International Women’s Day (March 8) is a time to celebrate inspirational women like Karla Avelar, a Salvadorian transgender activist who survived rape, attempted murder, kidnap and incarceration in a male prison. Now Executive Director of Comcavis Trans, an organisation that fights for the legal rights of El Salvador’s transgender population, Karla spoke to Amy Smith about life, activism and her work with Christian Aid’s partner FESPAD.
Can you tell me about your childhood?
I fled from my home when I was 11 years old. I was terrified that my family would find out about my true gender identity. I had also been raped by cousins. One of them threw me out of home saying “in this family there aren’t any fags”. I moved to the capital (San Salvador) and started to do sex work. When you don’t have anything to eat or anywhere to live, it’s your only option. There were many violent older trans women working at that time and they would often abuse me and leave me naked. They were jealous because of rivalry, because I was young.
El Salvador is notorious for gang violence, did this affect you?
It’s not like they [the gang members] seek out the trans woman because they are precisely interested in her. They seek them out to use them. According to gang code, it’s prohibited to have sexual relations with trans women. It is hidden. If a gang member finds out that another has sexual relations with a trans woman, they can kill him. Gang members from his own gang can kill him.
By 1993 the gangs were well-positioned in our country. They offer security in exchange for money. But if you don’t give them money, they’ll kill you. I never gave them anything and that’s why they tried to kill me. After one attempted murder, I had 14 bullets in my body – just because I wouldn’t pay extortion. When I was in hospital recovering, they diagnosed me with HIV. That really destroyed me, but I never gave up hope.
“Transphobia makes us sick”. Image | Cristian Aid/Emma Wigley
At the end of the ‘90s you were incarcerated for six years — can you tell me about the challenges of being in a male prison?
I was imprisoned [for violence, which Karla says was in self-defence] in a penitentiary where the majority of inmates were gang members. The day I was imprisoned, over 100 men raped me. I was raped daily by the authorities from the penitentiary centre and by the gang members. My health deteriorated rapidly. By the time I sought out medical help, I’d lost 75 per cent of my weight.
When you were released from prison you set-up Comcavis Trans — tell me about that?
Looking at everything I’d lived for, everything I’d gone through, knowing the reality of what happens to trans people in jails. I [with other trans activists] decided to create an organisation that would work for the defence and human rights of trans-people in this country. I think there is something very important that unites us [trans communities]. It’s our reality. The best thing we can do is work together. Look for strategies that allow the recognition of equality and of our rights. To support each other.
What keeps you determined to pursue this cause?
I survive for love, for the struggle, for dignity. I was given the opportunity to leave the country but I refused because of pride. For me, it’s not fair that they treat us like this. And that gives me strength and courage. That’s why I don’t leave.
Is the work you do a threat to your safety?
I am a target but I have always felt like that. They [the gangs] have already tried to kill me several times. I am currently receiving death threats. I have also been kidnapped. The psychosis of insecurity is permanently there. We have been forced to install security cameras and electric fencing around the office. Not just to protect my life but for all of the staff.
A photo on Karla’s phone of Jasmine, a young trans activist and friend. The night before this photo of Karla was taken, she learnt that Jasmine had been killed. Though the cause of death is unclear, many members of El Salvador’s transgender community experience discrimination and are often the target of hate crimes. Image | Christian Aid/Emma Wigley
Comcavis Trans receives support from FESPAD, which is funded by UK international development charity Christian Aid. How has FESPAD helped you?
My coordination with FESPAD started around four years ago because of the assassination of one of my closest friends, Tania. We wanted to press charges at a national and international level, but in our organisation we didn’t have that expertise. FESPAD, along with other actors, gave us the technical expertise to submit a case to the American Human Rights Commission [the case had not previously been recognised by the Salvadorian state]. We put together a report based on the evidence. A report that was anchored in the tangible reality of what trans women were experiencing.
What came out of the report?
The commission passed a resolution that strongly suggested that the Salvadoran state write and pass an identity law-passage for an anti-discrimination law for the LGBTI population. They also suggested reforms of the penal code to recognise hate crimes.
What do you hope Comcavis Trans will achieve?
We want access to justice and the creation of laws and to have the same rights as the heterosexuals in my country — and our gender to be recognised.
Amy Smith is Communications Officer at international development charity Christian Aid. Christian Aid seeks to eradicate poverty in a holistic way, and Karla’s experience of exclusion and violence is replicated by so many women and men around the world. As an organisation committed to human dignity, Christian Aid wants to see a reduction in the inequalities people face and create a more inclusive world, something International Women’s Day helps remind us of.