El Salvador is considered a middle-income country, but its income and assets are unevenly distributed. Poverty is widespread especially in rural areas where three-fifths of the population is poor. Violence largely characterizes society.
The deep gaps between poor and rich were widened during the first decade of the 21st century. The left-wing government that took office in 2009 aimed to create a new economic model in the country with increased equality and better protection for the marginalized. The government implemented a number of projects to improve and increase access to health care and schools. Among other things, a new social protection system was introduced that provides poor families with financial or material support against undergoing health checks and sending their children to school.
- Countryaah Official Site: Official statistics for population in El Salvador, including population growth, density, and estimation in next 50 years.
Health care was also expanded with, among other things, a doubling of the number of health centers and an increased budget for medicines. In addition, the medical fees for the poorest were abolished. The social efforts contributed to, among other things, reduced maternal mortality and malnutrition.
The violence in society and the high crime rate are a constant threat in the lives of the Salvadorans. The murder rate reached a peak in 2015 when more than 6,600 murders were committed, which means 103 murders per 100,000 residents. The figure has since dropped steadily and the frequency was reported four years later to be only one third of the top listing: just under 36 per 100,000 residents. The authorities refer to a “hard fight” against the crime, including preventive activities and rehabilitation programs in the prisons, which should have caused about 2,000 gang members to leave their gang. That was even before Nayib Bukele took office as president on June 1, 2019. He has made fighting against crime a top priority.
In the past, the Catholic Church and individual organizations have mediated between the gangs, who in exchange for the ceasefire demanded better conditions in prisons and support for their families to create livelihood opportunities.
At least 70,000 people are said to be part of the criminal youth gang in El Salvador, Maras. Of these, 1 7,000 are in prison. The gang was formed in Los Angeles, USA in the 1980s (see Modern History). However, the state estimates that over half a million Salvadorans have connections to the gang – or 10 percent of the country’s residents. Two gangs dominate big: Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Barrio 18.
During the presidencies of Flores (1999–2004) and Saca (2004–2009), laws were introduced that give the police extended powers to arrest gang members. A tattoo or clothing that indicates gang affiliation can lead to imprisonment. The gun laws also became stricter, and it allowed the military to patrol with the police in hard-hit municipalities.
El Salvador is a macho society and gender roles follow traditional patriarchal patterns. The woman usually bears the entire responsibility for homework and childcare even though she also works outside the home. Those who can afford it often hire servants to help in the home. During the civil war, women often took an active role in guerrillas and popular organizations. In the 1990s, women’s organizations also began to grow in strength. But inequality between men and women did not disappear. Although attitudes have begun to change, and many women today work professionally, they still bear the responsibility for homes and children. It is not uncommon for men to leave their wife and children, but it is unusual for them to pay maintenance.
Single mothers often live in extreme poverty and are forced to work for low wages. In general, women’s wages are just over 50 percent lower than men’s, and it is rare for women to hold managerial positions or politically important positions. Illiteracy is more widespread among women than among men. Women generally own much less land and other property than men.
Violence and sexual abuse of girls and women is a major problem, especially in the home. Very few reported cases lead to convictions. The dark figure is considered to be large in terms of violence against women. In 60 percent of the cases of sexual violence reported in 2018, the victims were between 12 and 17 years old.
The left government that took office in 2009 sought in various ways to strengthen women’s rights, including by establishing so-called women’s cities (Ciudad Mujer) where representatives of various authorities are located and where women can get help with reporting crimes, applying for jobs, starting their own businesses, getting financial support, sexual and reproductive health counseling, and more. There is also a babysitting service in the area. In early 2019, there were six women’s cities in different locations in the country.
Since 2010, three new laws have come into force to strengthen women’s rights in society. According to the Act on Gender Equality, discrimination against women is prohibited. There are also specific laws on murder and other violence against women. In Latin America, the term femicidiosis about the murder of women is used precisely because they are women. These murders are characterized by brutality and hatred of women, and are very common in El Salvador. Around 500 women are murdered each year in the country.
Abortion has been illegal in all circumstances since 1998, even if the fetus is not viable or if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Doctors who perform abortions can be sentenced to prison and have their identification revoked. Women who are sentenced to abortion can receive imprisonment for up to eight years. However, some women are indicted instead of murder and can then be sentenced to significantly longer sentences. According to critics, the strict laws are also applied in cases where women have miscarriages or a child is stillborn, without external influence. At the beginning of 2018, two women were released in marked cases – after serving 10 and 15 years in prison since giving birth to stillborn children. A third woman in a similar case was released in February 2019 after nearly three years in prison. She was indicted again later in the year – but was now completely acquitted of the charges, which human rights groups saw as a huge success. In almost all cases, the women who are sentenced under the strict laws are young, poor and single.
Every year, many women in the suites die after poorly performed illegal abortions. The lack of an abortion right also became important when the government in 2016 urged residents to avoid pregnancies due to the rapid spread of the zika virus, which can cause birth defects (see Calendar).
Trafficking in human beings occurs with both women and children who are tricked into prostitution or forced labor. Young women in rural areas are particularly vulnerable to being transported to urban areas where they are forced to prostitute themselves. Both children and adults are forced into forced labor in agriculture, in private homes or begging. Women and children from neighboring countries are also subject to trafficking in El Salvador. The criminal gangs often exploit children for illegal activities, sometimes with coercion.
Children in El Salvador are also vulnerable in other ways. About half of all children live in poverty, and malnutrition is still one of the leading causes of child deaths. Teenage pregnancies are very common. Every third pregnancy in the country concerns a teenager.
Under the Constitution, all discrimination on grounds of nationality, ethnicity, sexuality or religion is prohibited. But in practice the law is not complied with. Indigenous peoples are discriminated against by the vast majority of them living in poverty with poorer access to clean water, care and schools and changing groups (see also Population and Languages). Discrimination is prohibited in the Constitution, but often affects residents with Native American features. For example, they may be subject to derogatory remuneration.
There is a law that prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the public sector. But harassment and murder of LGBT people occur, and are suspected to be part of so-called social cleansing actions. According to individual organizations, there are signs that various alliances of former members of the death squads of internal conflict, local politicians, businessmen and parts of the police force are behind the actions. The guilty are usually released.
The family is important. An “ideal family” consists of around five people; a couple and their children and possibly another relative. The man is considered the head of the family, but it is not uncommon for the woman to provide for the children. The ideal image often clashes with reality.
Among poor people it is common to live in cohabitation. Cohabitation is legally recognized, but can be easily dissolved. Marriage in the Catholic Church is considered forever. The minimum marriage age is 18 years, unless the woman is pregnant or has children before. Relatives help one another with the most: food, clothing, accommodation, healthcare and education costs. Collaboration with the family is a prerequisite for many poor families to cope.
In the country most houses are built in clay. On the veranda in front of the house, the Salvadorans spend most of their free time at home. Indoors you really are most comfortable when you sleep and families of seven to eight people can stay in one or two small rooms. The house is also used for storage. Colonial houses in the cities often have a small courtyard in the middle of the building. Modern middle and upper class houses in the cities have the courtyard in front of the house and around the house and courtyard a high wall often runs with barbed wire or broken glass at the top to prevent anyone from breaking in. The underclass houses are usually not as protected and they have the entrance to the street. The poorest families live in corrugated iron, wooden planks or cardboard shacks.
Children are expected to show respect to those who are older. Obedience is considered important. Boys and girls are made an early difference and gender roles are built up from the start. Many poor children do not attend school, but are forced to work instead. In practice, it is almost only the middle and upper classes who can afford to have their children study at university.
FACTS – SOCIAL CONDITIONS
Infant Mortality: 12 per 1000 births (2018)
Percentage of HIV infected: 0.6 percent (2018)
Proportion of HIV infected among young women
0.1 percent (2018)
Proportion of HIV infected among young men: 0.2 percent (2018)
Proportion of population with access to clean water: 93.0 percent (2015)
Proportion of the population having access to toilets: 87.4 percent (2017)
Public expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP: 6.9 percent (2015)
Public expenditure on health care per person: US $ 294 (2016)
Proportion of women in parliament: 31 percent (2018)