El Salvador’s Civil War (1980s and 1990s) was gruesome between opposing guerilla and Salvadoran military forces. Through an analysis of the literature of the Salvadoran Civil War, there was an evident discrepancy in content, which reflected more information about men’s involvement within the revolutionary movement as opposed to women. This paper examines the hidden faces of women during the revolutionary movement. This was achieved by viewing the roles of women in the revolutionary movement during the civil war, especially the roles that highlighted the soft-side of women, which were highly utilized for the advancement of the movement. In my scholarship, there was an evident portrayal of women’ soft side to bind with the revolutionary movement. The revolutionary movement portrayed soft images of women for several purposes, which included gaining national and international support. However, this soft-image of women generated gender inequality within the movement and allowed for the victimization of women by the Salvadoran military.
The Soft Side of the Salvadoran Revolution: Women’s Role in the Salvadoran Guerilla
By Cindy Serrano
As the famous writer, William Faulkner states, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is a reality for all Salvadorans that experienced the gruesome civil war during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the civil war lasted for twelve years leaving behind irreversible scars that taint the memory of many Salvadorans to this date. The civil war in El Salvador was a war between the government and the guerilla coalition known as the FMLN or the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. It was a war that was funded by the United States in support of the Salvadoran government in power during the 1980s and 1990s as there was a notion that communism would spread in Central America; thus, including El Salvador. This notion was as a result of the Cold War (1940s through 1990s) that simultaneously occurred during this time. However, the funding of the civil war by the United States was to secure private interests in Central America.
The onset of the civil war in El Salvador began when peasants were stripped away from their land, and now the land became privately owned. The misdistribution of land by the Salvadoran government left many people landless and in poverty. The discontent of the Salvadoran population grew. As a result, the guerilla coalition or FMLN gained ground to begin their warfare campaign against the government or the Salvadoran military regime. The FMLN or guerilla's purpose was to fight against the corrupt Salvadoran regime and fight for the oppressed Salvadoran population. The recruits that are documented in the literature of the Salvadoran civil war are primarily the faces of men combatants; however, there were many women recruits within the guerilla during the civil war.
The Many Roles of Women
The untold stories of these Salvadoran women recruits is an enigma, that results in questioning why these women became involved. There are varied reasons on why women in El Salvador decided to fight alongside men in the guerilla during the civil war. They held strong beliefs against the government which they perceived as corrupt and violent. These women were educated and studied revolutionary ideologies. They also had no other option due to harsh circumstances as their family members had been killed by the military regime. Another reason is that many women decided to join forces with the guerilla as they were persuaded by family members that were involved within the combatant regime. However, the underlying cause that invigorated women to join the guerilla was through Liberation Theology from Catholic priests.
Women in El Salvador became actively involved within the guerilla movement taking on several roles. These women represent a softer side to the revolution, thus helping advance the goals of the movement gaining popular support and international support. However, this utilization of women created gender inequality within the guerilla movement and allowed for the targeting of women by the Salvadoran military regime.
Salvadoran women were the pillars calling for resistance against corruption and violence; thus, becoming highly significant for the revolutionary movement that would develop after taking on these core values.
Women Revolutionaries Were Front and Center
Women were already leaders of the opposition long before the guerillas as they were front and center with the most crucial manifestations in 1967, 1968, and 1971 (Shayne, 1999). According to Professor J.D. Shayne, these strikes were important for the revolutionary movement in El Salvador to gain support from the masses, and women were at the forefront as leaders, mobilizers, and advocators of resistance against the corrupt Salvadoran government in control. Salvadoran women were the pillars calling for resistance against corruption and violence, thus becoming highly significant for the revolutionary movement that would develop after taking on these core values (Shayne, 1999). Therefore, women were very significant for the revolutionary movement to take plight in El Salvador, which is why when the civil war began, the FMLN or the guerilla could not afford to lose such a great asset or resource to the revolutionary movement. Viterna (2012) states that the guerilla could not afford to push aside women from the movement because the military odds were against them and saw great potential in women as political advocators, organizers, and mobilizers. As a result, many women in El Salvador became involved with the resistance movement taking the roles of combatants or collaborators (Viterna, 2012).
Moreover, women would take on several roles within the guerilla in El Salvador as combatants or supporters for the advancement of the movement. The roles that should be noted are those that accentuate the soft image of women contributing the resistance. As Shayne (1999) implies, Salvadoran women were important to gain support from the population as they were noted to be more trustworthy and decreased anxiousness or uncomfortableness with individuals who were not yet incorporated in the movement. To gain civilian support, many Salvadoran women within the movement acted as advocators or supporters and were used as recruiters for the guerilla as a woman was perceived to be harmless, trustworthy, and familiar (Shayne, 1999). Also, women had proven to be influential advocators and mobilizers prior to the revolutionary movement as noted above, and as a result the guerilla utilized women’s effective advocating and mobilizing abilities to gain mass support through the means of recruitment.
Women Leading Within the Guerillas Secured Funds
Furthermore, this ability of women allowed for the creation of several female representative boards that were incorporated within the existing supporting FMLN organizations (Viterna, 2012). Putting women at the forefront of FMLN organizations was another way in which the guerilla gained support from international organizations for the advancement of the movement. Many high-positioned women combatants stated that many women organizations made by the guerilla were used for support and monetary assistance from international organizations that wanted to support primarily women struggles (Luciak, 1998). This monetary assistance was directed to help women organizations in El Salvador during the civil war, but was controlled and used by the guerilla or the FMLN’s militant campaigns (Luciak, 1998). In other words, women leading within the guerilla secured funds, but the revolutionary movement clearly emphasized that the priority was not women issues, but liberation.
Patriarchal Roles Within the Revolutionary Movement Created Gender Inequality
Ultimately, the guerilla’s representation of women did not benefit the autonomy of women. The majority took several roles within the coalition that followed clear gender or traditional roles, such as messengers, spies, transporters of unlawful or black-market arms, nurses, and cooks for the male revolutionaries (Jaquette, 1973). All these roles were reinforced with the softer image the Salvadoran guerilla wanted to portray for women participating within the movement. It was an image of a supporter or collaborator who is harmless and trustworthy. According to Dignas (1966), many women worked in accordance with traditional or patriarchal values though a minority of men would give up their high-position militant status within the guerilla to a woman. Although, many women fought alongside men for liberation, women in the end received the short-end of the rewards in the revolutionary movement as women continued to encounter inequality (Dignas, 1996).
Even though, the guerillas contributed to gender inequality within the revolutionary movement, many women still decided to fight alongside the cause. Because women were perceived as mobilizers and organizers of the revolutionary movement and as the soft side to the revolution, they eventually became the primary targets of the death squads in El Salvador. Many women within female organizations supporting the FMLN or guerilla were exposed to immense repression from the Salvadoran government and military; they were physically abused, intimidated, and usually assassinated (Thompson, 1999). Such is the case in which women organizations like AMES and AMPES had to conduct covert operations from 1978 to 1981, as there was great repression against women organizations that were assumed to be participating within the guerilla coalition (Mason, 1992). Therefore, feminist organizations during the civil war were preoccupied with survival, oppression, and the mobilization of the revolutionary movement (Thompson, 1999). As a result, women issues were placed in the back burner of the guerilla movement as there were more important issues that were afflicting women at the time.
The Salvadoran revolutionary movement led by the guerilla incorporated women within the movement to represent the soft side of the revolution to gain popular support in El Salvador as well as to obtain funds from international organizations. But this led to inequality within the guerilla and allowed for the victimization of women. However, the implications of such findings reveal the hidden faces of women within the revolutionary movement in El Salvador and highlight the essential roles Salvadoran women took within the movement. Women were essential mobilizers – such as being recruiters and being leaders of the created FMLN women organizations. Such implications suggest that women’s roles within the guerilla in El Salvador were highly valuable. Women’s roles in the guerilla--regardless of the traditional roles assigned--were still important for the advancement of the revolutionary movement. Furthermore, more studies are needed to analyze the contradictions that could resurface regarding the real role of women in the revolution.
Dignas, L. (1996). War, women and sexuality in El Salvador. Off Our Backs, 26(3), 14-14. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.csun.edu/stable/20835417
Jaquette, J. S. (1973). Women in revolutionary movements in Latin America. Journal of Marriage and Family, 35(2), 344-354.
Luciak, I. A. (1998). Gender equality and electoral politics on the left: A comparison of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 40(1), 39-66.
Mason, T. D. (1992). Women's participation in Central American revolutions a theoretical perspective. Comparative political studies, 25(1), 63-89.
Shayne, J. D. (1999). Gendered revolutionary bridges: Women in the Salvadoran resistance movement (1979-1992). Latin American Perspectives, 26(3), 85-102.
Thompson, M. (1999). Gender in times of war (El Salvador). Gender Works: Oxfam Experience in Policy and Practice, 47-57.
Viterna, J. (2012). The left and “life” in El Salvador. Politics & Gender, 8(02), 248-254.
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