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Gender Equity And Peacebuilding- El Salvador: The Neglect of Women’s Issues at the Peace Table

by Garima Sahu

The peace process in El Salvador demonstrates how engaging some parties lessened extremism while ignoring others enabled the continuation of societal and economic disadvantages. While it has helped in eradicating the rising political tensions, the neglect of women’s issues continues to be a thorn in the flesh. Though the accord helped in ending the war, it failed to address gender equality. This article aims to examine the main factors that contributed to the marginalization of women issues at the El Salvadoran Peace Accord.


The El Salvadoran peace agreement offers a stirring tale of forgiveness in its past. It empowered individuals to see the massive potential in each and every person. Yet, despite the participation of women in the conflict and of high-ranking female Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) officials in the peace process, women’s rights received little explicit attention during El Salvador’s peace negotiations in the early 1990s. The accords succeeded in ending the war, but they failed to adequately address social and economic inequalities, including gender equality. This paper will examine the main factors that contributed to the marginalization of women’s issues in the Salvadoran peace process. 

While the Salvadoran peace process received accolades internationally and from leaders on both sides of the conflict, women’s rights advocates criticized the process for marginalizing and discriminating against women. In her assessment of gender-based discrimination in the Salvadoran peace process, Emma Näslund identifies specific features of the peace accords that ignore or discriminate against women. She argues that credit and technical assistance programs established by the peace accords, as well as the accords’ recommended measures to alleviate social costs of structural adjustment programs do not include and attend to women’s needs. Näslund and others have also faulted the Salvadoran peace process for discriminating against women during the land redistribution process, particularly during the early stages. 

Luciak notes that few high-ranking female FMLN commanders who participated in peace negotiations made formal, public demands that women’s issues be made part of the peace talks. Moser and Clark contend that one of the reasons why female ex-combatants’ issues were not made explicit in the negotiations was that there were no precise and official estimates of the number of women fighting in El Salvador’s civil war. Without credible evidence of the substantial involvement of women, women’s rights advocates had difficulty demanding more support and recognition for female ex-combatants’ needs. Traditional conceptualizations of gender roles, which assume that programs targeting “household heads” and families will necessarily benefit women, contributed to the prevalence of gender-neutral terminology used throughout the peace accords. Women’s needs for land tenure and credit after the war tended to be eclipsed by concerns about land scarcity and other more “urgent” economic situations.

Ramifications for Women and their Dependents 

The Peace Accords were developed through a series of six principal agreements that addressed a wide range of issues.  These included: significant reductions in the size and powers of the armed forces; the creation of a new national civil police; judicial and electoral reforms; economic and social development; political participation by the FMLN; cessation of the armed conflict; and United Nations verification. The women’s movement has criticized Chapter V, which outlines the agreements on economic and social development, for ignoring gender concerns. The chapter has become a delicate matter, causing the FMLN and the Government to accuse each other of violating provisions related to land rights, credit, and repatriation. Indeed, all major stipulations have been the subject of controversies over interpretation and complaints of non-compliance.

Reintegration of War-affected Groups into Civilian Life

Civil wars disrupt the lives of all citizens but hurt some groups disproportionately. Particularly disadvantaged are combatants, their dependents and uprooted populations that have been forced to leave their homes. In the case of El Salvador, the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) distinguishes three categories of uprooted populations. The repatriated population includes groups that sought refuge in other Central American countries and returned to the Salvadoran conflict zones before the end of the war and refugees who remain abroad. The displaced population, amounting to half a million people or one out of every ten Salvadorans, comprises people living in other areas of the country as a consequence of the conflict. A 1991 census of the uprooted population reveals that it encompasses predominantly women and children. Approximately 60% are female, nearly 60% are children, and roughly 80% of the heads of household are women.

The uprooted populations and former combatants have similar needs and reintegration programs ideally should be linked with community-based rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts (Ball and Halevy 1996). The reintegration efforts outlined in Chapter V of the Salvadoran Peace Accords, however, predominantly target ex-combatants; uprooted women and their dependents are not mentioned at all. For example, take the definition of the target groups for credit. Chapter V stipulates “an increase in loans by the commercial banks to small businessmen”), but makes no reference to the needs of any especially vulnerable groups. Likewise, the definition of beneficiaries for technical assistance makes no mention of the most disadvantaged groups but simply states that “peasant farmers and smallholders” should be targeted. Although this definition does not explicitly exclude women, the norm in El Salvador is to interpret both peasants and smallholders as meaning men. Statistics from the 1985 Home Survey indicate the extent to which ideological factors operate to underestimate and render invisible the agricultural labour of Salvadoran women. Only 11.9% of the women surveyed indicated that they worked in agriculture, whereas the corresponding figure for men was 45% or nearly all men in rural areas. This data stands in sharp contrast to the general estimate among social scientists that roughly half of Salvadoran women are engaged in agricultural activities. Clearly, many women engaged in agricultural activities do not perceive themselves as legitimate contributors in the agricultural sphere. Similarly, even if women are engaged in extensive farming activities, they are rarely registered as landowners. The few exceptions are women who inherited the land in families where there are no men. Therefore, it follows that the term “smallholder” has a strong male connotation.

Women’s Access to Land and Agricultural Resources 

 Among the economically active population in El Salvador, 54.6% are engaged in agricultural activities. As indicated above, the official estimate of the proportion of women engaged in agricultural activities – below 12% – is arguably well below the mark. Probably closer to the truth and to the consensus among social scientists is the estimate that a large majority of the rural female population – half of the Salvadoran women – is engaged in agricultural activities.

The invisibility of women in agriculture became all the more apparent during the land reform implementation in the early 1980s, which sought to lessen the social tension generated by inequitable land distribution. 87% of the producers controlled less than a fifth of the agricultural land, while 2.7% controlled over half the territory. Nevertheless, a 1991 evaluation of the reform indicates that it benefited only around 3% of the men and never encompassed the most disenfranchised, including women. Women also were excluded from access to other productive resources, such as credit and other support services. Furthermore, Chapter V of the Accords gave the pretence of following up on the agrarian reform of the 1980s, guaranteeing the fulfilment of Articles 105 and 267 of the Salvadoran Constitution, which restricts the land controlled by one individual to 245 acres. In addition, the Government agreed to sell all state-owned lands not part of natural reserves. The state land and any other land voluntarily offered for sale by their owners will be distributed under different transfer programs. However, not only are women not mentioned in the section outlining the provisions for the land transfer program, but by defining the target group as landless “former combatants from both Parties” and “the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform” of the 1980s, it effectively excludes women.


A cursory review of the literature and practice of peacebuilding may give the impression that gender is today a greater concern in policies and programs than it was just a few years ago. The terms “gender,” “gender equality,” “gender perspectives,” and “gender frameworks” pepper international documents and discussions concerning peace operations and post-conflict programs in ways like never before. This can be judged as a good sign, to the extent that the field is absorbing the knowledge and insight proffered by academic research. It also analyses examining gender and the ways in which gender relations shape social, economic, and political processes at the heart of peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery. However, the academic literature makes it clear that identifying and changing commonly held gender expression and male-female relationships is a critical foundation for changing the typical power differential which results in discriminating attitudes and behaviours that harm women and undermine their human rights. As a first step toward gender equity in post-conflict societies, peacebuilding and reconstruction initiatives should therefore avoid reinforcing damaging gender and sexual stereotypes.

Author’s Bio: Garima is a recent B.A. (Hons.) International Affairs graduate from O.P. Jindal Global University. Her interests include issues pertaining to global security, gender studies, and culture and politics.

Image Source: Image by Almudena Toral and Patricia Clarembaux. Central America, 2019.

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