Gang Violence, Gender, and the Role of Education for Peacebuilding in El Salvador


By Christa Giesecke

In spite of Central America’s rich history, culture and traditions, international news from the region frequently tells of violence. Organized crime in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is frequently linked to maras, organized gangs with transnational origins. With a total of 431 reported homicides in September 2017 alone, El Salvador, in particular, is considered to be among the most violent countries in the region (Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2017). For women and girls, this violence poses an additional threat in the form of gender-based and sexual violence. Femicide, the intentional killing of women and girls on the basis of their sex, is prominent in El Salvador, with 468 reported cases, the equivalent of one woman’s death every 18 hours, reported in 2017 (Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2017). These alarming statistics raise questions about the nature and roots of violence in El Salvador. 

A Brief Background of El Salvador

The history of El Salvador reveals a pattern of violent domination dating back to the Spanish colonial conquest in the 16th Century, with a fierce resistance from native peoples (Hume, 2009; Solis 2016). Diego Solis (2016) argues that El Salvador’s geographical limitations as the smallest and most landlocked country in Central America, without access to the Caribbean Sea, contributed to its trade domination by Honduras and Guatemala and led to resentment of the outside world. Later, the El Salvadoran Civil War between 1979 and 1992 killed nearly 75,000 people, and displaced more than a million Salvadoran citizens (Hume, 2009; Ardón, P, 1998; Solis, 2016). During this time, a more flexible US immigration law granting temporary protected status (TPS) allowed many Salvadorans to migrate to the US, where many settled in Los Angeles.

It was in Los Angeles that the two most dominant maras, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara Dieciocho (18th Street Gang), were formed, largely consisting of newly-arrived Central American refugees, who may have felt drawn to gangs to “feel included as outsiders in the United States” (Does, 2013: 7; Wolf, 2011). These gangs continued to grow in size and power after the end of the Civil War in 1992, even as the US government’s TPS agreement was rescinded and thousands of Salvadoran citizens living in the United States were mass-deported back to El Salvador (Solis, 2016; Hume, 2007; Dudley, 2010).

As part of formal post-war peace processes, the El Salvadoran government signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992 and instituted a zero-tolerance approach to gang violence known as mano dura (iron first). Hume (2007, 2009) however has argued that this policy arbitrarily discriminated against young men from poor communities and neglected to address the underlying social and economic factors that had initially triggered the war. Between 2004 and April 2008, 15,153 murders were registered, which has led some researchers to maintain that the post-war period was more violent than the war (Ramos, 2000; Hume, 2007).

Currently, violence in El Salvador continues to soar, and the majority of it is gang-related (Solis, 2016). September 2017 saw some of the highest mortality rates yet, with an average of 15 homicides per day (Ávalos Silva, 2017). At a loss for how to respond to threats, many Salvadorans have resorted to fleeing in hopes of being granted refugee status in other countries (Martínez, 2017; Fontanini 2016). In 2017 alone, up to 20,000 El Salvadoran citizens are estimated to have applied for asylum in Mexico (Martínez, 2017). With widespread impunity in the Salvadoran judicial system, there is little protection from forms of gender-based violence initiated by gang members, including sexual exploitation and femicide (Walsh and Menjívar, 2016). Given this background, I seek to explore the role of gender in acts of gang violence and specifically examine why violence against women is commonly used as a tactic of gang dominance in the Salvadoran context.

Gender and Gang Involvement

Gang recruitment tends to happen in early adolescence, when young men are desperate for social status and group belonging, and therefore easily swayed by the perceived attraction of gang membership. Young men who grow up in “contexts of poverty and exclusion” are especially vulnerable in this regard, as they may join gangs in an effort to gain power that they are unlikely to achieve in ‘mainstream’ forms of political, economic or social success (Baird, 2012: 182). Likewise, Gary Barker (2005: 2) posits that the social benefits young men might experience as gang members include sexual access to young women, money, and improved status, due their “willingness to use violence against the police and rival gangs.” With an undeniable link to gender inequality and “a predilection to violence,” gang culture can be likened to a form of hyper masculinity (Zulver, 2016: 15).

Within Salvadoran gang culture, sexual violence is often employed as a tactic to establish dominance over communities. In exercising control over women and girls’ bodies with impunity, gang members gain leverage to threaten family members and loved ones. These girls and young women have little power to resist gang members’ advances, as they are likely to face threats of death or increased aggression towards their families or loved ones if they do. Under these circumstances, girls growing up in gang-controlled neighborhoods receive clear messages from a young age that their bodies are not their own (Zulver, 2016: 183).

Nevertheless, some young women may be drawn to relationships with gang members, as they come with the privileges of “respect, protection, and gifts,” in spite of the apparent power imbalances (Zulver, 2016: 174). This paradox matches Bastos’ concept of the “double system” of masculinity in low-income contexts of Guatemala, in which men act as the financial provider for their female partners in the ‘traditional’ sense, while nonetheless giving the impression of relational non-attachment to the outside world (Hume and Wilding, 2015). Likewise, Saunders-Hastings (2018) describes the contradiction in the behavior of incarcerated gang members she visited in prison. While tenderly describing their longing for their partners and families, they recounted stories of the heinous and violent acts they had carried out against women as gang members.

Without disregarding the severity of gang members’ acts of violence, it is also critical to consider the underlying structural and societal factors that may draw young men to gang membership. Cruz (in Hume, 2007) posits that high levels of social exclusion and poverty, particularly following a period of political instability, are likely to encourage gang activity. Gangs not only provide material security to their members, but also senses of identity and social status; thus, the desire to join a gang might emanate from feelings of “failure to achieve or sustain a position in the dominant (traditional) gender discourse” (Parkes, 2015: 19). In this regard, gang membership can operate as a compromise to achieving the desired social perception of power and status, while perhaps masking underlying feelings of inadequacy (Parkes, 2015). With due consideration of the many potential contributing factors for gang activity outlined here, I wish to consider gender-informed strategies to build a more peaceful society in the Salvadoran context, with an emphasis on educational models for peace.

Towards gender-sensitive educational models for violence prevention

Gender-informed approaches to peacebuilding must start by addressing the roots of unequal power relations in all facets of society. These areas should include personal and community life, cultural institutions, workplaces, management, and markets, as well as schooling and child-rearing practices and higher education, among others (Connell, 2000). In particular, approaches that reject traditional hierarchies and foster democratic participation “towards equality, non-violence, and mutual respect between people of different genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and generations” are critical to developing a culture of peace (Connell, 2000: 30).

In the Salvadoran gang context, acts of violence, such as killing a rival gang member, are lauded. Under these circumstances, personal qualities that would normally be considered positive, such as bravery, have been corrupted through their association with violence. Peacebuilding educational frameworks, therefore, must strive to “disconnect courage from violence, steadfastness from prejudice, ambition from exploitation,” (Connell, 2000: 30). Breaking free of discourses of violence creates space for the cultivation of a culture of peace and an appreciation for diversity of perspectives.

Practically speaking, peace education requires a restructuring of traditional roles in the classroom to allow for participatory pedagogies resemblant of democratic processes (Reardon, 2001). Unlike most types of formal education systems, which operate under an authoritative rule of the teacher and encourage competition among pupils, peace education incorporates many group discussions that emphasize the equal power and voice of each member present (Reardon, 2001). Active participation in these discussions involves reflective, engaged listening just as much as it involves speaking, as “recognizing the equal importance of both functions is important to observing democratic practice and gender sensitivity in the group process” (Reardon, 2001: 40). Likewise, Najcevska (2000: 187) advocates that peace education curricula include “as many opportunities as possible for the sexes to work together in projects dealing with tolerance, respect for differences, non-discrimination and equality.” Freirean models follow a similar approach with a focus on learner-centeredness and “equality, human rights and mutual respect,” argue Kelster and Booth (2010).

The democratic remaking of gender practices requires active engagement on behalf of men and women under a model that provides a safe environment for dialogue and is sensitive to gender and culture (Reardon, 2001; Connell, 2000). Community-based peer education models, which allow young people to actively participate in a space separate from the confinement of traditional social structures, can be particularly useful to encourage young men who have not been societally ‘allowed’ to show emotion or vulnerability to be forthcoming and expressive (Titley, 2003). For these models to succeed, it is crucial that the group facilitator establish an environment of trust and openness, as “confidence building, encouragement, and clarity of offer are instrumental in engaging (youth) in the groups and services provided” (Titley, 2003: 39).

In contexts of poverty in El Salvador, where violence and aggression are often the most visible expressions of male emotion, peer-education programs can encourage boys to understand that a multiplicity of ways to ‘be a man’ exist and comprehend that emotional vulnerability and masculinity are not mutually exclusive (Connell, 2000; Barker, 2005). Evaluative tools for gender equity in education, such as the Gender-Equitable Men (GEM) Scale, are helpful for assessing the effectiveness of gender-sensitive educational programming. As a conceptual framework, the GEM Scale “highlights that certain models of manhood or masculinity are promoted in specific cultural settings but that individual men will vary according to how much they adhere to these norms and that norms can evolve or change over time” (UN Women, 2013: 65). Although dominant forms of hegemonic masculinity might be the most apparent in El Salvador, not all men necessarily personally reflect these same attitudes.

Barker (2005) affirms that young men growing up in contexts of poverty cannot be assumed to engage in violence based on their background alone, as, in fact, the majority do not. Ensuring that relevant educational and career opportunities for young men are available can likewise contribute to gang violence prevention: “when young men in low-income and violent settings find conventional means for attaining identity and status – finishing school; acquiring legal, stable and reasonably well-paid employment; having family members who are able to connect with them; having non-delinquent peers; forming their own family – most of them do stay out of gangs” (Barker, 2005: 81).


Schools in El Salvador do not always operate to promote peace and optimize human rights, as international frameworks intend. In fact, schools can be the sites where gang-related bullying and recruitment take place. Traumatic experiences at or near the school environment, such as bullying and harassment, while at school or in the journey to school, can create a negative association with education in general for community members and pupils in El Salvador alike. In violent contexts, children’s educational aspirations can be limited by the extent to which their neighborhoods and communities are controlled by gangs and government authority units. As public institutions, traditional Salvadoran government schools are limited to the mainstream discourses in which they exist that formulate a set curriculum and hierarchy of knowledge in their mainstream discourses. To reframe educational practices to a gender-sensitive peacebuilding perspective, the operations of power must be restructured to include democratic approaches that emphasize participation for the fostering of gender-and-cultural sensitivity.

In 2009, a change of political power in El Salvador brought a leftist insurgency to power that recognized the educational system’s failure to accommodate the diversity of its citizens (Arévalo, 2012). This political shift highlighted the necessity for the Salvadoran government to revisit its constitutional commitments to education, including the provision of universal schooling free of cost and of good quality on behalf of the state (Arévalo, 2012). Perhaps this brings a major pitfall of peace education to light: it is ultimately shaped by “political, cultural and economic conflicts” with a certain agenda (Gounari, 2013: 83). The mainstreaming of peace education initiatives in El Salvador is ultimately limited to the extent to which they can garner governmental support. Given a governmental track record of alienating marginalized communities through harsh law enforcement policies such as mano dura, the widespread implementation of a national peace curriculum seems unlikely, despite supposed aims of the 2021 Salvadoran Education Plan towards a more fair and humanitarian educational model (Arévalo, 2012). Given their rejection of institutional discourse surrounding authoritarian school systems, gender-sensitive peace education models must be born out of grassroots democratic participation. In the Salvadoran context, structural programs that help marginalized women to gain economic independence, coupled with inclusive peace education initiatives that encourage vulnerability and multiple expressions of masculinity would contribute to the cultivation of a national culture of peace and gender equality.



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