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The LibrES Project: Interdisciplinary approach to ending gendered violence in El Salvador

Started by a $35 million USAID grant, an interdisciplinary team of researchers is developing solutions for gender based violence in El Salvador

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"Clients who do not feel that they are able to understand the process or able to fully participate in it, find themselves distrustful of the system."

An interdisciplinary team of ASU researchers is tackling gender-based violence in El Salvador, combining their research knowledge and resources with local partnerships using a $35 million grant from USAID.

Gender-based violence refers to a broad category of harm, including intimate partner violence, femicide and sexual violence that disproportionately affects women and girls.

The project is called LibrES: for an El Salvador without gender-based violence. The project started with a call for bids from USAID, an international development government agency, to address gender-based violence in El Salvador. ASU, through its International Development Initiative (IDI), answered this call, beginning the long process of turning ideas into research and deliverables.

"What ASU brings to the project that's very special is precisely the ability to work with local partners in ways that universities can, that other institutions find a little harder," said Glen Goodman, senior director for Latin America at the IDI.

Goodman and the IDI started the process of building ASU's pitch to USAID. Since the inception of the project, local partners have been at the center of the planning process.

"We have no interest in reproducing hierarchies between countries – these need to be locally informed or, over time, locally led things," said Goodman.

LibrES officially started in October 2022, with Neil Websdale, director of the Family Violence Center, as the principal investigator. It has three pillars to reduce gender-based violence, prevention, protection and accountability.

"I think the big picture goals are to lower the gender-based violence rates in El Salvador," Websdale said. "(Work to) address the impunity of the system towards that violence, and particularly the failure to attend scenes, including the seeming failure to prosecute adequately and to police adequately, and the plethora of services that are potentially available."

The large-scale goals are matched by a large-scale team at ASU, who is exploring solutions from public transportation to legal education. Websdale said at the core of the project remains a desire for real improvement for people in El Salvador.

"The other goal that USAID has, and we have this in the back of our minds, is to reduce outward migration to the US," Websdale said. "Reduc(ing) some of the push factors that push people north through that central triangle up through Mexico to the US border, where obviously there are a number of problems related to immigration that are politically acute at the moment," Websdale said.

Websdale, outside of coordinating the many arms of LibrES, is also responsible for a fatality review and community-informed risk assessment. These assessments look at how gender-based violence is currently handled in El Salvador and the experiences of victims.

While Websdale is the main PI of LibrES, the project has a team of co-principal investigators, all managing specialized research and potential solutions in the various schools of ASU.

School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Charles Katz is the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety in the CCJ. He is also the co-PI working closely with a Salvadoran university to improve data-driven decision-making. 

"I agreed to be responsible for overseeing the creation of the research institute within University Francisco Gavidia," said Katz in an email. "We are attempting to create an institute that is collaborative in nature with criminal justice agencies in El Salvador and provides unbiased, non-politically influenced information. The goal is to advocate for science over politics."

 Universidad Francisco Gavidia has been affiliated with ASU since May 2023. 

School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Ram Pendyala is the director of the School of Sustainable Engineering within the Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is the co-PI coordinating the public transportation wing of LibrES.

"Our focus really is on what we can do to enhance the safety and security of passengers and of people in public transportation and in public spaces at large, with the focus on women and members of the LGBTQ+ community," Pendyala said. 

Pendyala's arm of LibrES is in the initial stages of development, currently working on a large literature review and data protocols. Their data protocols will inform the data collection effort that will survey the existing transit infrastructure. Currently, they are building relationships with in-country partners to inform their data collection.

"The other element is really to collect data about the reporting and enforcement mechanisms that are in place," said Pendyala. "If somebody is subjected to harassment or assault themselves, what is the reporting mechanism that's in place, what's the follow-up?"

Their long-term goal is to propose and pilot transit changes to reduce rates of gender-based violence on public transportation.

"We're gonna work with the folks on the ground, the agencies on the ground in the country, the team in the country to pilot and implement some of these strategies and interventions and an assessment as to how well they are received and might they be making a difference," Pendyala said.

Thunderbird School of Global Management 

Kellie Kreiser is the director of the office of global development within Thunderbird and another co-PI. The Thunderbird arm has dual goals for LibrES, providing educational materials for women to become entrepreneurs in El Salvador, and capacity building for local partners.

Georgina Melendez, a senior program manager at Thunderbird, explained the dual goals, including how they are fostering entrepreneurship in Salvadoran women. Thunderbird is using an existing curriculum, the Freeport-McMoRan’s DreamBuilder, to encourage women to start businesses. 

"DreamBuilder, it already exists," said Melendez. "There's nothing that needs to be created or anything. It's just about training on how to use it. So because we had all the tools in hand and because of our expertise within our school, it was easy to hit the ground running. So they're going to start implementing DreamBuilder as of February."

DreamBuilder is a virtual curriculum that will be facilitated by local partners and outreach, rather than directly through Thunderbird.

"(Local partners are) going to be supporting this piece of facilitating, but Thunderbird is always going to be there if they need help, if they want to train their facilitators, if they have problems with the platform," said Melendez.

Thunderbird is also responsible for training Salvadoran agencies to directly take on large USAID grants themselves.

"The other piece we're in charge of is the capacity building of the local partners. So USAID, they don't want to have implementing partners based in the US. They would prefer that local NGO's (non governmental organizations) be able to take on projects such as this one," Melendez said.

Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Evelyn Cruz is a co-PI and clinical professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her work in the LibrES project is developing educational materials for Salvadoran law students to practice in a more sensitive, trauma-informed way.

"Clients who do not feel that they are able to understand the process or able to fully participate in it, find themselves distrustful of the system," said Cruz. "Many studies have shown that in those circumstances often lead to dissatisfaction and fear that they're not going to get the protections that they need and may migrate to other countries."

Cruz said the team is working on building webinars to help provide more tools for students in Salvadoran law clinics.

"We are also working on developing materials and pilot modules, testing them at Gavidia and then providing them on the website that is being developed so other law schools within El Salvador can use those materials," said Cruz.

Cruz’s arm of the project is currently working on refining the pilot of the training modules.

Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Juan Mundel is a co-PI and executive director of Global Initiatives at the Cronkite School of Journalism. His team's contribution is research into media campaigns against gender-based violence.

"What we're trying to do is create awareness about gender-based violence through media campaigns," Mundel said. "(And) also by trying to teach reporters and journalists there on how to actually cover gender-based violence to stop perpetrating some of the stereotypes or some of the lingering vestiges of acceptability of violence against women and LGBTQ populations."

His team has already conducted some research into existing campaigns in El Salvador to inform future work.

"We found a bunch of really interesting results, like for example, a lot of messages did not have a call to action. So although, for example, they covered a lot of awareness about gender-based violence when a strategic messaging doesn't have a call to action, then the audience doesn't have a clear pathway to proceed," said Mundel. 

In the development of future campaigns, they are tasked with ensuring campaigns effectively reach people, especially women and LGBTQ+ individuals who are in need of support. 

"The next task for us is how can we deliver messages to women in a way that they are authentic, that they resonate with, and they can act on those messages without necessarily alerting their perpetrators that they're paying attention to the message," said Mundel.

In conjunction with several local Salvadoran organizations, LibrES is meant to attack every facet of gender-based violence. 

Edited by Alysa Horton, Sadie Buggle and Grace Copperthite.

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