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Central America’s Besieged Women

The ability to earn a decent income and live safely within one’s own community is vital not just for one’s own wellbeing, but also for economic development and political stability. That is why initiatives that seek to promote economic growth in Central America – or anywhere, for that matter – must address head-on the needs of women entrepreneurs.

WASHINGTON, DC – Across Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, women who seek to escape poverty by launching small businesses often find that success brings more suffering – and not just for them, but also for their children. Beyond having to contend with a culture of machismo, weak protection by the state leaves successful women entrepreneurs vulnerable to armed gangs and militias. As the owner of a small cosmetics company put it, “I feel like it’s better that my business doesn’t progress, because if it grows, I’ll suffer extortion.”

Recent research confirms these fears. Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), a United States-based initiative to reduce legal, economic, and policy barriers to female entrepreneurship in poor countries, recently held 27 focus groups across Honduras and El Salvador. Many of the barriers to women’s economic empowerment that were identified – such as limited access to credit, lack of business and financial education, unequal property rights, and lack of connection to social networks and markets – are globally pervasive.

But women in Central America face added threats from gang violence and organized criminal activity. Rates of femicide – the murder of a woman or girl for gender-related reasons – have reached epidemic levels. In Honduras, there were 5.8 femicides per 100,000 women in 2016. In El Salvador, the rate is an appalling 10.2 per 100,000. Gangs also force children to join and subject girls to sexual abuse.

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