Drawing on her experience as a lawyer and women's rights activist, América Romualdo is creating an independent system of monitoring and follow-through to ensure the application of laws against domestic violence and accountability of the justice system.
The New Idea
América helps victims of domestic violence seek legal action to end their abuse by transforming an ineffective justice system into a responsive solution for protecting women. Drawing on her experience in the feminist movement and law circles, América is bridging the gap between women's groups and the law to create a system, independent of government or political institutions, to monitor and follow through on cases of domestic violence. Her approach has three components: strengthening the efforts of citizen organizations to better assist victims of domestic violence; training judges, lawyers, and judicial functionaries; and identifying and denouncing the failure of the justice system to uphold and apply the law. As the first step, América teaches women's organizations how to access the necessary resources to seek legal action for their cases. She then trains them how to monitor judicial rulings for the application of anti-domestic violence laws that are largely ignored. Finally, she provides them with strategies for follow up on cases, including publicly denunciating failures of the judicial system to uphold the law. To ensure a positive transformation of the judicial system, América is coordinating with judicial ministries to train judicial functionaries, lawyers, and judges how to recognize the needs of domestic violence victims, to identify instances where their own practices or the judicial system has failed, and to apply anti-domestic violence law in a timely and equitable way. Rather than simply encouraging women to come forward to seek justice against domestic violence, América is giving women the tools to ensure that justice is achieved. Through public pressure on lawyers and judges, citizens are able to hold the judicial system accountable for applying the law. Through denunciations, citizen groups are generating jurisprudence regarding domestic violence cases, influencing the way lawyers and judges invoke and apply the law. Together with ongoing training for judges, police officers, and lawyers, the process leads to setting precedents that contribute to increased respect for domestic violence law and credibility of the justice system overall.
Although there is a lack of concrete statistics relating to domestic violence, it is estimated that one in five women are victims of domestic violence in El Salvador. A small percentage of these instances ever gets reported to authorities and fewer still receive sufficient support from legal and social services to adequately address the needs of the victim and stop the recurrence of violence. The prevalence of domestic violence and the lack of corresponding statistics points out that domestic violence remains largely hidden by gender role stereotypes and taboos that help keep it out of the public sphere of legal action and accountability.
Sparked by the 1993 International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which recognized violence against women as a human rights violation, international efforts during the last decade have succeeded in pushing for international agreements and corresponding national legislation to combat domestic violence. Through an effort led by América herself, the Salvadoran government passed legislation in December 1996 to authorize judicial functionaries and family judges to intervene in domestic violence cases. However, as in many countries with new legislation against domestic violence, the laws in El Salvador are seldom applied. The growth of citizen organizations and international efforts to prevent domestic violence have led to a slow increase in the number of victims of domestic violence coming forward to seek legal and health services to address their needs.
The metropolitan area of San Salvador has registered a significant increase in the number of reported cases of domestic violence. Since 1998, reported cases increased 130 percent and women's organizations in the country estimate an average of twenty women per day are seeking alternatives in order to resolve domestic violence situations. With the increase in reported cases, there is a higher demand for resolving situations of domestic violence in the public sphere under the new laws. However, there has been a lack of education and training about the content and application of the new law for both authorities and the general public.
Without sufficient training for lawyers, police officers, and judges to meet this need, the laws are poorly applied or not applied at all. The result of this breach of justice is the double victimization of women, who are victims of both physical violence and the justice system. The immediate danger to the women denouncing violence is recurrence, and often escalation, of violence by abusers when legal and social services fail to protect them. The other dangerous result is a growing distrust of judicial institutions and other public institutions that inhibits women from seeking help for domestic violence situations and reinforces the hidden nature of the abuse.
Through her work with women's organizations, América recognized the need for laws to protect victims of domestic violence. She began her struggle with a campaign in the early 1990s calling for national legislation against domestic violence. With the law passing in late 1996, América turned her attention to ensuring that this law, and other laws fighting gender discrimination and supporting the rights of women, be applied and enforced. To do so, América is creating a system for monitoring and denouncing breaches in the justice system to give citizen groups and the victims of domestic violence themselves the tools to hold the system accountable for applying the law.
The first step in América's strategy is to systematize the mechanisms for monitoring, follow-through, and denunciation. Once completed, she will create training materials which outline the necessary steps for women's organizations and other citizen organizations to understand the anti-domestic violence laws, monitor judicial proceedings, and make public denunciations when the laws relating to domestic violence are not applied. Using her extensive contacts in the women's movement, América has already begun to coordinate with networks dealing with women's issues–such as the 25th of November Committee and the Action Network Against Gender Violence–to validate the system and spread it among women's organizations. With her team of three women, América will then train twenty "promoters" from these networks so that they can apply and replicate this methodology within their organizations.
In addition to strengthening accountability of the judicial system regarding domestic violence claims, América has begun to use her contacts within legal spheres in El Salvador to implement the second component of her strategy. This component involves training judges and lawyers to effectively recognize and apply the law in cases of domestic violence and combat discrimination against women in the courtroom. América is incorporating in training workshops the public institutions responsible for training judges, namely the Supreme Court of Justice and the National Judiciary Congress. The workshops train participants on laws protecting women's rights and cases where the laws have not been applied, as well as discriminatory practices of the legal code and gender stereotypes that contribute to breaches of justice. América is beginning the training process by first contacting and gaining support from judges who are receptive to women's rights issues, and using these points of entry to gain support throughout the institutions.
América is incorporating training for judicial functionaries who serve as the first point of contact for women seeking justice on cases of domestic violence. Referred to as "peace judges," their role is to decide whether a domestic violence case will be brought under the law. Typically, these functionaries seek family reconciliation and treat domestic violence claims as daily conflicts between husband and wife. As part of América's strategy, she will provide training for these individuals on how to recognize and find legal alternatives in cases of domestic violence and take preventative steps (such as issuing restraining orders on abusers) to protect the plaintiffs. Targeting peace judges ensures a responsiveness of the judicial system from the first steps of the process.
América is also coordinating efforts with other public institutions such as the National Civilian Police, the Network of Community Health Services, health units, and health and domestic violence programs under the National Institute for Women. Working with these groups, she plans to construct a chain of support providing follow-through on domestic violence cases from the moment a woman comes forward or a violent situation is detected.
A final component of América's strategy involves denunciation of cases where appropriate laws are not applied. After monitoring domestic violence cases, América and her network of promoters make formal denunciations through judicial actions. These denunciations create the kind of jurisprudence that affects how lawyers and judges interpret and apply laws. América and her peers also launch campaigns to publicize breaches and shortcomings, engendering accountability of the justice system.
América was raised in a family of women. Her grandmother played an important role during her childhood, teaching her to be independent and strong with a focus on a solid education. América attended the Maryknoll School, a Christian school for low-income families but with a rich curriculum including foreign languages and special projects. It was at this school that América began participating in the Santa Ana Project, which offered leadership training and the opportunity to develop literacy campaigns in the community.
From the beginning, América demonstrated her leadership capabilities and soon convinced the priest at the school to form women's organizations in the community. After studying electrical engineering in college, América re-dedicated herself to public service work in the mid-1980s and became involved with supporting women factory workers, making lasting contacts with the women's movement both domestically and internationally. América returned to university to study law and applied these studies to provide legal support to women factory workers and to work for the Women's Secretariat at the University of El Salvador. Both of these experiences exposed her to the general discrimination and disregard for women's rights in El Salvador, and the everyday violence that many women suffer.
Since the early 1990s, América has focused her energy and attention on fighting for women's rights. At the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, participants recognized violence against women as a violation of human rights and presented recommendations to national governments for ensuring women's rights. América took advantage of this opening for dialogue on the subject to set forth concrete recommendations and action plans for El Salvador. In 1994, she participated in creating the Women's Platform with an emphasis on violence and reproductive rights, and led programs in CEMUJER (Center for the Study of Women) and DIGNAS (Women for Dignity and Life) about violence against women. Over the course of the 1990s, América was instrumental in changing public policy in El Salvador regarding respect for women's rights. She applied her law background to work to improve legislation to prevent violence against women, culminating in her work with the Secretary General for the Defense of Human Rights in El Salvador. The secretary general invited América to write the bill for the Law Against Domestic Violence, passed in 1996. Throughout this process, América excelled at identifying the gaps in the system and addressing them.
In 1998, two years after getting the Law Against Domestic Violence passed, América began to recognize weaknesses in training and understanding of the laws in the judicial system and social services, which rendered most of the legislative reforms ineffective. She began to move away from day-to-day work with women's organizations in order to open space for developing a system of monitoring and follow-through for applying the laws. Risking her high standing in legal circles, América is taking on the unpopular task of pointing out judges' and lawyers' failures to apply the laws against domestic violence. Using her experience with the women's movement and respect in law circles, she is working to bridge the gap between the women seeking help and the legal and social services which are supposed to support and protect them.