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Building a culture of peace in El Salvador

Guadalupe Cortes Vega writes about workshops in Suchitoto, at which community leaders discussed their experiences of tackling violence and how best to pave a way to peace.

The event was coordinated by Christian Aid partner, FESPAD. 

In communities where resources are scarce and violence is rife, the workshop, organised by our partner FESPAD in El Salvador, presented a unique opportunity for leaders to leave their surroundings and to meet with others to construct a viable path for peace.

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Participants at the exchange. Credit: Christian Aid  

Fostering a culture of peace

First to present was the Ilopango Committee for Peace (MEDIPAZ).

Members of MEDIPAZ, ranging from teachers to churches, shared their experiences of fostering a 'culture of peace' for more than four years in their community through activities such as human rights workshops, sports, yoga classes, football tournaments, joint Christmas dinners, income-generating initiatives and a communal garden run by young gang-members. 

One community leader highlighted the challenges and volatility of their local area.

She gave the example of young gang members who had helped to remove graffiti only to be killed by the opposition gang. As she said, in this context, it truly is 'a fight for peace'.


'Red zones'

A member of MEDIPAZ spoke of the continued stigmatisation of communities in the south of the municipality by the State.

He said these communities were considered 'red zones', which some public institutions such as the Ministry of Health would not even enter to provide services.

He went on to say how some people in these communities cannot even access credit from the bank and local authorities abuse their power.

This has led to MEDIPAZ leaders being accused of supporting 'terrorists' - a term coined recently at the Supreme Court which equates gangs with terrorist groups - leading to abuse from the police, threats, home searches and beatings.

The police are also guilty of grabbing young people, gang members and citizens, and taking them to be tortured.

He stressed: '[The police and army] hit our young people and first and then ask them for documentation. This generates more social hatred.'


Building peace in rural communities

María Argentina Escobar, from Cima I, spoke briefly on her own community's experience of building peace through activities such as cleanliness workshops, theatre courses for children (including the children of gang-members), workshops for young adults and football tournaments.

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Young leaders from the municipality of Suchitoto. Credit: Christian Aid

In the rural community Ciudad Delgado there is violence perpetrated by gangs, as well as the police and army, at levels compared to those witnessed during the Civil War (1980-1992).

'We are now like how we used to be during the war. They killed our young then and it was horrible.'


Success in San Salvador and Soyapango

Successes, however, were reported by a young community leader from San Salvador, who described transformation to social infrastructure in her area through projects such as improving access to drinking water, kitchen gardens, a new bakery and a youth centre.

Such a transformation is all the more important considering San Salvador's history.

Many of the communities around San Salvador were born out of conflict.

Many took up residence in these areas after fleeing from war and poverty in the capital. The State, in its role as a provider of public services, was absent in these impoverished communities.

Over time, this context developed and included gender-based violence and social violence from gangs.

Now, members of the community, including youth leaders, are demanding access to basic services and activities to prevent violence.

Similarly, in Soyapango, roads are being built to a peaceful existence by engaging youth people in sports such as football tournaments.

As one community member said: 'Football is the only training in our community' – highlighting the few opportunities for young people in poor communities.

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A young leader of Suchitoto presenting the violence prevention plan of his community, called Community El Papaturro. Credit: Christian Aid


A huge change for women

FESPAD have also been playing a vital role amongst women in the community.

As well as helping women to become homeowners, they have taught them about democracy and women's rights.

Elsa Murcia said, 'We are now empowered to the point we have managed to ensure that both husband and wife are legally seen as homeowners;.

'It's very satisfying for me to see such a huge change for women in my community.'

As well as FESPAD's involvement with women's rights - ensuring that women know the laws around gender-based violence - the Bureau of Gender, a municipal organisation for women, received political and human rights training to help them in their work as defenders of human rights, ensuring they had an impact on local government in the prevention of violence.

In conclusion, though there are various community voices and different ways to prevent violence- our partner FESPAD is at the heart of working with communities to build a strong and stable peace.


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