Inside a conference room in Seattle’s Municipal building all eyes are fixed on Shira Downs as tears run down her face. She’s talking about the epidemic of violence against women in her home country of Nicaragua.
“We have laws to protect women, but how do you make sure the law is effective or obeyed?” she asked through an interpreter.
Thursday’s meeting was one of many that took place this past week as part of the 2012 Central American Women’s Delegation to End Gender-Based Violence.
The Seattle International Foundation (SIF), and the State Department teamed up to organize the events, which put delegates who work on gender-based violence in Central America in contact with Seattle organizations combating the same issues, in hopes that they could learn from each other.
According to the Small Arms Survey, between 2004 and 2009 El Salvador had the highest rate of female homicide in the world. Guatemala was third and Honduras and Belize didn’t fall far behind.
Downs explained that, despite the well publicized rash of gang violence in these countries, about 90-percent of these female homicides are domestic violence related.
“The people who are victims are not trusting in the institutions that are supposed to guarantee their security because [the security is] being manipulated,” she said, voicing her skepticism of the way that authorities in Central America have handled the problem.
Michele Frix, Program Officer for SIF, said that the US’s aid effort in Central America is not currently addressing the problem either.
“There’s a lot of funding going there from the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Department of Defense for police training, but it’s more around combating gang violence or drug trafficking,” said Frix.
Frix helped lead last week’s program, which was one of SIF’s many exchange programs to promote women’s leadership.
In this case, there were ten female delegates from five different countries in Central America. Some of the women were social workers or lawyers, and just about all of them have personal experience with gender-based violence, either through their work or because they were victims themselves.
Eva Chacon, one of the delegates from Panama, was one women who had been abused. Now she works to help others like her.
“If I change a life,” she told US representatives, “I change a family, I change a community.”
All last week delegates met with representatives from places like the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, with the goal of learning, teaching and bringing attention to this pressing issue.
At this particular meeting at the Municipal Building, the emphasis was on the delegates teaching the American representatives about the situation in Central America.
Downs gave one example of female police officers in Nicaragua who are victims of violence and physical and sexual harassment from their superiors, but are afraid to say anything because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
“Sometimes they come to our organization. They say I don’t want to process anything. I just want help. I just want you to listen to me,” said Downs.
Chacon explained that in Panama they have many contracts with the US for financial aid, but the money often fails to reach the intended targets.
“If they reach somebody, it will reach somebody who’s in power,” said Chacon. “The reality of our countries is there’s a lot of corruption in the state.”
The delegates also had suggestions for the organizations working to stop violence in the US.
Downs urged them to help all women, no matter if they were born in the US, or came as immigrants, even illegally.
Laura Rodriguez, a delegate from El Salvador, reflected on one important lesson she took away from the organizations she observed in Seattle – the value of a well articulated mission.
“In our countries, every institution manages many things at the same time,” she said. “We have to carry many responsibilities, even though it might not be our place. That means that we’re not taking care of the work that we’re actually meant to do.”
Many of the ten delegates said they were heading back to their home countries with a renewed belief that they could make a real change.
Downs explained the feeling succinctly:
“I think you took away the bag of rocks that we’ve been carrying.”