But few of the perpetrators ever face justice. Between 2013 and November 2016, the Salvadoran government opened 662 femicide cases, but only 5 percent reached a conviction. With pervasive gender inequality and widespread impunity, part of the reason for the epidemic of violence against women may simply be that assailants believe that they can get away with it.
Yolanda Blanco, a government lawyer who co-founded the soccer club at the dusty San Salvador field where Dani and Sofia play, explained that gang members take revenge on rivals through the murder and rape of their sisters and daughters. “Girls are the objects of vengeance for the gangs,” she told me. “They are in the eye of the hurricane.”
A few days after visiting the soccer field, I met Ingrid, a 23-year-old woman from a northern suburb of San Salvador, at a hotel. Ingrid, along with her 3-year-old daughter and her family, had gone into hiding, and needed a safe location to meet. When in the eighth grade, she got a boyfriend and soon dropped out of school. Two years later, he became a member of a faction of Barrio 18, after the gang threatened to go after his sister if he refused to join. “Before joining the gang, he was very loving, taking care of me,” she said. “Almost overnight, he changed.”
Ingrid’s boyfriend soon began to lock her inside their house. He would get drunk, beat her, rape her, and forbid her from using contraceptives, she told me. After one beating, she was hospitalized, and learned she was pregnant. The doctors told her she might lose her child because of her injuries. Yet when Ingrid later gave birth to her daughter, her boyfriend promised to stop the abuse, and pushed her to get married. Shortly after, the beatings started anew, and she ultimately left her then-husband. Still, he eventually found them.
When I spoke to Ingrid, she told me she had considered applying for a visa to travel to the United States. She had even mulled the possibility of traveling north with her baby, either to claim asylum at the border, or enter America illegally. “My plan is to give her all the love and care I can,” Ingrid said, “and get as far away as I can.”
Magdalena Arce, the president of a network of women’s shelters in the foothills of San Salvador, argued that the violence against women comes down to machismo. As academics have argued, the sexism that devalues Salvadoran girls is so ingrained—in El Salvador’s politics, culture, even its religion—that many young women “don’t even know they have rights,” Arce said. That includes the right to safely leave abusive partners and report sexual and domestic violence, or even the right to higher education or economic opportunity.
Celina de Sola, who runs a community-development NGO called Glasswing International, emphasized that girls are not inherently vulnerable. Instead, she said, the violence in El Salvador is exacerbating existing external factors—like high rates of school dropouts and teen pregnancies—to further imperil young Salvadoran women. While one-third of Salvadorans live in poverty, the unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds is double the national average; 300,000 in that age group neither work nor study. Many girls face these long odds with young children: A quarter of young women between the ages 15 and 19 have already become pregnant, the highest rate in Latin America.