In 1995 Jocelyn Viterna (as an undergraduate at Kansas State University) made her first trip to El Salvador as part of a delegation from the Manhattan Alliance for Peace & Justice and its sister-city relationship with El Papaturro. That experience led to Viterna’s future research and the 2013 publication of her book, Women in War: The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. Dr. Viterna is now an associate professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University.
Women in War is a very readable sociological research report of women who were part of the 12-year guerrilla war in El Salvador, which ended with a U.N.-brokered Peace Accord in 1992.
This is not a book of charts and statistics but of individual women’s stories from El Salvador during this war period. It tells of the variety of the women’s backgrounds - where the women came from, their reasons for joining the guerrilla movement, and their experiences and where they ended up after the war. These are personal stories gathered from hundreds of interviews.
The war in El Salvador came after years of being ruled by a vicious, murderous government that was U.S. supported. The war was a struggle to overthrow this government. Roving government armies would enter villages and take land, bur homes, rape women, and commit mass slaughter. The men left the communities to form small groups of rebels in the countryside. Soon after, the women would join them.
The rebel groups trained and organized themselves and formed connections with groups from other villages. They became known as the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional) and they worked as a somewhat united front. Viterna documents how they developed an unusually well-disciplined structure and how women were involved.
The first women to leave their villages to join the fight were allowed to join because they had shown that they were loyal to the cause and they had a political understanding of the situation.
Later women joined just to escape the government troops or when recruited by the rebel groups for their special skills.
The rebel groups were generally known to be the “good guys” in providing safety for women. Some women joined to be a part of the fighting and some joined to live in settlements near the guerrillas for safety. The camps were primitive and mobile, moving as often as twice a week depending on fighting in the area.
Over the 12 years, approximately 10,000 men and women took part at any one time. They were armed, trained, fed, cleaned, clothed, disciplined, promoted, and given medical treatment. There were sexual relations, births, and marriages. There were wounded and dead. Civilian supporters were organized. Rebel radio stations were developed. All of this was done clandestinely.
Women were integrated into a task structure. Generally, women were treated well, but it does appear that their assignments followed some traditional gender roles, such as women doing much of the cooking. Women were also often in control of the radio work. Since this was a long-term commitment for many, the issues of romance and reproduction needed to be addressed. Rules were agreed upon and mostly women were treated better than in the communities they had left.
This book provides information on the war, not on a broad perspective or political perspective, but on a personal level. Why did the women join and what were their experiences?
The recruitment of women and the roles that they played at each stage of the struggle are documented.
Included also is the role of the displacement camps that were set up in San Salvador (capital of El Salvador) and in Honduras. The camps were for women with small children and elderly.
The outcome of this struggle was a compromise, but El Salvador now has elections with the FMLN becoming a political party. Initially, the FMLN won important mayoral positions and more recently moderate progressives have been elected as president of El Salvador.