El Salvador: Young Women and Mothers Lack Opportunities after Incarceration

By Carina Cione*

Volunteers from Glasswing International and the U.S. Embassy paint a local library / U.S. Embassy in El Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Incarcerated young women in El Salvador face immense obstacles to creating new lives for themselves after release from detention, but programs to empower them offer a glimmer of hope. Interviews conducted as part of the CLALS-FLACSO Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project have documented the challenges facing young Salvadoran women and provide strong evidence that others throughout Latin America face similar situations.

  • The stigma of a criminal past compounds the systemic exclusion young Salvadoran women often face before arrest just for being from high-crime neighborhoods. Previous offenders who lack support face dismal job prospects. The Vidas Sitiadas reports, which also examined conditions in four other countries, indicate that access to the formal job market is extremely limited; employers turn down job applicants with criminal records. Becoming a student can be just as difficult since universities have the right to refuse admission based on criminal histories. The period of “re-entry” is stressful and lonely as women strive to re-build healthy relationships, establish and maintain financial independence, secure healthcare, and recover from their potentially traumatic incarceration experiences.
  • The problem has surged over the last two decades, as rates of imprisonment in Latin America have risen dramatically, with mass incarceration increasingly impacting women. In El Salvador, since President Nayib Bukele launched a crackdown on gangs in 2019, the number of inmates has since skyrocketed (50,000 just since late March), according to UN experts, human rights agencies, and press reports. The government provides free tattoo removal services for former gang members seeking to break ties with their past, but attention to reintegration programs and post-release services to equip previous offenders with coping skills has been negligible. 

Nonetheless, Vidas Sitiadas and other studies have identified programs for released prisoners that, while still in relatively early phases, appear promising. Two examples in El Salvador:

  • Glasswing International runs the Club de Niñas, in collaboration with prison authorities in San Salvador, for young women in detention facilities or those who are recently released who want to overcome sociocultural barriers to independence. The three-year-old program teaches strategies for surviving traditional gender roles and expectations, healing trauma in a safe space, and breaking out of the conditions and mindsets that led them to criminality. Researchers working with Glasswing found that all of the women serving criminal sentences had suffered repeated episodes of violence beginning in childhood – neglect, abuse, sexual violence, exposure to community violence, parental alcohol abuse, and parental fighting. Many had fled their dangerous home environments at a young age and joined gangs, which provided them with basic necessities, a steady income, and protection – but also subjected them to physical and psychological abuse. The Club encourages them to feel a frisson of optimism for the first time in their young adulthood.
  • Yo Cambio, a four-year-old program run at various Salvadoran prisons, teaches craftsmanship skills to hundreds of inmates that they can use to secure a job upon release. It builds “peaceful co-living” in prison and offers free tattoo removal services for former gang members seeking to break ties with their past. To join the initiative, the inmates have to demonstrate that they practice “positive mindsets” and exhibit wanting to change before joining. 

Programs like these can point to preliminary indicators of success in at least some facilities. Young women interviewed by Vidas Sitiadas valued the safe place that Club de Niñas gave them for honest conversation and building stronger senses of community and self-worth. They underwent skills training to strengthen their likelihood of securing employment post-release, which in turn also helps secure their safety from past abusers. The interviews also show that participants are embarking on a process of developing new prosocial identities, reflecting a desire to engage in positive relationships, and trying to break with past attitudes of rebellion. Mothers promised to try to be better for their children.

Adjustment back into society for previously imprisoned people is anything but simple. The UN General Assembly in 2010 approved a resolution on the treatment of women who are in prison and have been released – called “The Bangkok Rules” – that specifies that they must be provided comprehensive re-entry support by social welfare services, local organizations, and probation authorities. Adherence to such guidelines has not been the norm in El Salvador. The systemic barriers to former prisoners becoming successful members of society remain.

  • Efforts like those identified by Vidas Sitiadas are premised on the hope that progress is possible even if locally and incrementally, but society-level outcomes will change only after broader obstacles to successful reintegration, such as geographic exclusion, are resolved. Studies show that, when re-entering into unchanged social and economic conditions, most previous offenders resort to familiar criminal behavior and fall back into dangerous social circles to meet their basic needs. They also lack accessible mental healthcare to help them grapple with trauma experienced before and during incarceration. But, while programs like Club de Niñas and Yo Cambio alone can’t solve such deep-rooted problems for everyone, they improve individual lives and are proof of concept that, if embraced by political leaders, could have a broader impact. 

August 25, 2022

*Carina Cione is Program Coordinator at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. For additional information about the project undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

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