Prostitution in El Salvador, San Salvador

Prostitution is common in El Salvador. There are credible reports that some women and girls were forced into prostitution.

The law does not prohibit specifically trafficking in persons. However, it stipulates that any crime involving ‘commerce in women or children’ automatically carries a 30 percent increase in the prison sentence or fine that otherwise would be imposed for that crime. The Government enforces this provision.

Prostitution in San SalvadorThere were credible reports of some regional trafficking in women both to and from the country for purposes of forced prostitution. According to press reports, during the year agents of the international police organization Interpol operating in the country discovered a prostitution network trafficking young girls from several Central American countries to work in bars along the border with Guatemala. Interpol reportedly had rescued approximately 20 Salvadoran girls from such prostitution rings over the past 3 years. There also were unconfirmed charges that children were brought into the country from neighboring countries and forced to beg in the streets.

Growing poverty and social problems are leading more and more women to turn to prostitution to survive. In San Salvador alone, there are thousands of women involved in the sex industry.

In 1990, a Catholic parish started a project to help 50 sex workers, and it was later taken over by the Lutheran University of El Salvador, which offered vocational courses.

Some of the graduates decided to work with other sex workers. They started going to ‘bordellos’ and the streets to inform women about the project. Later, they gave workshops on human rights, self-esteem, health issues, and they provided assistance to sex workers who had been raped. The project eventually grew into the AsociaciĆ³n Flor de Piedra or Stone Flower Association.


Flor de Piedra

Flor de Piedra works with around 500 sex workers in a San Salvador neighbourhood. It plans to extend its activities to other neighbourhoods in the capital and elsewhere in the country.


With funding from the Dutch development organisation, HIVOS, Flor de Piedra organises a wide variety of activities. It has a weekly workshop on AIDS and other health issues, which is attended by 40 to 60 women. On Wednesdays, it distributes condoms to up to 100 sex workers. Many of San Salvador’s prostitutes have been infected with HIV, and Flor de Piedra is planning to set up a special group for infected sex workers.

The organisation is also fighting for a change in the way Salvadorian society and the government perceive sex workers. ‘We face constant discrimination,’ says Rosi LaĆ­nes, a member of Flor de Piedra ‘s executive committee. ‘People treat us like garbage. We want to be accepted as human beings, with the same rights as everyone else.’.


Human Rights in San Salvador


There continues to be some problems in the Government’s human rights record; however, the Government’s performance continues to improve somewhat. The police sometimes use excessive force, mistreat detainees, and arbitrarily arrest and detain persons; however, the PNC improved its procedures.


Prison conditions remained poor, but the Government continued to improve conditions and significantly reduced overcrowding.

Each year it is reported that a number of inmates died in prison due to violence and illness. The Government is improving medical care and providing better food. As a result of the implementation in 1997 and 1998 of the new sentencing and penal codes, which limit preventive detention to more serious crimes, the prison population fell about 23 percent from December 1997 to December 1999. During the year, the Government increased the prison system’s capacity by about 10 percent, and it now has the capacity for holding 6,480 prisoners in 18 penal facilities. While there was still some overcrowding in individual facilities, it was less severe than in past years, except in the women’s facility. At year’s end, there were 6,618 men held in 17 prison facilities with a combined capacity of 6,360; 296 women in the single women’s prison with a capacity of 120; and 44 men in 3 secure hospital wards with a combined capacity of 75.

The 1995 Juvenile Offenders Law requires that all juveniles be housed separately from adults both prior to trial and while serving a prison sentence. Most criminal cases involving juveniles are brought to trial or conciliation within 3 months. Gang violence, especially in the country’s three largest and oldest penitentiaries and its juvenile holding facilities, continues to plague the prison system, despite government efforts to separate different gangs. According to press reports, 1 inmate was killed and over 40 were injured when fighting broke out between rival gangs at a youth rehabilitation center in San Francisco Gotera in July of 1999. Later that same year, in September, a pitched battle between two rival gangs at a juvenile detention center left 1 detainee dead (killed by rival gang members) and 15 detainees wounded. PNC officials investigated allegations that guards had used excessive force in the riot. Prison authorities reported that during the year, there were nine deaths in the prison system due to violence. The authorities also reported that a total of 27 prisoners died during the year: 18 died as a result of illness, of whom 7 died from AIDS or other HIV-related illnesses; 6 died from wounds; 1 died in a prison riot; 1 died in an escape attempt; and 1 committed suicide.

There are separate facilities for female detainees and prisoners.

The Government permits prison visits by independent human rights monitors, NGO’s, and the media.

Freedom of Speech

The Constitution provides for freedom of the press, and the Government respects this right in practice. Print and broadcast journalists from all major media outlets regularly and freely criticize the Government and report opposition views.

Prostitution in San SalvadorOpposition figures are interviewed routinely on television and radio, and in the written press. According to major media associations, the Government does not use direct or indirect means to control the media. However, some television stations complain that advertising agencies responsible for placement of government-funded public service announcements are biased in favor of media companies that generally support government policy.

There are 5 daily newspapers, with a combined circulation of more than 250,000 copies per day, and 12 television stations.

Four independent VHF television stations reach most areas of the country, while the government-owned and operated VHF station has poor signal quality even in San Salvador. Seven independent UHF stations serve San Salvador, and several can be received as far as 30 miles from the capital. Two cable television systems cover much of the capital, and other cable companies operate in San Miguel, Santa Ana, and Sonsonate. All carry the major local stations and a wide range of international programming. There are as many as 20 small cable television stations across the country, serving limited local areas. While most of them appear to be authorized broadcasters, several are believed to be pirating signals. Approximately 150 licensed radio stations broadcast on the FM and AM bands.

There are no reported instances of censorship of books, other publications, films, or plays.

The Constitution provides for academic freedom, and the Government respects this right in practice, although it was criticized for efforts in 1998 and 1997 to implement minimum academic and administrative standards for the operation of universities.

Women in Politics

There are no laws or overt practices that prevent women from voting or participating in the political and governmental systems; however, women are not accorded equal respect or stature in these areas and are underrepresented in government and politics. Women represented 49 percent of the registered voters, and party campaigns and slates reflect strong attention to this vote. The FMLN chose Maria Marta Valladares (known during the civil war as Nidia Diaz) as its vice presidential candidate. President Flores named women to head three ministries (Foreign Affairs, Education, and Environment), the Social Security Institute, and a substantial number of vice- and sub-ministerial jobs. In 1997 voters elected 14 women to the 84-seat legislature, an increase from the previous Assembly’s 9. However, women hold fewer positions (2 of 11) on the Assembly’s governing board than in the previous legislature.

Violence against women. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a widespread and serious problem. Once a taboo social subject, increasingly it is being recognized publicly and has become a topic for national debate. Government institutions such as the Attorney General’s office, the Supreme Court, and the PNC coordinated efforts with NGO’s and other organizations to combat violence against women through education, government efforts to increase enforcement of the law, and NGO support programs for victims.

The National Secretariat for the Family maintains a hot line for victims to report domestic abuse. Statistics from the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU) show a growing trend of reported domestic violence cases (principally against women) over the past few years. The upward trend of reports of violations may reflect broader public debate of family violence issues, rather than a worsening problem.

Incidents of domestic violence and rape continued to be underreported for several reasons: Societal and cultural pressures against the victim; a fear of reprisal; poor handling of victims by the authorities; fear of publicity; and the belief that cases are unlikely to be resolved. The PDDH noted that hundreds of domestic abuse victims who underwent psychotherapy refused to report their cases formally. In 1996 the Assembly repealed an old law that exonerated a rapist if he offered to marry the victim and she accepted.


Women suffered from cultural and societal discrimination, resulting in significantly reduced economic opportunities. Priority generally is given to male children for schooling, to men for available jobs and promotions, and to sons for inheritances. Of the economically active female population, 65 percent worked in the informal economy. Women are not accorded equal respect or stature in traditional male-dominated areas such as agriculture and business. While there is no definitive evidence available, it is widely believed that women often are paid less than men for equal work. The one sector in which there is an exception to this practice is in the export processing zones and in-bond assembly plants, the largest source of new jobs, where women make up 85 to 90 percent of the work force. However, even in this sector, men hold the great majority of management jobs. Training for women generally is confined to low-wage occupational areas where women already hold most positions, such as teaching, nursing, home industries, and small businesses.

Child abuse

The Government worked closely through state institutions and with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to promote protection and general awareness of children’s rights. However, children continue to fall victim to physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, exploitation, and neglect. The Salvadoran Institute for the Protection of Children (ISPM), an autonomous entity, is responsible for protecting and promoting children’s rights. The ISPM estimated that it averaged 2,600 to 2,700 children (its maximum capacity) in its shelters, some abandoned and others victims of mistreatment. Approximately 55 percent of all its cases involved girls.

Using different criteria, ISDEMU reported a significant increase in child abuse. A 1997 study estimated that 1,000 children (up to age 16) were living on their own in the streets, 42 percent of whom were under the age of 5. Substance abuse (glue and paint sniffing) was an endemic problem among urban street children. In 1998 the Assembly passed a law regulating the sale of glue and other substances used as street drugs, prohibiting their sale to minors.

Prostitution in San Salvadore. (AP/Edgar Romero)
Prostitutes protest in front of La Libertad park in San Salvador, El Salvador Friday May 13, 2005. Last week four sex workers were killed while they worked in this city.

There are allegations from children’s rights advocates that street children suffer from police brutality. The PNC denies these charges and has incorporated PDDH human rights training into programs for police units that deal with juveniles. The PDDH also has called for the creation of drug treatment centers for minors.

For the year 1999, the Institute of Legal Medicine recorded 1,073 cases of sexual abuse of children under 15 years of age (a monthly average of 90). A majority of the victims were female. The ISPM reported that it received a monthly average of 9 cases of sexual abuse during the year, compared with an average of 8 per month in 1998. According to the PDDH, over 85 percent of all abuse occurs in schools and at home, and only a small percentage of these cases were reported to the authorities. In June the Legislative Assembly approved the addition of a new provision to the Criminal Code that mandates a 6-to-8-year prison sentence for individuals convicted of sexual aggression against minors.

Child labor

The PDDH estimated that 270,000 minors work, mostly as street vendors. Besides losing their opportunity for an education, these children often fell victim to sexual abuse and were exploited and forced into prostitution. Since 1997 the PDDH, NGO’s, and the media have conducted a publicity and investigative campaign to highlight the plight of children. A 1998 study on child prostitution by the Commission on the Family, the Woman, and the Child of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that child prostitution in the country was promoted by poverty, lack of a strong nuclear family, discrimination against women, and organized crime. A separate NGO study in 1998 on the same problem indicated that at least 44 percent of the estimated 1,300 prostitutes in 3 major red light districts of San Salvador were between the ages of 13 and 18. The NGO report pointed to poverty and familial problems as the two major factors pushing children and adolescents into prostitution.

People with Disabilities

Except for the war wounded, who have secured both government and international funding for rehabilitation and retraining programs, the Government has no program to combat discrimination against the disabled. There are no laws mandating provision of access to public or private buildings for the disabled. The Government has not enforced the 1984 law requiring employers with over 50 workers (private companies, state-owned enterprises, and government offices) to have ‘persons with physical limitations’ represent a minimum of 2 percent of their work force. Access by the disabled to basic education was limited due to lack of facilities and appropriate transportation. There was no provision of state services for the physically disabled.

Only a few of the Government’s community-based health promoters have been trained to treat the disabled, and they rarely provided such service, tending rather to focus on life-threatening conditions and preventive care for mothers and children.

The Ministry of Health estimated that some form of disability afflicts 10 percent of the population. In 1997 the National Council of Disabled People estimated that there were 500,000 persons with disabilities, of whom 12,500 had disabilities directly attributable to the civil war. Other factors contributing to the large number of disabled persons were lack of prenatal care, misuse of pesticides in food production, malnutrition, auto accidents, and criminal violence.