Working to Keep Náhuat, the Language of the Pipil People, from Vanishing in El Salvador

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, Regional Categories

Indigenous Rights

Elena López (left), one of two teachers who teach Náhuat to children in Nahuizalco, in western El Salvador, leads one of the morning's learning practices, in which the children, walking in circles, sing songs in the language of their ancestors, the Pipil people. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

Elena López (left), one of two teachers who teach Náhuat to children in Nahuizalco, in western El Salvador, leads one of the morning’s learning practices, in which the children, walking in circles, sing songs in the language of their ancestors, the Pipil people. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

NAHUIZALCO, El Salvador , May 6 2024 (IPS) – A group of children participating in an immersion program in Náhuat, the language of the Pipil people and the only remaining pre-Hispanic language in El Salvador, are the last hope that the language will not die out.

“This effort aims to keep Náhuat alive and that is why we focus on the children, for them to continue and preserve this important part of our culture,” Elena López told IPS during a short snack break for the preschoolers she teaches.

“This effort aims to keep Náhuat alive and that is why we focus on the children, for them to continue and preserve this important part of our culture.” — Elena López

López is part of the Náhuat Cuna project, which since 2010 has sought to preserve and revive the endangered indigenous language through early immersion. She is one of two teachers who teach it to children between the ages of three and five at a preschool center in Nahuizalco, a municipality in the department of Sonsonate in western El Salvador.

At risk of disappearing

“When a language dies, the basis of indigenous cultures and territories becomes extinct with it,” says the report Revitalization of Indigenous Languages, according to which the 500 Amerindian languages still spoken in Latin America are all in a situation of greater or lesser threat or risk.

In Mesoamerica, which includes Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, 75 indigenous languages are spoken, says the study by the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).

With the exception of Mexico, Guatemala is the most linguistically diverse in this group of countries, with 24 native languages. The most widely spoken is K’iche’, of Mayan origin, and the least is Xinca, of unknown origin.

Brazil is the most ethnically and linguistically diverse country in Latin America, with between 241 and 256 indigenous peoples and between 150 and 186 languages.

A picture of some of the children learning Náhuat in the town of Nahuizalco, in western El Salvador, through an early language immersion program, in an effort by Don Bosco University to keep the endangered language alive. Teacher Elsa Cortez sits next to them. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

A picture of some of the children learning Náhuat in the town of Nahuizalco, in western El Salvador, through an early language immersion program, in an effort by Don Bosco University to keep the endangered language alive. Teacher Elsa Cortez sits next to them. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

Around 25 percent of these languages are at risk of extinction unless something is urgently done, the report warns. It is estimated that Latin America is home to more than 50 million people who self-identify as indigenous.

“These languages are losing their usage value…families are increasingly interrupting the natural intergenerational transmission of the languages of their elders, and a slow but sure process of moving towards the hegemonic language is observed, with speakers making Spanish or Portuguese their predominant language of use,” the report states.

The causes of the danger of the disappearance of these Amerindian languages are varied, the report points out, such as the interruption of intergenerational transmission, when the language is no longer passed on from generation to generation.

And that is exactly what the Náhuat Cuna project aims to revert by focusing on young children, who can learn from Náhuat speakers who did receive the language from their parents and grandparents and speak it fluently.

Two children pretend to purchase and sell fruits and vegetables speaking in Náhuat, as part of the teaching exercises at Náhuat Cuna in western El Salvador, a preschool for new generations of Salvadorans to learn the nearly extinct Amerindian language. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

Two boys pretend to purchase and sell fruits and vegetables speaking in Náhuat, as part of the teaching exercises at Náhuat Cuna in western El Salvador, a preschool for new generations of Salvadorans to learn the nearly extinct Amerindian language. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

López is one of these people. She belongs to the last generation of speakers who acquired it naturally, as a mother tongue, speaking it from a very young age with her parents and grandparents, in her native Santo Domingo de Guzmán, also in the department of Sonsonate.

“That’s how I was born and grew up, speaking it at home. And we never stopped speaking it, among my sisters and brothers, but not with people outside the house, because they discriminated against us, they treated us as Indians but in a derogatory way, but we never stopped speaking it,” said Lopez, 65.

Indeed, for reasons of racism and classism, indigenous populations have been marked by rejection and contempt not only from the political and economic elites, but also by the rest of the mestizo or mixed-race population, which resulted from the mixture of indigenous people with the Spaniards who started arriving in Latin America in the sixteenth century.

“They have always looked down on us, they have discriminated against us,” Elsa Cortez, 43, the other teacher at the Nahuizalco Náhuat Cuna, told IPS.

And she added: “I feel satisfied and proud, at my age it is a luxury to teach our little ones.”

Both López and Cortez said they were grateful that the project hired them as teachers, since they had no prior teaching experience, and in a context in which discrimination and social rejection, in addition to ageism, make it more difficult to find formal employment.

Before joining the project, Cortez worked full time making comales, which are circular clay griddles that are placed over a wood fire to cook corn tortillas. She also sold baked goods, and continues to bake bread on weekends.

López also worked making comales and preparing local dishes, which she sold in her neighborhood. Now she prefers to rest on the weekends.

All is not lost

When IPS visited the Náhuat Cuna preschool in Nahuizalco, the three-year-olds were performing an exercise: they stood in front of the rest of the class of about ten children and introduced themselves by saying their first name, last name and other basic greetings in Náhuat.

Later they identified, in Náhuat, pictures of animals and elements of nature, such as “mistun” (cat), “qawit” (tree) and “xutxit” (flower). The students started their first year in the center in February, and will spend two years there.

The five-year-olds are the most advanced. Together, the two groups totaled about twenty children.

Jorge Lemus  (blue shirt), director of El Salvador’s Náhuat/Pipil Language Revitalization Program and the driving force behind the Náhuat Cuna project, which teaches the language to children between the ages of three and five, is photographed with indigenous women of the Pipil people in Nahuizalco in western El Salvador. CREDIT: Don Bosco University

At the end of their time at the Cuna, they will go to regular school in Spanish, with the risk that they will forget what they have learned. However, to keep them connected to the language, the project offers Saturday courses where they begin to learn grammar and how to write the language.

There is a group of 15 teenagers, mostly girls, who started at the beginning of the project and speak the language fluently, and some even teach it online.

The initiative is promoted by the Don Bosco University of El Salvador, and supported by the municipalities where they operate, in Nahuizalco and Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The Santa Catarina Masahuat branch will also be reopened soon.

Santo Domingo de Guzmán is home to 99 percent of the country’s few Náhuat speakers, who number around 60 people, Jorge Lemus, director of El Salvador’s Náhuat/Pipil Language Revitalization Program and main promoter of the Náhuat Cuna project, told IPS.

“In three decades I have seen how Náhuat has been in decline, and how the people who speak it have been dying out,” stressed Lemus, who is also a professor and researcher of linguistics at the School of Languages and Education at Don Bosco University, run by the Salesian Catholic order.

According to the academic, the last three indigenous languages in El Salvador in the 20th century were Lenca, Cacaopera and Náhuat, but the first two disappeared by the middle of that century, and only the last one survives.

“The only one that has survived is Náhuat, but barely, as there are perhaps just 60 speakers of the language. When I started working on this there were about 200 and the number continues to shrink,” said Lemus.

The only way to keep the language alive, he said, is for a new generation to pick it up. But it will not be adults, who could learn it as a second language but will continue speaking Spanish; it must be a group of children who can learn it as native speakers.

The expert clarified that, although they come from the same linguistic trunk, the Náhuat spoken in El Salvador is not the same as the Nahuatl spoken in Mexico, and in fact the spelling is different.

In Mexico, Nahuatl has more than one million speakers in the Central Valley, he said.

In El Salvador, in 1932, the Pipil people stopped speaking their language in public for fear of being killed by the government forces of General Maximiliano Hernández, who that year brutally cracked down on an indigenous and peasant uprising demanding better living conditions.

At that time, society was dominated by aristocratic families dedicated to coffee cultivation, whose production system plunged a large part of Salvadorans, especially peasants and indigenous people, into poverty.

Lemus argued that for a language to make a decisive comeback and become a vehicle for everyday communication would require a titanic effort by the State, similar to the revival of the Basque language in Spain, Maori in New Zealand or even Israel’s resuscitation of Hebrew, which was already a dead language.

But that is not going to happen in El Salvador, he said.

“The most realistic thing we want to achieve is to keep the language from disappearing, and for the new generation of Náhuat-speaking people to grow and multiply. If we have 60 speakers now, in a few years we will hopefully still have 50 or 60 speakers, from this new generation, and they will keep it alive in the communities and continue speaking it,” he said.

For her part, López wants to continue working towards this goal in order to leave the country her legacy.

Speaking in Náhuat, the preschool teacher said: “I really like teaching this language because I don’t want it to die, I want the children to learn and speak it when I am dead.”


Lao PDR Lawmakers Meet to Further ICPD25 Programme of Action

Conferences, Development & Aid, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Population, Sustainable Development Goals


Delegates at the workshop on Harnessing Demographic Dividend through the Roadmap to 2030 for Lao PDR. Credit: APDA

Delegates at the workshop on Harnessing Demographic Dividend through the Roadmap to 2030 for Lao PDR. Credit: APDA

VIENTIANE, Apr 29 2024 (IPS) – A recent workshop of lawmakers heard that targeted interventions would be necessary to meet the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), its Programme of Action (PoA), and Lao PDR’s national commitments to ICPD25 at the Nairobi Summit 2019.

The Workshop on Harnessing Demographic Dividend through the Roadmap to 2030 for Lao PDR aimed to equip parliamentarians with the knowledge and strategies necessary to address the critical population and development challenges confronting Lao PDR.

Thoummaly Vongphachanh, MP and Chair of Social and Cultural Affairs Committees, National Assembly, told the workshop in her opening address that collective action was important for tackling population and development challenges.

Edcel Lagman, MP Philippines and acting Chair of AFPPD, addressed the ICPD’s emphasis on individual rights, gender equality, and the correlation between development and women’s empowerment. With this in mind, he urged parliamentarians to enact rights-based policies that promote gender equality and social justice, incorporating population dynamics into development planning.

UNFPA Representative to Lao PDR, Dr Bakhtiyor Kadyrov, reiterated the organization’s commitment to supporting parliamentarians and government initiatives in addressing population and development challenges, emphasizing the importance of inclusive policies and partnerships to ensure no one is left behind.

A representative of DoP/MPI, Kaluna Nanthavongduangsy, provided an overall overview of the ICPD and its POA, along with Lao PDR’s national commitments to ICPD25, at the Nairobi Summit 2019. He said its commitment was based on five pillars.

  • Managing and using demographic benefits and investing in youth.
  • Addressing climate change and its impact on the public sector and social protection.
  • Promoting health and well-being, including rights to sexual and reproductive health.
  • Enhancing the availability and use of demographic information.
  • Strengthening partnerships and mobilizing resources.

Latdavanh Songvilay, Director General of the Macroeconomic Research Institute, Lao Academy of Social and Economic Sciences, outlined various challenges hindering the realization of the demographic dividend in Lao PDR. These challenges may include barriers to education and employment, inadequate healthcare infrastructure, and socio-cultural factors impacting women’s empowerment and reproductive health.

Her presentation offered valuable insights into the complex interplay between demographic changes, socio-economic development, and policy formulation in Lao PDR. By identifying opportunities and addressing challenges, her analysis was crucial for the parliamentarians to make informed decisions and identify targeted interventions that could maximize the benefits of the demographic transition.

The Lao’s Family Welfare Promotion Association’s Executive Director, Dr Souphon Sayavong, emphasized the importance of comprehensive approaches that combine legal frameworks, law enforcement, survivor support services, and community engagement to combat SGBV effectively.

He also noted that harmful practices, such as child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence, needed targeted interventions to raise awareness, provide support to survivors, and change social norms that perpetuate harmful practices.

Sayavong also said that there were socio-economic consequences of gender inequality and SGBV, emphasizing their detrimental effects on individual well-being, community development, and national progress.

Dr Mayfong Mayxay, Member of Parliament and Vice-Rector of the University of Health Sciences, Ministry of Health, Lao PDR, said it was crucial to identify and tackle the various problems encountered by young people, including drug addiction, school dropout, early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and inadequate nutrition during pregnancy.

He said additional issues like substance abuse, smoking, and alcohol consumption needed targeted interventions, including prevention programmes and awareness campaigns. School dropout issues were often socioeconomic, so it was important to find strategies including scholarships, vocational training opportunities, and community-based support systems to ensure that young people can access education and pursue their aspirations.

During his presentation, he highlighted the risks associated with early marriage and adolescent pregnancies, which pose significant health risks for both mothers and children.

Mayxay emphasized the importance of comprehensive sexual education, access to reproductive health services, and legal reforms to address these issues and protect the rights of young girls.

He underscored the importance of promoting maternal and child health, including the need for nutritional education, prenatal care services, and support systems to address malnutrition and its adverse effects on maternal and child health outcomes.

Solutions he suggested involved holistic approaches encompassing education, healthcare, community support, and policy reforms, to empower young people and ensure their health and well-being.

Dr Usmonov Farrukh, interim Executive Director of AFPPD, reiterated AFPPD’s commitment to supporting parliamentarians’ advocacy on population and development in the Asia-Pacific in his closing speech, emphasizing collective action and partnership.

Vongphachanh’s closing remarks summed up the priorities agreed to in the meeting of the 14 National Commitments at the first National Conference on Population and Development, Demographic Change, held in 2023. She said opportunities, challenges, and policy levers to achieve demographic dividends, women’s empowerment and prevention and response to GBV and harmful practices, commitment to their programme of Family Planning 2030, and the health and future of the young population, particularly the resolutions for social issues they are facing such as drug use, school dropout, early marriage, and adolescent pregnancy, were crucial.

Note: This workshop was supported by AFPPD and APDA, the UNFPA, and the Japan Trust Fund.


IPCI 2024: Oslo Commitment Protects Sexual and Reproductive Rights Across All Contexts

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Gender Identity, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Women in Politics


Ase Kristin Ask Bakke, MP and Chair of APPG Norway, reads the Oslo Statement of Commitment. Alando Terrelonge, MP, Jamaica, chair of the IPCI Drafting Committee, sits second from left. Credit: Naureen Hossain/IPS

Ase Kristin Ask Bakke, MP and Chair of APPG Norway, reads the Oslo Statement of Commitment. Alando Terrelonge, MP, Jamaica, chair of the IPCI Drafting Committee, sits second from left. Credit: Naureen Hossain/IPS

OSLO, Apr 12 2024 (IPS) – Parliamentarians from 112 countries have adopted the IPCI statement of commitment to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health rights, committing to the principle that “life or death is a political statement.”

As IPCI Oslo drew to a close on Friday, April 12, 2024, parliamentarians adopted a new Statement of Commitment that was “the collective effort of every single delegate,” said Alando Terrelonge, MP from Jamaica and chair of the drafting committee.

Remarking on the drafting process, he remarked, “We have definitely placed people’s rights and their dignity, the whole essence of human rights, at the forefront of our discussion.”

“Human rights really are at the heart of human civilization and sustainable development.”

Terrelonge, along with Ase Kristin Ask Bakke, MP and chair of APPG Norway, presented the statement before the conference in its penultimate session.

In brief, the Oslo Statement calls for parliamentarians to advocate for and promote SRHR across the life course, from birth to old age. It addresses the “rising polarization, conflicts, and fragile environments” that threaten the achievements made in the realization of IPCD’s Programme of Action by mobilizing their efforts and cooperating with relevant stakeholders.

It calls for increased accountability towards governments, the tech and healthcare sectors, and other relevant stakeholders, to respect human rights law. The statement makes a specific note to protect women, adolescents, and other vulnerable, marginalized groups who suffer disproportionately in conflicts and crises.

This statement seems pertinent in the wake of prolonged conflicts in Gaza, South Sudan, and Ukraine. In this light and in a broader context, the statement reaffirms a commitment to uphold international human rights law and humanitarian law in all contexts.

The statement reaffirms and expands on the core issues of the conference: policy and megatrends in demography, technology, and financing.

Technology’s impact on SRHR and political practices was officially codified in the statement, as it calls for governments to recognize the impact of digital technology on people’s lives, and the “immense potential” for the “full realization of the ICPD [Programme of Action].”

It also cautions that governments promote the safe and meaningful participation of women and girls in the digital space.

Financing SRHR programs has also been recognized as a priority, along with urging governments to allocate 10 percent of national development budgets towards the implementation of the Cairo program of action (POA). Furthermore, the statement advocates for following another UN-codified program, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, for its framework on long-term investments in development projects.

The participants had also agreed to increase political commitment to the continued implementation of the IPCD POA on parliamentary action for accountability and political commitment. The parliamentarians present pledged to accelerate developments and promote laws that respect international human rights obligations.

All those present enthusiastically applauded the statement’s adoption by consensus. As the conference reached its end and the statement was formally pledged, attendees expressed their support and its relevance to their states.

A delegate from Guatemala noted that while there were several pieces of legislation aimed at SRHR, they were not implemented clearly enough for civilians to know that these laws existed. She added that it was important to bridge the gap between governments and civilians in their understanding and implementation of SRHR policies.

The MP from Peru said parliamentarians needed to return to hold their governments accountable for the setbacks in the SRHR. She added that there needed to be investigations into the factors driving conservative groups to push back against the expansion of SRHR.

A MP from the Mauritiana delegation noted the progress that is achieved through pursuing gender equality: “Any society that does not give a space for women is a society that will suffer, socially and politically.”


IPCI 2024: Technology as a Tool to Advance and Threaten Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Population, Sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health


The benefits and challenges of technology in SRHR were a key topics at the International Parliamentarians' Conference on Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action 2024, in Oslo, Norway. Credit: Petter Berntsen / NTB Kommunikasjon

The benefits and challenges of technology in SRHR were a key topics at the International Parliamentarians’ Conference on Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action 2024, in Oslo, Norway. Credit: Petter Berntsen / NTB Kommunikasjon

OSLO, Apr 12 2024 (IPS) – Technology emerged as a core theme of IPCI Oslo for its relevance in advancing the objectives of the Cairo Programme of Action.

When channeled for good, it is an effective tool that can fill accessibility gaps in the health sector and spread awareness of sexual and reproductive health rights. Yet, the way in which digital technology has been weaponized against SRHR is of great concern for parliamentarians, especially for women.

In a plenary meeting on Thursday, April 11, 2024, parliamentarians shared their countries’ experiences of employing technology to enhance sexual and reproductive health practices (SRHR), while also cautioning its misuse as a tool to propagate misinformation and disinformation about SRHR and to enact online harassment, among other offenses. Information and communications technology was seen to be used often to raise awareness of reproductive and sexual health or to facilitate access to services.

Telemedicine is one example of the way that technology is used to enhance access to reproductive health services. Countries like Tanzania and Ireland saw an increased reliance on telemedicine and digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person appointments were not an option, along with an increased use of digital family planning apps that have allowed young women to make informed decisions.

It was acknowledged that uneven access to technology is a sign of and can result in inequalities in this sector, which can, as Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, a member of parliament from Uganda, remarked, hinder progress in the ICPD. Within the healthcare sector, this is evident in the skills and training of healthcare workers in urban areas versus rural areas. Rural areas already face the issue of fewer options for sexual and reproductive health services and fewer opportunities to develop digital skills, so this digital divide is further indicative of inequality.

Parliamentarians may find it challenging to uphold SRHR in the first place when vocal opponents of these rights are driving online discourse. Women in politics who advocate for these rights are often targets of harassment. Annie Hoey of Ireland’s Seanad Eirann Party recounted her own experience of harassment. She noted in such cases that not only was the politician attacked on an individual level, but the social issue would be attacked as well, and any person involved by association would face harassment online.

The impact of this on SRHR is that women in politics are threatened or prevented from doing their job. Developments in SRHR policies are drafted by women parliamentarians, often based on lived experiences, and women in politics have a public platform through which they can raise awareness on the issues. But if they are driven away from public life out of fear for their safety, the issues may not get picked up again. At the parliamentarian level, there would be no one to advocate for these rights to be enshrined.

Neema Lugangira, MP, Tanzania, said that this form of technology-facilitated gender-based violence on women in politics can cause them to retreat from online spaces, a form of “self-censorship,” which can “shrink democracy.”

“To get more women in politics, we need to be online,” she said. “If we want to truly take advantage of the paths to technology, which will impact more young women and girls who are mostly marginalized, we have to make these online spaces safe. Because how are we going to access the information if the online space is not safe?”

This also ties back to the concept of bodily autonomy and the right to live safely in one’s body. “If there are threats of violence online that can then become in-person, that is, I think, an impact on our sexual and reproductive health because we can’t live as fully,” Hoey told IPS.

She explained that she knew of women politicians who got abortions and had to be private about this in fear of facing judgement and scrutiny from critics online.

“All of this online discourse of demonizing women, demonizing women in politics… means that other elements of our lives are under threat. People should be able to access abortions whether they want to or not, whether they are women parliamentarians or not. This online discourse creates a lack of safety for women to do that.”

This is just one example of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TF-GBV), where online harassment leads to a fear of safety for one’s life and even risks reducing women’s public presence.

UNFPA defines this as an act of violence committed using digital media and communications technologies against a person on the basis of their gender. Other examples also fall into the category of cybercrimes, such as cyberstalking, doxxing, and revenge porn.

What the discussions revealed was that there remained gaps at the legislative level to address violence against women in online spaces, especially for women in politics. Gender inequality in politics persisted within communities that perpetuated gender inequality on a societal level. When it came to how technology factored into this, it was identified that this would develop at a faster rate than legislation could keep up to address it. Nevertheless, it was important to revisit the legislation and ensure that it could protect all vulnerable communities.

“As parliamentarians, we are perfectly poised, perfectly placed, to ensure this legislation is in place,” Alando Terrelonge, MP, Jamaica, said as the session reached its conclusion. “We have a duty of care to ourselves, as well as a duty of care to women, children, and other vulnerable groups, to ensure that appropriate legislation is in place all over the world and is enacted.”

IPS UN Bureau Report


WHO Calls for More Data on Violence Against Older Women and Women With Disabilities

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Inequality, Population, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health

Gender Violence

Older women and women with disabilities are underrepresented in global data on violence against women. Credit: WHO/Kiana Hayeri

Older women and women with disabilities are underrepresented in global data on violence against women. Credit: WHO/Kiana Hayeri

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 29 2024 (IPS) – Older women and women with disabilities experience abuse that is unique to their demographics, yet they are underrepresented in national and global databases, according to findings shared by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On Wednesday, WHO and UN-Women released two new briefs, the first in a series that will discuss neglected forms of violence, including gender-based violence. The two briefs, titled Measuring violence against older women and Measuring violence against women with disability, investigate the types of violence that these groups face through the data available. Through reviewing existing studies into violence against women, the research team was able to synthesize the information available on this topic and its scope across different countries.

As was noted by Dr. Lynnmarie Sardinha, Technical Officer at WHO and the UN Special Programme on Human Reproduction (HRP) for Violence against Women Data and Measurement, and author of the briefs. The limited data on older women and women with disabilities undermines the ability of programmes to meet their needs. “Understanding how diverse women and girls are differently affected, and if and how they are accessing services, is critical to ending violence in all its forms.”

One in three women is affected by gender-based violence in these forms. For older women—aged 60 years and over—and women with disabilities, they are also subjected to other forms of abuse and neglect, usually at the hands of caregivers, family members, or healthcare institutions such as nursing homes. Examples of this include controlling behaviors such as withholding medicine and assistive devices, and financial abuse. Though these forms of neglect and abuse have been observed, the studies that the briefs reviewed seemed to focus more on intimate partner violence through physical and sexual abuse. The briefs acknowledge, however, that violence against women should not only be exemplified by intimate partner violence. The prevalence of this example hints at further nuances that are not sufficiently captured in the studies due to their limitations.

Violence against older women can manifest in other ways as they and their partners/perpetrators age. Although women aged 15–49 are at higher risk of intimate partner and sexual violence, older women are still likely to experience it, and this can shift towards other forms of abuse, such as neglect, economic abuse, and psychological abuse. The brief on older women reveals, however, that there is limited data to definitively state its prevalence. This is particularly the case for low- and middle-income countries; the data that was compiled for this brief comes largely from high-income countries, a gap that the reports are aware of. Older women are represented in only ten percent of the data on violence against women.

Only 6 percent of the studies reviewed for women with disabilities included measures of violence specific to this group. The lack of questions specific to this demographic indicates that they are, perhaps unconsciously, unaccounted for when measuring the scale of violence against women. Data collection procedures may not be designed to accommodate women with disabilities or prevent them from self-reporting, such as deaf or hard-of-hearing women who are unable to participate in surveys conducted through the telephone.

The briefs also suggest that women who live with lifelong disrespect and neglect may not recognize the specific forms of violence, which could account for fewer instances being reported. This could also apply to older women, where surveying and reporting mechanisms are geared towards women of reproductive age, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

This may also speak of socio-cultural attitudes towards violence against older women that are steeped in ageism, harmful stereotypes, and discriminatory cultural norms that prevent them from sharing their experiences.

The WHO briefs make several recommendations to address the evidence gaps. Among them are extending the age limit for survey participation and incorporating questions that relate to different types of violence. Data collection should also account for cultural-specific contexts of violence and abuse across different countries. Women with disabilities should be consulted in research at every stage when designing surveys targeted at them, which will allow for a broader spectrum of disabilities to be accounted for.

Read the briefs on women with disability and older women.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Abandoned Children Growing Problem in Northern Syria

Active Citizens, Aid, Armed Conflicts, Child Labour, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Human Trafficking, Humanitarian Emergencies, Middle East & North Africa, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Youth

Humanitarian Emergencies

Children eating and drinking at the Children's House in Idlib. Abandoned children is a growing issue in the region. Credit: Sonia Al-Ali/IPS

Children eating and drinking at the Children’s House in Idlib. Abandoned children is a growing issue in the region. Credit: Sonia Al-Ali/IPS

IDLIB, Syria, Mar 27 2024 (IPS) – Wael Al-Hassan was returning from work in the Syrian city of Harim when he heard the sound of a baby crying.

He was returning from work on December 10, 2023. He stopped momentarily, turned on his mobile phone flashlight to investigate, and spotted a baby girl, around one month old, wrapped in a white blanket, lying by the roadside.

He felt saddened by the infant’s condition and said, “She was crying loudly, and I saw scratches on her face from cat or dog claws. I then carried her in my arms and took her home, where my wife breastfed her, changed her clothes, and took care of her.”

The phenomenon of abandoning newborns is increasing in northern Syria, where individuals leave their newborns in public parks or alongside roads, then leave the area. Passersby later find the infants, some of them dead from hunger or cold.

Al-Hassan said that the next morning, he handed the baby girl over to the police to search for her family and relatives.

Social Rejection

Social worker Abeer Al-Hamoud from the city of Idlib, located in northern Syria, attributes the primary reason for some families abandoning their children to the widespread poverty and high population density in the province. Additionally, there is fear of the security situation (the area is not in the control of the Syrian regime and is often under attack), the prevalence of divorces, and spouses abandoning their families after traveling abroad.

Al-Hamoud also points out another reason, which is the spread of the phenomenon of early marriage and marrying girls to foreign fighters who came from their countries to Syria to participate in combat. Under pressure from their families, wives often have to abandon their children after their husband’s death, sudden disappearance, or return to their homeland, especially when they are unable to care for them or provide for them financially. Moreover, these children have no proper documentation of parentage.

Furthermore, Al-Hamoud mentions another reason, which is some women are raped, leading them to abandon their newborns out of fear of punishment from their families or societal stigma.

Al-Hamoud warns that the number of abandoned children is increasing and says there is an urgent need to find solutions to protect them from exploitation, oppression, and societal discrimination they may face. She emphasizes that the solutions lie in returning displaced persons to their homes, improving living conditions for families, raising awareness among families about the importance of family planning, and launching campaigns to integrate these children into society.

Alternative Families

It’s preferable for members of the community to accept these children into their families, but they face difficulties in registering the births.

Thirty-nine-year-old Samaheer Al-Khalaf from the city of Sarmada in northern Idlib province, Syria, sponsored a newborn found abandoned at a park gate, and she welcomed him into her family.

She says, “After 11 years of marriage to my cousin, we were not blessed with children, so we decided to raise a child found in the city at the beginning of 2022.”

Al-Khalaf observes that the Islamic religion’s prohibition on “adoption” prevents her from registering the child under her name in the civil registry. Additionally, she cannot go to areas controlled by the Syrian regime to register him due to the presence of security barriers.

She says, “I fear for this child’s future because he will remain of unknown lineage. He will live deprived of his civil rights, such as education and healthcare, and he won’t be able to obtain official documents.”

Children’s House Provides Assistance

With the increasing numbers of children of unknown parentage, volunteers have opened a center to receive and care for the children abandoned by their families.

Younes Abu Amin, the director of Children’s House, says, “A child of unknown parentage is one who was found and whose father is unknown, or children whose parentage has not been proven and who have no provider.”

“The organization ‘Children’s House’ opened a center to care for children separated from their families and children of unknown parentage in the city of Sarmada, north of Idlib,” says Abu Amin. “The number of registered children in the center has reached 267, ranging in age from one day to 18 years. Some have been placed with foster families, while others currently reside in the center, receiving all their needs, including shelter, food, education, and healthcare.”

Upon arrival at the center, Abu Amin notes that the center registers each child in its records, transfers them to the shelter department, and makes efforts to locate their original family or relatives and send them to them or to find a foster family to provide them with a decent life.

Abu Amin explains that the center employs 20 staff members who provide children with care, psychological support, and education. They work to create a suitable environment for the children and support them psychologically to help with emotional support.

He emphasizes that the center survives on individual donations to cover its expenses – which are scarce. There is an urgent need for sufficient support, as the children require long-term care, especially newborns.

A young girl Marah (8) and her brother, Kamal (10), lost their father in the war. Their mother remarried, leaving them to live in a small tent with their grandfather, who forces them to beg and sell tissues, often leaving them without food for days.

Consequently, they decided to escape from home. Kamal says, “We used to sleep outdoors, overwhelmed by fear, cold, and hunger, until someone took us to the child center.”

Upon reaching the center, they returned to their studies, played with other children, and each other, just like children with families.

Kamal expresses his wish, “I hope to continue my education with my sister so we can rely on ourselves and escape from a life of injustice and deprivation.”

These children, innocent of any wrongdoing, are often left to fend for themselves, bearing the brunt of war-induced poverty, insecurity, homelessness, instability, and early marriage.

IPS UN Bureau Report