San Salvador, El Salvador – Mario* says he used to be an aggressive, domineering and an arrogant person. When his relationship ended more than two years ago, he threatened to publish intimate photos and videos of his ex-girlfriend in an attempt to regain control.
He did not share the images publicly, but his messages were still a crime under Salvadoran law: online harassment, which carries a four to six years prison sentence in El Salvador.
Mario spent six months behind bars before he was given the option of enrolling in a masculinity course, an alternative measure focused on rehabilitation.
“Often a person doesn’t even realise that they are carrying out some type of violence, and in the class, they make us see,” Mario says, adding that the classes have helped him identify how his past and present behaviours have embodied toxic masculinity, commonly defined as a set of socially constructed traits that encourage dominance, aggression and the devaluation of women.
The course is part of an initiative to reduce soaring rates of gender violence in El Salvador by implementing measures that focus on changing the behaviour of men convicted of these crimes.
More than 360 femicides last year
El Salvador has some of the highest rates of gender violence in the world. The country registered 365 femicides last year. In 2017, a woman was killed every 18 hours, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In a country of roughly 6.5 million residents, that is one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.
“We [men] are the ones who are creating the most violence in general and in context of violence against women,” says Benjamin Bonilla, director of Masculinities for Peace, shortened to Mas Paz in Spanish or More Peace, the San Salvador-based NGO that runs the masculinity courses.
“Practically the only public policy that the Salvadoran state has for men in terms of prevention of violence against women is jail time,” he adds.
El Salvador has the second-highest imprisonment rate after the United States.
There is a growing understanding worldwide that men and boys need to be included in solutions to gender violence. A 2011 UN Women report recommended that programmes to end gender violence extend their focus beyond women and girls to contain “specific elements designed to help young men understand that cultural change needs to occur if the cycle of violence is to be broken”.
El Salvador opened a specialised court system in July 2017 to focus on 11 gender-based crimes ranging from femicide to disseminating revenge porn to failure to pay child support in the hopes of cutting down impunity for gender violence.
An estimated 95 percent of gender-based crimes in El Salvador go unpunished because of weak protections, under-reporting of crimes, and victim-blaming within institutions, according to a 2016 report by Foundation Friedrich Ebert, a German political foundation that funds research on democracy and social justice around the world.
The specialised court system has taken this two-pronged approach to the problem of gender violence that combines convictions and rehabilitation.