When Ana* woke up, she thought it would just be an ordinary day. Gangs were rampant around San Salvador, but even that had begun to seem normal. She planned on hanging out at home with her mom or going out with friends. Then two young men burst into her home.
“They beat me again and again until I was left unconscious,” she recalled.
At 17, Ana is not even legally an adult, yet she has already been forced to endure one the hardest experiences to recover from: “They touched me, they raped me. I couldn’t feel my body from the pain.”
Seemingly an isolated event, she later found out why she, someone who minded her own business, had become a target of the gangs that controlled her neighborhood. “They told me I had my brother to thank for what just happened to me,” she says. Refusing to join their criminal activities, Ana’s brother never imagined the gang would follow through on its threats to take revenge.
In one of the most violent regions in the world, being young makes you an easy target for gangs.
"I couldn’t feel my body from the pain.”
Violence, rape, sexual assault and exploitation are some of the many forms of sexual and gender-based violence affecting the daily lives of many in countries like El Salvador and Honduras.
According to the Salvadoran Women for Peace Organization (ORMUSA), around 4,300 people reported incidents of sexual violence in El Salvador in 2018, 23 per cent more than the year before. Some 92 per cent of the victims were girls. In the same year, 383 women were killed, including girls.
Nevertheless, such violence is often under-reported in the country, and many survivors remain silent because they know that reporting could lead to retaliation – particularly when gangs control entire neighbourhoods, and when survivors must return home to communities where gangs are likely to be waiting.
While women and girls are disproportionately affected by this type of violence, men and boys are not immune.
In recent years, a perennial state of lawlessness has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the North of Central America, a region that also encompasses Guatemala and Honduras. In El Salvador alone, some 71,500 people have been estimated to have been forcibly displaced during the last decade. According to a joint profiling study by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and UNHCR, an additional 137,000 people have sought protection in other countries, including refugees and asylum-seekers.
"I no longer cry or fear they will come looking for me."
Ana and her brother fled to Panama, where they were recognized as refugees and are rebuilding their lives without fear.
“My brother asked me to forgive him, and we are trying to leave our past behind,” she said. “Today I write to God because through it all, God has been by my side, in good and in bad times.”
Ana has now enrolled in school and found a sense of community among her new friends. “I told my friends what had happened to me. They helped me. Because of their support, I no longer cry or fear they will come looking for me.”
Finding safety in Panama
Panama, historically considered a transit country, has seen a sudden increase in the number of people arriving from Venezuela and Nicaragua, as well as the continued arrival of Colombians, Salvadorans and – to a lesser extent – Honduran asylum-seekers.
Panama is home to around 10,000 refugees and asylum-seekers who are striving to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. The Panamanian government allows refugees and asylum-seekers to access public services like health and education. Once recognized, refugees have access to vocational training and can apply for a work permit allowing them to integrate locally.
To support all of those forced to flee or those at risk, UNHCR works with six governments in the region leading a Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (known as the MIRPS), including Panama. It is a pioneering inter-institutional approach to help displaced people and their host communities thrive, not just to survive, as foreseen in the recently-adopted international agreement Global Compact on Refugees.
* Names changed for protection reasons.