Gender equality as presupposition: the story of ANADES in El Salvador

[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Founded among women of rural base communities towards the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war of the 1980s, the Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer de El Salvador (ANADES) has a long history of accompanying colectivos (collectives) of women in urban and rural communities across the country. Staff and leadership at ANADES have spent decades refining their development approach, an approach marked by a commitment to gender equality and women-centered education, community development and public advocacy efforts. ANADES’ continuing self-reflection and analysis have generated a rich body of knowledge and learning around gender equality in development work. In November of this past year, I sat down with three staff members from ANADES—Ana Mirian Ayala, Nery Rivas and Gilma Escalante—to talk about what they have learned over these many years of work. What follows is a summary of our wide-ranging conversation, including lessons from ANADES about what have been critical components in its work to promote
gender equality.

ANADES’ formation among colectivos of women widowed by violence during El Salvador’s bloody civil war grounds and anchors its work with women and gender. According to Ayala, ANADES’ vision is shaped by what justice “looks like” to these communities of marginalized women in El Salvador: through its work with the colectivos, ANADES supports these women’s groups in striving toward a future of justice and equality. Ayala, Rivas and Escalante view this shared history as an advantage for ANADES’ day-to-day work, because it makes gender equality something of a “presupposition” or shared assumption for all that ANADES undertakes. For Rivas, the long and continuing history of ANADES’ work and self-reflection in the area of gender equality is an essential dimension of its identity.

Rivas and Escalante both underscored the practical necessity of gender equality in ANADES’ education, development and public advocacy work. If ANADES is going to have a long-term, sustainable impact on the social, political and economic structures that generate inequality, injustice and exclusion, it must work with the most marginalized populations, in this case, women. While acknowledging the marginalization of other populations in communities across El Salvador, ANADES focuses on promoting gender equality through women’s colectivos, because these women have faced human rights violations and extreme exclusion due to their gender. Without a focus on gender equality, Rivas contends, instead of achieving “inclusive and holistic development … we merely end up replicating the same social structure, maybe with a few more resources at each level of the structure, but we still have the same discrimination and exclusion, with people better off, but still facing the same social realities.”

While ANADES’ history of rootedness in El Salvador’s colectivos is of course particular to that country’s context, ANADES’ experience could suggest a lesson for other organizations, namely, the importance of developing and maintaining a narrative framework or a story that connects an organization’s individual initiatives to a vision of a more just and equitable world. Instead of viewing gender equality solely as a pragmatic matter of improving project outcomes, the lesson of ANADES is that gender equality needs to be part of a vision and a story that guides an organization, representing a coherent philosophy that grounds its work.

MCC supports ANADES in multiple ways, including by placing young adults from MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) programs at its day care centers in San Salvador and rural Perquín and through grant support for ANADES’ agroecology, youth and health programs. These programs emerge from the priorities set by the colectivos of women, but also are part of a strategy to address gender equality at all stages of life. In Ayala’s words, gender equality work requires engagement with children in their day care centers and participants in youth groups.

Working across the life course allows ANADES to better address one of the most significant challenges in gender equality work, namely, the unequal distribution of work in the domestic sphere. While ANADES works to increase women’s participation in the social, political and economic life of their communities, women routinely remain responsible for the tasks of child rearing and housekeeping. Women who seek engagement in their communities add on a “third shift” to their first and second shifts of housework and paid work outside the home. Ayala laid out how the day care exists to support women’s participation in community life outside of the domestic sphere and how day care staff work tirelessly to engage fathers in the raising of their children. When resources are available, community development projects work with men to build buy-in and support for women’s participation in project activities and to engage men in discussions of male identity and patriarchy.

All three ANADES leaders emphasized the importance of public advocacy to local and national governments to increase and improve social welfare provisions. Small, non-profit organizations like ANADES, they stressed, do not have the capacity to provide broad-based social welfare programs that can free women from some of their domestic tasks and allow for greater participation in community life.

Ayala and Rivas underscored the importance of ANADES constantly working to ensure that its own institutional practices match its vision of gender equality. Ayala proudly ticked off the gender representation ANADES has achieved from the governance level to all staff levels: the board president and treasurer are women, two of the four remaining board members are also women, while 27 of ANADES’ 39 full-time staff members are women.

Provocatively, Ayala followed up this listing of ANADES’s achievements in gender representation by stating that “this means nothing to me if the women are themselves machistas” (a Spanish term referring a particular kind of misogyny based in certain patterns of shared Latin American culture): ANADES wants women leading its efforts not solely on the basis of their gender, but because of their commitment to gender equality. Ayala explained that “it is important to constantly train staff, to engage in self and collective reflection and have written and enforcement policies in the organization that lay out what are the expectations for staff in the area of gender discrimination.” Project participants also need to be aware of ANADES’ codes of conduct for its staff and of mechanisms for lodging complaints if staff do not live up to these expectations. Escalante concurred that striving for gender equality requires a constant learning process for individual staff members and for ANADES as an organization. Rivas added that the challenge of working for gender equality within ANADES mirrors the broader challenge of working for gender equality across El Salvador’s marginalized communities. When ANADES develops policies, procedures, professional development programs and codes of conduct related to gender equality, these serve as signposts and guardrails on the road to developing an organizational culture that matches ANADES’ vision of more just, more inclusive and more equal communities in El Salvador.

A key lesson from ANADES’ gender equality work that is easy to overlook is the foundational importance of trusting women. Rivas expresses it well: “our work in ANADES can’t violate an already violated population.” If the goal of gender equality work is to create spaces of freedom and liberation for women to achieve their individually- and collectively-generated goals and personhood, the methods used to achieve those goals must allow women to experience and practice that kind of liberation and freedom.

Having men (or women) from an outside institution scolding women for lack of participation or treating them as children in need of enlightenment must end, ANADES’ leaders emphasized. Instead, ANADES insists on treating women who take part in its programs as adults in need of spaces for free expression of their needs, desires and dreams. The question is not whether women will succeed or fail in some narrowly defined sense, but rather whether through their collaborative work they will begin to exercise freedom and experience liberation from the exclusion and injustice that mark their lives.

One hour-long conversation cannot, of course, do justice to all that can be learned from the successes and challenges of ANADES’s long history of gender equality work. The discussion with ANADES leaders did, however, highlight several potential lessons from ANADES’ experience that may be relevant for other ways that MCC and its partners work for gender equality in other contexts: ground gender equality efforts in a shared story and vision of justice and equality; work with women at various stages of life; address the impact of the domestic sphere on women’s broader participation in society; embed gender equality principles within one’s own institutional policies and practices; and trust in women’s insights and capacities. Taken together, these lessons from ANADES’ experience give MCC important clues about how to work with our partners to reduce gender-based discrimination and exclusion.

Jack Lesniewski is MCC representative for Guatemala and El Salvador, together with his spouse, Sarah. He interviewed three ANADES leaders: Ana Mirian Ayala (executive director), Gila Maritza Escalante (social promoter) and Nery Misael Rivas (civic participation coordinator).

Learn More

ANADES website:

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