Realizing Children’s Rights in El Salvador
El Salvador is a complex country, plagued by gang violence that strongly affects children and the respect of their fundamental rights. This accentuates the challenges already present in the country. However, the country has made progress – including in terms of legislation, quality of life and services – which has led to a reduction in the infant mortality rate.
It should be noted that the evolution of how children’s rights are implemented and respected can be difficult to follow, due to challenges linked to the collection of data, which themselves run contrary to the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment no. 5 of 2003 (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p.3).
Children’s Rights Index: 7,41 / 10
Red level: Difficult situation
Population: 6.4 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 27%
Life expectancy: 75 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 22‰
El Salvador at a glance
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, yet it is also the most densely populated, especially in the capital (CIA, n.d.). Although it is the fourth largest economy in Central America, the poverty rate is very high. This goes hand in hand with significant structural deficits (Directorate General of the Treasury, 2019), notably linked to corruption (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 2) and violence.
Due to the activity of gangs that control entire territories, the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (CIA, n.d.). When they are not recruiting children by force or subjecting them to sexual abuse, these groups extort inhabitants. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘gangs kill, disappear, rape or displace those who resist’; which strongly impacts the respect of children’s rights (Human Rights Watch, n.d.).
Status of children’s rights 
On an international level, El Salvador has ratified several fundamental measures related to children’s rights, including:
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1990
- The Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, in 2000 and 2002 respectively
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007
- 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182) since 12th October 2000
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged the country to continue ratifying conventions in order to reinforce the system of protection for children’s rights, such as the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, or the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 3). Moreover, the Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review makes the same observation in its 2020 report (Human Rights Council, 2020, p. 10).
On a national level, El Salvador has put in place several measures to apply the Convention better, including:
- The General Law of Youth adopted in 2012
- National Policy for the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents (2013-2023), the ‘El Salvador Educado’ plan (El Salvador educated) (2016-2026)
- Modification to the Civil Code putting an end to child marriage
- Restructuring of the Salvadoran Institute for Comprehensive Child and Adolescent Development and of the National Council for Childhood and Adolescence
- Implementation of publicity campaigns for the prevention of child abuse and sexual violence
- Modification in 2017 of the Law on the Protection of Children and Adolescents, which henceforth bans all forms of violence against children and adolescents in all types of teaching establishment (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 1/Human Rights Council, 2020, pp. 2-3).
However, for these measures to take full effect, El Salvador must be able to apply sufficient financial, human and technical resources. This is not always the case, as it should be for the National Policy for the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents (2013-2023) (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p.2).
Addressing the needs of children
Right to education
The lack of resources also concerns, in a broader sense, entire sectors linked to the application of children’s rights, including the right to education. The education system is seriously under-financed. With only 3.2% of the gross domestic product devoted to it in 2018, the internationally accepted minimum levels of investment are not being reached (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 2).
This lack of financing has repercussions for the quality of scholastic infrastructure: many schools lack access to water, electricity and adequate sanitary facilities. Access to infrastructure such as libraries, computers and the Internet, which are common resources in many schools in the northern hemisphere, is not even considered, while there is a severe lack of teaching personnel. Access to the school itself is difficult given the insecurity in many neighbourhoods resulting from gang activity (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 12).
All these factors lend themselves to dropping out of school – a real plague in El Salvador, notably at the secondary level (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 12). The Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasises two categories of minors: adolescent mothers, and migrant or internally displaced children. For example, no measure has been taken to foster the return of adolescent mothers to school after giving birth (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 12).
On a positive note, El Salvador has undertaken a national literacy programme, which has been welcomed by the international community. Moreover, children in public schools have all received school supplies, and some institutions now benefit from a canteen (Human Rights Council, 2020, p. 11).
Right to life
The right to life, survival and development is included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but also constitutes one of the guiding principles of the agreement. This notably means that children have the ‘right to be free from acts and omissions intended or expected to cause their unnatural or premature death’ (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017, p. 12). However, the country does not currently respect this right. The homicide rate is very high, particularly affecting young boys. In seven years, more than 4,000 deaths have been recorded.
However, as mentioned above, this situation is also coupled with a flagrant lack of accessible information on investigations and legal proceedings (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 4). Weapons are a real scourge in the country. The government is taking a few measures to resolve this by controlling their availability and ease of access (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 4).
Right to health
A right linked to the previous one is the right to health, which is not guaranteed to Salvadoran children. Like the education sector, the health sector is not allocated sufficient funding (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 2). For example, addiction to alcohol, tobacco and drugs is a real challenge in terms of public health, particularly affecting minors. Providing resources to put in place health centres specialised in addiction, as well as campaigns to raise awareness, is crucial in this country (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 10).
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has been particularly interested in the case of pregnant adolescents; due notably to the recurrence of these situations (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 2), and to the extreme violence associated with them. Indeed, ‘one-third of all pregnancies involve girls aged between 10 and 18 years old; and … a high number of girls become pregnant as a result of rape or statutory rape’ (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 9).
Generally, access to contraceptives and sexual health services is very restricted for adolescents (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 9), but the deplorable situation of adolescent mothers goes further than this. The principal cause of death among this population is suicide. It is not possible to have an abortion; even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the mother’s life is in danger, or the foetus is not viable. This kind of prohibition leads to dangerous practices. However, El Salvador is abreast of the situation, and between 2017 and 2027 is implementing a national cross-sector strategy for the prevention of adolescent pregnancies, as well as programmes to raise awareness (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 10).
Right to protection
Violence is the daily fate of children from El Salvador. Corporal punishment forms part of the country’s customs (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 7). The law on the protection of children and adolescents henceforth bans all forms of violence against children and adolescents in every kind of educational institution (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 1/Human Rights Council, 2020, pp. 2-3).
At home, however, cases of violence with the goal of educating children are still commonplace, which runs contrary to General Comment No. 8 of 2006 on the Right of the Child to Protection from Corporal Punishment and Other Cruel or Degrading Forms of Punishment (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2007). Moreover, the Committee on the Rights of the Child had already emphasised this situation in previous recommendations. El Salvador must ban this kind of punishment, but it must especially make more of an effort to promote positive education (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 7).
At the same time, many cases of abuse and negligence have been brought to the attention of the country’s institutions. Between 2012 and 2015, nearly 46,000 cases of abuse and negligence, concerning 52,065 children, were reported to protection commissions.
More than 13,000 cases were brought before the National Council on Childhood and Adolescence in 2016. It should be noted that little data exists on the impact of these reported incidents (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 7). Moreover, when children are placed in an institution, they continue to be treated poorly – a problem already raised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 8).
Risk factors -> Country-specific challenges
As mentioned above, violence forms part of daily life for Salvadoran youth. Gangs of young people, or maras, lay down the law in many neighbourhoods. Young people – girls as much as boys – are recruited from the age of 12 (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, pp. 5-6) and subjected to sexual abuse (Human Rights Watch, n.d.). El Salvador has adopted the plan ‘El Salvador Seguro’ (Safe El Salvador) to check the situation, but much effort remains to be made (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, pp. 5-6), particularly because there is also a lack of financial, technical and human resources (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 6).
The rate of murders and disappearances of children is still very high, particularly due to the maras. The climate of insecurity has powerful impacts on children’s mental health, and on their well-being (Hernández, 2018). The impunity around crimes committed by these gangs makes it difficult to mitigate the situation, and little attention is paid to fighting the structural causes of violence (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, pp. 5-6).
Yet violence is one of the primary causes of internal displacements in the country (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 6). This is reinforced by ‘continued allegations of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of children at the hands of the police and armed forces, particularly in the context of the fight against organized crime’ (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 6).
It is important to realise that, beyond the climate of insecurity that this violence creates, it also has impacts on the fulfilment and the protection of children’s rights. For example, many schools are situated in territories controlled by the maras, or in zones where drug and arms trafficking are especially present. Cases of sexual violence and child trafficking have been reported in schools, and there are many murders of teachers and pupils (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 11). In 2017, nearly half of the public establishments were situated in neighbourhoods in which gangs were active (Hernández, 2018).
Gender-based discrimination is a challenge confronting El Salvador. Discrimination affects girls and boys in different ways. Girls are especially discriminated against in terms of access to education and sexual health services. They are also more affected by sexual violence.
Boys, on the other hand, suffer more from stereotypes linked to violence. Moreover, there is comprehensive discrimination that affects indigenous children, and those who are disabled and/or belong to the LGBTQI2+ community (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 4).
Moreover, the maras commit particularly homophobic actions (Human Rights Watch, n.d.). With the goal of bringing about change, El Salvador has implemented the National System for Substantive Equality and the National Equality Plan (2016-2020) (Human Rights Council, 2020, p. 7).
Sexual violence towards girls is gaining more and more ground in El Salvador, in a climate of total impunity. Between January and August 2017, 1,029 sexual offences were committed against girls aged between 13 and 17, including 769 rapes. The maras play a large role in these acts, driven notably by the idea that girls older than 12 are ‘future brides’ (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 7).
However, programmes do exist to help girls fight sexual violence, such as the ‘Ciudad Mujer Joven’ (City of Young Women) project (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 7). At a national level, the Ministry of Education has launched a national study on gender-based violence and sexual orientation, and an appropriate ministerial Cabinet has been created to implement measures in these areas between 2019 and 2024 (Human Rights Council, 2020, p. 7). Moreover, one component of the national security plan takes into account violence against children (Human Rights Council, 2020, p. 7).
Great inequalities exist in the country of El Salvador. Before the pandemic, there was a slight improvement, with a decrease in the poverty rate and inequality between 2012 and 2016 (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 11).
However, given this public health emergency and its consequences, the World Bank predicts that the poverty rate will increase from 29% to 40% of households, thereby affecting 600,000 people. With almost 70% of the active population working in the informal sector, this would increase income inequality (Directorate General of the Treasury, 2021). It should be noted that great inequalities exist between urban districts and rural areas (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 11).
Households with children are overrepresented in the poverty figures. Indeed, the possibility of making children’s rights a reality is greatly affected by economic deprivation. For example, deprivation is one of the causes behind the widespread infant malnutrition, which particularly affects children from poor households (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 11). This drives children to work and live on the streets (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2018, p. 14).
Written by Juliette Bail
Translated by Alex Macpherson
Proofread by Sharon Rees
Comité des droits de l’enfant. (2017, juin 21). Observation générale no 21 (2017) sur les enfants des rues. Récupéré sur Convention relative aux droits de l’enfant: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/1304490, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
CIA. (s.d.). El Salvador. Récupéré sur The world factbook: https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/el-salvador/, consulté le 3 mai 2022.
Comité des droits de l’enfant. (2007, mars 2). Observation générale n°8 – Le droit de l’enfant à une protection contre les châtiments corporels et les autres formes cruelles ou dégradantes de châtiments. Récupéré sur Nations Unies, consulté le 6 mai, 2022.
Comité des droits de l’enfant. (2018, novembre 29). Observations finales concernant le rapport d’El Salvador valant cinquième et sixième rapports périodiques. Récupéré sur Base de données relative aux organes conventionnels de l’ONU: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2FC%2FSLV%2FCO%2F5-6&Lang=en, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
Conseil des droits de l’homme. (2020, janvier 2). Rapport du Groupe de travail sur l’Examen périodique universel – El Salvador. Récupéré sur Assemblée générale des Nations Unies: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/000/16/PDF/G2000016.pdf?OpenElement, consulté le 6 mai 2022.
Direction générale du Trésor. (2019, mai 22). Situation économique et financière du Salvador – Mai 2019. Récupéré sur Direction générale du Trésor: https://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Articles/2019/05/22/situation-economique-et-financiere-du-salvador-mai-2019, consulté le 3 mai 2022.
Direction générale du Trésor. (2021, décembre 15). Salvador : Le gouvernement met en place un plan économique d’envergure pour faire face à la pandémie. Récupéré sur Ministère de l’économie, des finances et de la relance – France: https://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Pays/SV/situation-economique-et-financiere, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
Hernández, R. (2018, septembre 14). Vivre dans la peur : le sort des enfants déplacés à cause de l’extorsion des gangs en El Salvador. Récupéré sur UNICEF: https://www.unicef.org/fr/recits/vivre-dans-la-peur-le-sort-des-enfants-déplacés-à-cause-de-lextorsion-des-gangs-en-el, consulté le 3 mai 2022.
Human Rights Watch. (2019). El Salvador. Récupéré sur Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/el-salvador, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
Human Rights Watch. (s.d.). El Salavador – events 2019. Récupéré sur Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/el-salvador, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
Human Rights Watch. (s.d.). El Salvador – Events of 2019. Récupéré sur Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/el-salvador, consulté le 3 mai, 2022.
 This article does not claim to give a complete or representative account of children’s rights in El Salvador; indeed, one of the many challenges here is the lack of up-to-date information on children, particularly translated into French or English. This article is based mostly on sources issued by the United Nations, which warrant the corroboration of resources from other organisations.