but without forgetting technical-legal knowledge.
For now we are implementing constant projects and working for the self-sustainability of Casa Bruja, our cultural center. In order to do so, we organize different activities. For example, we are about to inaugurate a feminist art gallery and a series of workshops. We try for these to be paid, so that the women that come to the house as speakers leave a percentage for the center.
We would encourage them to test artistic tools. We don’t need to be devoting all of our time to art or to being artists, but there are things that art gifts us, simple, that we can always use in our work. Not only to showcase it publicly, but because working on legal empowerment and across such thematic issues generates a lot of stress, frustration, and art helps us to carry forward healthier processes. This has worked well for us.
Do you have any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource or piece of art or music that keeps you or your team inspired and motivated?
We love to listen to Sara Hebe, an argentinian singer. She is the hymn of Casa Bruja. When we go to work, Sara Hebe. When we go to a demonstration, Sara Hebe. When we are feeling sad, Sara Hebe. For reading, Michel Foucault.
You can learn more about Colectiva Amorales on their social media, and the social media of their project Hablando de Leyes.
If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below.
_Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network at #memberspotlight.