A discussion with the FMLN’s Lorena Peña

Lorena Peña is co-founder of the Mélinda Anaya Montes Women’s Movement (“Las Mélidas”), a prominent Salvadoran feminist organization formed in 1992 by ex-combatant women from the Popular Force for Liberation (FPL), one of the five founding organizations of the FMLN. Lorena was one of three FMLN women who participated in peace talks with the Salvadoran government. Those negotiations terminated in the 1991 signing of the Peace Accords, which allowed for the conversion of the FMLN from a guerilla army to an established political party.

UDW: What are the main challenges facing Salvadoran women today?

LP: I think that our principal challenge for us is to confront gender-based violence as it is expressed institutionally by authorities and the Government Agencies, workplace violence and domestic violence…among others.
Why do I say this is the principal challenge? Because I think that all these forms of violence put a yoke on women that controls us–from the public sphere, to work, to private lives—and makes it very difficult to be able to participate, on one hand in the struggle for self-determination and equality, and on the other [the yoke] impedes the development of our potencial as individual women.

How does this work? For example, all of the legislation that concerns us as women, with few exceptions, is violent.

There’s a refusal to address gender issues in the Electoral Law. And when we’ve argued for this, they say, “Based on what? Under what right?” [They say] we want the easy route. I mean, it’s a slew of insults we get like women are unable and opportunists and that what we can’t earn in a fair fight, we want the law to facilitate it for us. That is violence…when you try to claim a right and they tell you that you’re an opportunist, and what’s more, incapable.

We could go through everything…rape, harrassment, the femicides. Although the penal code was improved, they haven’t been able to reform the victim protection system. So the victims that speak out are subject to violence on the part of the system. For that reason, we don’t have enough women speaking out, nor is there perserverence [by authorities], nor follow-through which at times results in the murder of the victim [for speaking out].

Look at the issue of maternity: We need to improve the system of legal recognition for children, which is part of the women’s struggle, actually. [Systemic] violence is perpetrated on women who want legal recognition for their children. The legal procedures are not being applied correctly so that one can do that. Tehre are women who have waited up to four years fighting to legally establish the father of their kids. When you can’t establish paternity, you can’t establish the amount of welfare benefits.

So, the women who ask for welfare are beggars…literally. I’m going to take on a couple of women’s cases and they sincerely have been converted into beggars….even moreso when you take into account that the majority of women don’t have the resources to maintain a four year legal battle.

Sexual harrassment: it is well recognized in the legal code. However, those who implement the law are too permissive, so very few women actually show up to denounce [their attackers]. And you’d have to check what percentage of them win their cases. There’s no guarantee that if you sue someone over sexual harrassment that your case will be dealt with correctly. As one of my friends says: “The Law is applied to women, and men interpret it.”

I see all of this in the context of institutionality. For example, labor rights: factories in the free trade zone–in spite of the free trade zone reforms in 1997–continue subjecting women to unbearable hours. It’s true that they are hit less, because before there were systematic beatings. But they continue to work without ventilation, there’s still harrassment, there’s still only a three minute bathroom break for limited amount of times daily. Right?

And the State is incapable of guaranteeing the [labor] rights of these women.

UDW: We could consider the case of Hermosa Manufacturing where the company classified workers “temporary,” and said, “We’re going to lay you off temporarily…”

LP: “so that you come back [when we need you].”  It was a maquila that worked to order. So, if there are no orders, they are laid off. And are contracted again in a way that the company has no employment obligations with them, first point. Secondly, when there is work, sometimes they make them work 48 hours over three days. They don’t contract extra people. Later, they lay you off. This is an abusive form of counting work hours and it is violence.

These women later go home and have to confront domestic violence without a chance in most cases of stopping it. How many women have been assassinated where the neighbors report that there had already been an earlier problem?

The law says domenstic violence is a public crime—which means that when there is a call [to authorities], it has to be followed up…that even when the victim says no, the State must follow through. This makes is so the victim isn’t the target of repercussions. But when the police show up and there’s a beat-up woman, and a man in front and she says nothing happened, the police leave. They should have said: “You say nothign happened, but you’ve been beaten, so no…” because that is your job. So the men continue…

So, what can we hope for in terms women’s equality on the theme of violence? This is a big question.

Another question is the general situation in the nation. And from this whether other social movements can work more in concert [with women’s groups]. More than anything on poverty, the environment, public services and fees. Women have always been invisibilized, or they work separately [on these issues].

UDW: Here we have a social movement with a few women participating and…

LP: the women’s movement is over there…

So yes, this limits the possibilities of everyone, not just women, right, to be able to confront the type of problem that haunts and reinforces the subordination and slavery of women. Why do I say this? Because if there’s no water and we don’t question the double shift, then women are going to have the task of carrying the water dumped on them. If they kick a kid out of Bloom (Hospital), the women have to take over caring for him. They don’t make the men do it.

If there’s less money, women have to figure out how to stretch it.

The more profound point here is that the left, the social movements and the women’s movements have not made the link between neo-liberalism and patriarchy.

For me, patriarchy goes together with capitalism and is very compatible with the neo-liberal model. If we understand patriarchy, where women are subordinated to another person, where being a second-class citizen means covering all of the unregulated jobs that neo-liberalism needs done. You’re taught to be submissive and, as such, bear the type of work the neo-liberalism requires.

Look at the concentration of property into the hands of the big oligarchies, and teel me that this doesn’t correspond to twomen’s lack of access to property. It is all one sistem.

Patriarchy and the neo-liberal work hand in hand.

For the neo-liberal to privatize the public services, he needs the woman to take on the double shift. Neo-liberalism needs women to start micro-businesses because they can handle the craziness of unemployment, and now that men can’t fulfill the traditional provider role anymore, women are becoming the providers, but without abandoning [home-making].

So, the small, home-business is perfect, because they work the double shift and make a few pennies right there in the house. It is very engrained.

UDW: Could you talk about the gap between the image of the Salvadoran woman as promoted by the media and the lived reality of the majority of women?

LP: The media owned by big capital in this phase of the system has been more aggressive than in times past. We already knew that the mass media was part of the political and ideological control of the population. But now, they have taken on a larger role, more grotesque than fascism, but more subtle.

And it is a general characteristic that everything that passes through those media outlets is a disfiguration, an alienation and a manipulation of reality. That’s in general. As far as women are concerned has been accentuated as well.

UDW: How has that been put into practice in MesoAmerica?

LP: Twenty years ago we were the “Queen of the Household,” right? That’s what we were. We were an object to be conquered, the object of domination in all of the promotional ads. I remember: “Red Batteries: Always Fire”…and the curvy woman right next to it.

That was twenty years ago. That has really advanced. That’s nothing nowadays. Minor. There is an incredible campaign including in the newspapers of a type of society to which we are never going to get to.

Later, the idealization of the woman who works the double or triple shift. Now it is clearer, because before the “Queen of the household” was never an executive. Today the successful woman earns money, takes it home, and washes the clothes and takes the kid to kindergarten.

This is all part of a more profound campaign to consolidate the pattern that neo-liberalism requires to function. Partially prostituted, bringing home the income, working the double shift, etcetera. And this is a pattern that has nothing to do with reality, but that facilitates the conditions so that you think that it does.

UDW: What is the effect of all of this on the average man?

Before being a common man, you grow up as a common boy. The maquila, migration, prostitution, domestic violence: many common men are already victims of the conditions of discrimination and exploitation of women. The average man today has the possibility to be more conscious. Because the exploitation of women is less subtle and the repercussions of this regarding work and life are more obvious, the common man now sees that the women in his life can be raped or killed on that corner by another common man.

So I think that this is a moment where Salvadoran society can pull back the curtain that shades reality. I am convinced of that. Now, does this mean [men] are going to see the light? That depends on whether the progressive political and social forces within society speak out.

That there is a grand questioning of these issues is undoubtable. Not only that politics and the economy are not going well, but that many men are questioning things because they see that the situation of women is not good.

This is difficult for the common man because on one hand they live more drunk, their lives are more complicated because they cannot comply with the roles the system has imposed on them.

UDW: What kind of alternative can we envision for the future of women’s struggle?

LP: For me, the principal problem that we have is that the women’s movement has turned NGO. Everything. This is a debate that we recently had in “Las Mélidas.” Movement building work has taken second stage to the execution and liquidation of projects. What’s given priority is accounting, spending money, make sure we are meeting the goals of the projects, which for the most part don’t dedicate anything to political consciousness, mobilization, nor real empowerment.

To the extent that the women’s movement has gone down the track of implementing projects—more and more assistance-based, like micro-credit, their political presence and mobiliation work has decreased. So, it’s good to go on March 8 and November 22 and take the streets. Great! We’re always going to do that. But to me it isn’t right that we don’t maintain a constant political presence confronting patriarchy as part of the neo-liberal model.

If we as organized women adopt this route, we’ll surely find ways to coordinate with working women and rural women on a higher level so that we’ll be able to question, not only gender relations, but also question the areas of domestic violence, labor violations, overall—public violence [against women].

We need to search for ways to mobilize women under the “another world is possible” model, where we become the agents of changes we promote and of the specific benefits that those changes mean for women’s lives. It has come to this because the left, in its majority, is male. So, if the our political and social personhood of women doesn’t even impact the progressive political forces (leaving the right aside), those forces weaken the women’s struggle.

There is a big challenge to reformulate the socio/political struggle in clearer terms and question prioritizing the NGO-ization of the women’s movement. At root, we need to examine the lives of women and the poverty they live on a daily basis.