In the country with the highest rate of femicides in the most violent region in the world, young girls are taking their own lives. And the victims are getting younger. In the midst of poverty and violence, where gangs operate with a brutality that’s become normalized, those who manage to flee do so only after escaping to every possible corner of the country.
"I'm not going to give him the pleasure of killing me," Maria thought when she was 15, as her partner, an MS-13 gang member, walked towards her with an ax in his hand. "Today I'm going to kill you," he told her. She locked herself in the bathroom and tried to kill herself.
A third of the women who die by suicide in El Salvador are girls, adolescents under the age of 19, like María. More than half are between 10 and 24 years old, according to official data. The actual numbers are likely much higher: a number of municipalities do not even count femicides, let alone suicides.
Girls like Maria say they tried to kill themselves after violence has pushed them to the limit: they poison themselves and cut their arms to avoid the pain of impunity and silence. But these deaths are invisible in the Central American country, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Gang members rape and beat Salvadoran girls and threaten to kill their families if they don’t comply. But they also experience violence at home, from relatives or friends who abuse them while their parents stay silent, blackmailed with money or scared of retaliation. And then there is the government, which has sentenced dozens of rape victims to decades of imprisonment after accusing them of seeking abortions.
The MS gang member wanted to kill Maria that day because she did not open the door right away after he rang the doorbell.
Maria cries often, alone and in silence. She dries her tears quickly to hide them from Gerardo and Nicole, the two children she had with the gang member who used to be her partner. He is the man who has done the most damage to her life. He beat her until she was unconscious, raped her and stalked her. He even found her in Mexico once she finally managed to escape with the children.
"He had power over me because I was afraid of him," Maria says. To her, beatings and sexual violence were just a normal part of the relationship.
To handle cases like María's, in 2012 El Salvador approved the special comprehensive law for a life free of violence for women, which incorporated the crime of aiding or abetting femicidal suicide. In other words, since 2012, forcing a woman to attempt suicide with violence is a crime.
Ana Graciela Sagastume, the prosecutor in charge of the National Directorate of women, children and adolescents, says that many victims cannot get out of these cycles of violence and would rather die than denounce. "If we are able to determine that a girl was being sexually abused and that this is why she decided to take her own life, we can make an accusation," she explains.
But that is not an easy conclusion to reach. In El Salvador, few women denounce their aggressors. Many assume violence as an everyday occurrence, and they are afraid that their victimizer will find out. Because the police often filter information to gangs, going to the authorities can lead to murder — either of the girl or her family members. In some cases, women also depend economically on their aggressors.
Since the law was passed in 2012, 60 cases of femicidal suicide have been investigated by the prosecutor's office. Only one has resulted in charges, Prosecutor Sagastume says.
That was a policewoman who killed herself. The prosecutors used as evidence psychological reports where the victim spoke with her therapist about her husband’s violence. Despite the evidence, her husband, also a cop, remains free. Even if he was convicted for harassing and tormenting his wife to the point of suicide, the maximum penalty would be seven years in prison, as established by law.
But this case is not representative of the majority of Salvadoran girls and women who experience cycles of violence, many of them too poor or young to seek help. Maria, for example, has never considered going to the psychologist; she wouldn’t be able to pay for it.
María does not know about the laws designed to protect her, nor does she believe that the authorities are capable of enforcing them. At 22, she’s been fleeing for nearly half her life. In fact, 'Maria' is not her real name. She chose to hide her identity for this article, for fear that the gangs will find her, even though she is now hundreds of miles away from El Salvador.
She first fled at age 12. The first time, it was from her own brother, who joined MS-13 because he and his sister didn’t have anything to eat. Her mother was an alcoholic who did not take care of the children. After her brother cared for her, Maria couldn’t believe it when he agreed to hand her over to the gang as payment for a gun. They were threatening to kill the entire family.
A stranger saw her crying in the street and offered to take her in and out of trouble: "We are going to say that you have been my girlfriend," he said, as a way to protect her. She accepted. But he was just another gang member, who would later become the father of her children.
Years later she escaped from the gang member. Once she thought she was safe, she began seeing another man who was twice her age and lived in another municipality on the outskirts of San Salvador. The relative calm was short lived. Members of the rival Barrio 18 gang murdered her new boyfriend with 11 shots. She thinks it was because he refused to pay an extortion.
"I still blame myself,” she says. “Why do things like this happen only to me? Why, after so much suffering, does this happen? Why me? What have I done? Believe me that at times I want to take my life because this is not life. But I look at my children and I think, 'what are they going to do without me?'".
Her children, 7 and 5, have provided encouragement through the worst of times, like when they crossed the Rio Grande in November to reach the United States. As they crossed on a tire, the children yelled: "Mommy, here we go, hold on!". Phrases like that have kept her alive. The family is seeking asylum in the U.S. and awaiting news about their case.
But many parents in El Salvador do not protect their children as Maria has.
In 2016, the National Council for Children conducted a study in 5% of the schools in El Salvador and found that more than half of the students had been sexually assaulted by a member of their family. The council admits that the numbers are likely much higher due to underreporting.
That has also led young people to take their lives.
Her father was a gang member. As a way of protecting her and her brother's lives, she understands she should not say where she lived or who her father was. At such a young age, she attempted suicide when her father and mother were arrested. The Salvadoran Association Pro-Rural Health helps her with school and guides her grandmother to cooperate in human and educational training.
Image by Almudena Toral. El Salvador, 2018.
Saraí, 17, tried to kill herself for the first time when she was 7. At 5, many nights were real-life nightmares. Her stepfather groped her. "He threatened to touch my sister (3 years old), so I often kept quiet. I did not want him to touch her (...) I preferred that he touch me."
A year later, Saraí put a stop to the abuse with the help of a stranger who she met in a park near her house. "He helped me find courage to allow my stepfather to touch me one night to be able to have evidence to report it." The man secretly took pictures of the abuse and delivered them to the Prosecutor's Office. The next day, Evelyn, 6, and her 4-year-old sister were sent to an orphanage.
At 13, she again considered suicide — and it wouldn’t be the last time. She complained to her mother for never defending her from her stepfather's abuse. Her mother, drunk, replied: "You're not my daughter." Saraí, who had been silent for so long, said: "Well, thank God, because nobody deserves a mom like you." Shattered by her mother's words, she was ready to kill herself but thought, "I cannot leave my little sister alone." That has always saved her.
Saraí has spent 10 years working with a psychologist and a social worker from an organization called Ángeles Descalzos (Barefoot Angels).
There she met Ashley, a 6-year-old girl who also tried to attempt suicide when her parents were arrested. Her father was a Barrio 18 gang member and her mother was accused of terrorism, extortion and collaborating in a murder.
When asked her name and age, the girl responds: "My mom is not here, my dad isn’t either, and I need my mom and dad.”
Half of the girls interviewed are in western El Salvador, where the Ministry of Health says most suicides occur. The image shows part of Ashley’s face to protect her safety. Lucy Luna, the director of Asaprosar, an organization that supports at-risk girls and adolescents, says the organization sees increasingly younger girls with more complex psychological profiles, who do not sleep and eat normally and who leave school. "Suicide is more common in seven- to 12-year-old girls," she says. Of the 300 girls that came to the organization in September, 20% came with suicidal thoughts.
In El Salvador, violence is so common that even children are not surprised to see a bloody shooting victim on the sidewalk. That’s partially a result of years of civil war, which resulted in more than 75,000 deaths and an uncertain number of missing persons. The prevalence of gangs grew beginning in the late 1990s, when a growing number of Salvadorans who’d been involved in gangs on the streets of the U.S. were deported. Their arrival in the Central American country resulted in increased bloodshed and fear.
Saraí considers Ashley a little sister and holds her in her arms during the interview. The girl looks at her as she talks.
Her favorite game is ‘hide-and-seek': her older brother, 8, counts and she hides behind the curtains or the trees. She draws perfect butterflies, her favorite animal. Her words are barely audible.
At age 6, girls want to end the pain caused by a violent situation, although they do not understand that the consequence can be permanent, according to psychologist Dan Reidenberg. As soon as they enter adolescence, he says, they know perfectly well that by attacking themselves they will disappear forever. Either case must be taken very seriously; the desire to die by suicide signified that the young women had suffered so much that they felt unable to continue living.
But suicide before age 10 is not even measured by the country’s Dr. Roberto Masferrer Institute of Forensic Medicine.
Some women say the actions taken by the Salvadoran government are inadequate, leading to a sense of hopelessness and despair. On the one hand, the government writes official reports that recognize the serious problem of violence and abuse against women and girls in the country. On the other, it charges women suspected of seeking abortions with aggravated homicide.
Evelyn Hernandez was sentenced on July 5, 2017, to 30 years in prison after she had a miscarriage. She had been raped, and didn’t even know she was pregnant at the time. While listening to the verdict, she thought: "I do not want to live.” She was just 17.
A year and a half later she cries as she sits in a corridor of the prison. Her lawyer and the activists helping her fear that her despair could lead to suicide. When Evelyn Hernández arrived at the Ilopango prison, an official advised her not to say that she had been convicted of an abortion. He explained that women imprisoned for this reason were being beaten by the rest of the inmates. She was not physically assaulted, but she often heard phrases like "you killed your son, you ate your son.”
The gang member who raped her and threatened her family is free. Evelyn has been detained since April 2016. After she felt a severe pain in her belly, she went to the bathroom and felt her stomach fall empty itself as she passed out.
She woke up in the hospital and was told she was being investigated for having a miscarriage. "If it hurts, it's your fault," the doctor said, while instructing her to open her legs.
"A lot of people came in with paper and said 'You have to sign here, you are detained,'" she recalls. She went into shock and was sedated. When she came to, she was handcuffed to the clinic bed, guarded by a policeman.
El Salvador is one of seven countries in the region with laws that prohibit abortion in all cases. In the last 20 years, dozens of young people have been sentenced to prison for spontaneous miscarriage and obstetric emergencies. They are accused of murdering their children, even when they explain that their lives are at risk. In many cases, the pregnancies are the product of rape by parents, stepparents, uncles or neighbors.
Arturo Carranza, coordinator of the mental health unit of the Ministry of Health, admits that Salvadoran women and girls are exposed to injustice and inequality. "We have taken steps to improve those situations,” he says. “But it’s still not enough for our women to enjoy a more stable, lasting mental health."
There are not many places where women can talk openly about their suffering.
Some 20 Salvadoran women have found a secret space where they meet to share about life in their neighborhoods. Only they know the address. In public they are careful not to gather. Because talking, helping others and teaching women how to protect themselves through the law can have consequences
Carla, a social worker and activist, knows those consequences. She accompanied a young woman to report that a gang member threatened her with death. "On the day of the hearing they saw that I was the one who was with this woman and they began to send me papers, to make phone calls. They left me notes under the door and they told me that they were going to kidnap my children, they were going to take them away, that I was not going to see them again, that they were going to train them," she says.
And they were serious. One day they entered her house with force, beat one of her children and demanded $8,000—which she did not have—in exchange for their life.
Scared that one of her children would be recruited by the gangs, she decided to send him to the United States with a coyote. "It was hard to make that decision,” she says. “Does he die here in a terrible way, or die on the road, in the desert?" The young man is now in the United States awaiting asylum.
Her 14-year-old daughter is still at home, but she’s in danger. "If I have a long day ahead and I know I can’t go pick her up at noon, she’s not going to school. Her teachers and the director know the situation," Carla says.
The threats completely changed life for the family and the way Carla helps women. Now she only explains their options — she does not accompany them to denounce like she used to. She goes to schools and talks to girls about the laws that protect them, but lets them make the decisions.
The girl whom Carla first accompanied withdrew the complaint, pressured by the gangs.
The same thing happened to Patricia, who was also at the meeting. A year and a half ago, her cousin was murdered after her partner, a judge, abused her. After Patricia accompanied her cousin to file a complaint for domestic violence, the judge paid the gangs to kill her. "I felt guilty, because even though I was a community advocate, I could not save her and that hurt me so much,” Patricia says.
El Salvador does little to stop the violence that faces girls and women in the poorest neighborhoods. There is not even an anonymous suicide prevention telephone line in the country.
Carranza, of the Ministry of Health, places the greatest burden on society itself. He says that girls' suicide has been considered "a public health problem,” but that it is seen as "a taboo" by those who are close to the communities, such as priests or pastors and their families. The government has a strategy for sexual education and another for the early detection of suicidal behavior in adolescents and adults, and it has specialized personnel in schools to conduct brief interventions. But in many cases there’s silence.
"Within its mandate, the Ministry of Health tries to prevent suicide," says Carranza. "I think it's never going to be enough."
Because government action will never be enough, the women have drawn risk maps themselves: they know where the gangs are and who they are, where they rape women and girls, which streets are dark and dangerous. They try to share that with everyone they can.
Enayda Argueta, the research coordinator at the organization Háblame de Respeto (Talk To Me About Respect) and the activist who leads these meetings, explains that 234 women and girls disappeared between 2014 and 2018; 89 of them were between 10 and 20 years old. They know that the real number is much higher and that they will most likely never hear from most of these girls again. The organization has identified one particular age when girls are especially vulnerable: 854 young people raped between 2015 and 2017 were 14 years old, almost all in the capital.
Liliana is one of the activists at the meeting. The gangs don't touch her daughter, who is studying nursing. But Liliana is still scared. On the one hand her daughter is protected, yet on the other she is obligated to help gang members whenever they need.
"It’s customary now to have two governments: the normal one and the subgovernment, which is what governs our communities. They are making us live an ordeal," says Lilian at the meeting. "We don’t have peace -- not us or the girls."
Evelyn Hernández is hopeful that things could change at any time. At the Ilopango Women’s Prison, she spent time with Teodora Vásquez, who spent 10 years and seven months of her 30 year sentence in prison. In 2018 the Supreme Court commuted Teodora's conviction and released her. Now Teodora is an activist and speaks out in other countries about the excessive and unjust way El Salvador punishes women and girls.
While awaiting her freedom, Hernández studies on Saturdays because she wants to complete her baccalaureate. She knits crochet in the morning and takes dance classes in the afternoon.
"When I leave here I will do it with my chin up,” she says. “I would also like to be a spokesperson, tell my life as it really was and continue studying.” She would like to get married and have children, but not in El Salvador, because she does not see opportunities. She dreams of life in Spain.