When U.S. Border Patrol found him in the Texas desert, 10-year-old Wilton was crying, “they abandoned me.” Exhausted and alone, his image went viral — a poignant visual of the struggle faced by thousands seeking safety.
But Wilton’s story actually began in Nicaragua when his mother, Meylin, wasn’t able to get legal protection from an abusive partner. Mother and son fled to the United States, seeking asylum, but were expelled under a public health rule and sent to Mexico, where they were kidnapped, according to an account in El Pais. Meylin’s brother in Miami could pay only half the ransom — enough for Wilton alone to be released.
Though Meylin was ultimately released and reunited with her son, the tale that led to Wilton’s arrival at the border as an unaccompanied minor isn’t unique. It illustrates the fact that gender-based violence, revictimization and lack of justice affect children, families and communities thousands of miles away. It also highlights the importance of a safe and legal pathway into the United States for survivors of gender-based violence and other asylum-seekers. For many, arriving at the U.S. border seeking asylum is the only legal pathway available.
Immigration reform in the United States is essential to assuring that we have a secure and efficient border, a system flexible enough to handle changes in migrant flows, and the capacity to treat each migrant with dignity. But more needs to be done in the migrants’ home countries, too, so that they are not forced to flee for their safety in the first place.
Any comprehensive plan on Central America and immigration reform should address gender inequity and gender-based violence.
They are not siloed issues to acknowledge only when horrific stories of femicide and human trafficking force us to pay attention. Rather, they are deeply entangled with broader challenges of corruption and poverty. Proposed solutions shouldn’t overlook the impact of gender-based violence on migrant flows, economic development, education and health.
Fourteen of the 25 most dangerous places for women are in the Western Hemisphere, including countries within Central America. Patriarchy and gang violence subject women and girls to abhorrent actions of abuse and control.
Honduras and El Salvador saw some of the highest incidences of femicide within Latin America in 2019, at rates of 6.2 and 3.3 per 100,000, respectively. In Guatemala, adolescent girls are at a high risk of being “disappeared,” with 8 out of every 10,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 17 reported missing each year.
COVID 19-related lockdowns are being exploited by gangs looking to strengthen control: El Salvador alone has seen a 70% increase in gender-based violence since the beginning of the pandemic. And lockdowns have forced vulnerable individuals to stay in close proximity to their perpetrators. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador reported an increase in intrafamily violence, with El Salvador reporting an increase in intrafamily femicides as well.
Justice systems and access to services need to be strengthened to ensure adequate protection for all under the law. Legal protections often are inhibited by weak institutions, corruption and a culture of impunity toward perpetrators.
According to a 2017 national survey, two-thirds of Salvadoran women over the age of 15 have experienced violence, but only 6% have ever reported it. While laws against child marriage exist across the region, in some countries about 1 in 3 young women are in a union before age 18. Post-trauma support and efforts that inform Central American women of their rights and agency are critical interventions that could help women like Meylin.
Females have been disproportionately affected by the devastating impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota, but the status of women and girls is chronically overlooked in response efforts, exacerbating the risk of violence.
Women and girls must be seen and heard. Greater focus on gender and age-disaggregated data collection and in tracking the effectiveness and efficiency of legal systems is crucial. And women and their lived experiences need to be more fully represented at all leadership levels.
Finally, direct outreach to local communities should be a priority for U.S. government and private sector-led programs. This includes resource and capacity support for advocates and organizations that serve as lifelines for those affected by violence, often at great personal risk. Engagement with men and boys is equally imperative.
How can anyone be expected to thrive when her day-to-day priority is simply to survive? The United States needs to recognize that gender-based violence and gender inequity drive migration.
Immigration reform must include strategies to address the root causes of migration from Central America in effective and lasting ways to prevent situations like Wilton’s and Meylin’s. Women and girls must be front and center in these solutions.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts serves as the director of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
Jenny Villatoro is an associate for the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.