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Corrected-Can women boost El Salvador's fragile gang truce?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 15 Jan 2014 05:21 GMT
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A female gang inmate who has converted to Christianity, prays during a celebration marking the first year of the truce between El Salvador's two most powerful gangs, at the women's prison facilities in San Salvador May 28, 2013. A truce signed by the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) cut the country's murder rate by half in just four months since it took effect a year ago, local media reported. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez
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(Corrects description of president in final paragraph)

With El Salvador’s gang truce teetering on the brink, it’s high time to get women involved in any peace negotiations between rival gangs - a move that could help the truce last and protect women’s rights, experts say.

El Salvador’s two most infamous street gangs - the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and rival Barrio 18 signed a truce in March 2012, which helped to lower murder rates in one of the world’s most violent countries.

The unprecedented ceasefire led to murder rates in the Central American nation falling to an average of five a day from 12 before the agreement, according to government figures.

But while El Salvador’s overall homicide rates fell slightly over the past year - to 2,426 murders in 2013, from 2,543 in 2012 - the number of missing persons has almost doubled over the same period, and a rise in the murder rate in recent months has continued into 2014, latest government figures show.

Local mayors in peace zones across the country - designated areas where both gangs have pledged to end criminal activity - say killings continue, according to reports last November in El Salvador’s La Prensa Grafica newspaper.

Rival gang leaders agreed to the truce providing the government would implement social programmes and create jobs to help integrate their members back into society and improve the dire conditions in the country’s overcrowded prisons.  

The government says money is being pumped into peace zones, but in eight of the 11 designated peace zones, mayors say government funds for such initiatives have yet to be disbursed, raising questions on how long the truce can last, La Prensa Grafica reports.

As the gang truce appears to be wobbling, it’s important to get women on board and ensure they contribute in negotiations with gangs.

“In the case of El Salvador, there is a conspicuous absence in the discussion: the question of women’s participation in the process – despite the fact that the importance of including women is one of the key lessons from other peace processes in the past two decades,” Jennifer Peirce, an expert in gangs and urban violence, and consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, writes in a blog.

There are no women among the gang leaders, spokespeople, mediators, or the committee set up to support the truce, Peirce notes.

“What’s more, few critical assessments of the truce have raised this absence as a concern,” her blog says.

While women make up the minority in gangs across Central America, they are increasingly playing more active and important roles in gangs while suffering high levels of physical and sexual abuse, according to a 2012 report by peacebuilding groups.

When not taking part in gang violence, women are affected by it many ways.

As Peirce puts it, they are the mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sisters of gang members. They visit gang members in prison, bringing them food and clothes. Women also tend to support gang members when they leave prison and return to their communities. As such, women could play an important role in how government reintegration programmes for ex-gang members are set up and implemented. But few women’s voices are being heard.

Also, including women in the gang truce could help raise awareness about the taboo issue of sexual violence within gangs and by gang members, Peirce says.

Yet the government’s role in brokering a deal with the country's rival gangs in the first place is unclear, and its support for the gang truce has wavered.

And as El Salvador gears up for presidential elections next month, it’s likely the gang truce will become even more politicised.

Over the last decade, there has been growing recognition among international bodies and policymakers that including women in all stages of a peace process strengthens the prospects for sustainable peace and helps rebuild broken communities.

The United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008), along with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), all underscore the need, and importance, for women to play a pivotal role in all stages of peace talks and post-conflict processes.

Still, women continue to be poorly represented in peace processes across the world.

According to UN Women, in a sample of the world's 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011, women represented only 4 percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators and 9 percent of negotiators.

In the case of El Salvador, when the government and left-wing guerrillas from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed a peace deal to end the country’s civil war in 1992, there were no women representing the government. Two of the FMLN's ten delegates were women.

It’s something El Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and a member of the ruling FMLN party, would do well to remember and promote in the country's gang truce.

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