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Initiative aims to reduce gender-based violence in El Salvador

$35M USAID grant brings experts from around the university together to address issue


Members of an El Salvadoran theater group pose for a photo.
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March 07, 2023

Arizona State University is leading a large, interdisciplinary initiative to help reduce gender-based violence in El Salvador, with the goal of stemming the flow of irregular migration to the United States.

The project, called “LibrES: For an El Salvador without Gender-Based Violence,” is being funded by a $35 million, five-year cooperative agreement awarded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and will focus on three areas: prevention, protection and accountability, according to Neil Websdale, professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Family Violence Center at ASU.

“The idea is to reduce factors that push people, particularly vulnerable women and kids, out of El Salvador and up to the U.S. border by reducing gender-based violence, which is seen as a major driver for people to engage in the haphazard process of migration,” he said.

Gender-based violence is a persistent problem in El Salvador, with a significant proportion of Salvadoran women and girls experiencing some sort of violence, Websdale said.

The project will address gender-based violence in all its guises, including violence within families, stranger violence directed at women, intimidation, sex trafficking, child abuse and gang violence, Websdale added.

“All of those things are impediments to economic development and they lessen the opportunity for people in El Salvador to thrive,” he said.

Teams from across ASU are involved in the work:

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is leading the design of media campaigns to address violent, controlling and abusive behavior by influencing how people think about gender roles and about violence against disabled and LGBTQ people.

The Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU will train partners in El Salvador to use its DreamBuilder curriculum, which has been used by female entrepreneurs around the world to build skills to launch or improve their own businesses. This will raise the standard of living among people who might be tempted to migrate, and allow female survivors of gender-based violence to move toward economic independence. Thunderbird will also help to build capacity within in-country partner organizations to pursue further work with the U.S. government.

The Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law will help train Salvadoran prosecutors and law professors to develop more effective ways to bring gender-based violence cases into the legal system and to recognize how victims’ advocates can play a role.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering will look at public infrastructure for parks and transportation in El Salvador to consider modifications that will decrease the harassment that is common in those spaces. 

Charles Katz, professor and director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, will gather and analyze data with academic colleagues in El Salvador to support the work of the Institute for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence.

The Family Violence Center will help form fatality review teams to identify deaths that are due to domestic violence for the purpose of informing violence prevention and victim protection programming. It will also facilitate community informed risk interventions to better triage high-risk cases of intimate partner violence.

“This type of transdisciplinary, community-embedded effort is leveraging the expertise of colleges across ASU as this group works collectively to prevent violence against women and girls in El Salvador,” said Cynthia Lietz, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. “I am especially grateful to Dr. Neil Websdale and the Family Violence Center for all they are doing to lead this important, yet complicated project to positively impact communities locally and globally.”

Websdale, the project’s principal investigator, is an expert on domestic violence. He has worked extensively with law enforcement on administering the Arizona Intimate Partner Risk Assessment Instrument System, a tool for police to gather risk information from victims of intimate partner violence. The goal is to connect the victim with support services and also provide information to the judge at the bail hearing.

He is also the director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative, a resource center funded by the Office on Violence Against Women, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is housed at the Family Violence Center at ASU, where Websdale and his team provide training and assistance for domestic violence fatality review teams.

“In El Salvador, we hope we will bring a diverse group of players together at the table to discuss tragic outcomes like gender-based homicide with a view to developing interventions,” he said.

The USAID work will happen in three locations: San Salvador, San Miguel and Santa Ana. These urban centers have the highest rates of gender-based violence in the country.

The project’s success also depends heavily on the local team in El Salvador, who work closely with the partner organizations and implement technical programming, according to Brendan Fields, senior project manager for the Family Violence Center.

“They’re the ones leading the strategy in-country, designing work plans, meeting with partners and making connections with stakeholders,” he said.

In addition to reducing gender-based violence, the project will also work with local organizations to strengthen their financial, project and grant-management capacity so they can implement other USAID and donor-funded projects in the future.

“This major investment from USAID is a testament to ASU’s success in addressing challenging issues through community partnerships and transdisciplinary collaboration,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “The LibrES project will help save lives, improve the well-being for millions of Salvadorans, and positively impact many surrounding countries and states.”

By the end of the five-year timeline, the initiative will have provided services to 3,000 people, trained 1,000 people to advance gender equality and female empowerment outcomes, facilitated 250 training events, and generated more than 100,000 interactions with the public through communication campaigns.

The partner organizations in El Salvador are Urban Strategies, a faith-based organization composed of local churches; ASMujeres (the Salvadoran Women’s Association); MSM (the Salvadoran Women’s Movement); ASPRODE (Assistance to Programs and Projects in Development); FUNDEMAS (The Business Foundation for Social Action); FUNDE (The Foundation for Development); and the Francisco Gavidia University, a Cintanta Alliance member and the home for LibrES’s project offices.

The project launched in El Salvador in December, where Jamille Bigio, the USAID senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the Office of the Administrator, said: “For societies to prosper, all people must have the same rights, exercise their own voices, and live free from intimidation, assault, discrimination and violence.”

Top photo: Members of the theater troupe La Cachada Teatro, who are part of the LibrES resource partner Asociación Cultural Azoro, performed at the launch event for the LibrES initiative. Photo courtesy ASU

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