Post by: María
Cuéntame: Spanish, informal. Definition: Tell me
This blog follows the work of the Cuéntame project, an initiative focused on improving the emotional health of incarcerated girl in the youth detention center in Ilopango, San Salvador, El Salvador.
Who we are
We are three North American women, María, Jenna, and Olivia, who are dedicated to the rights of youth, juvenile justice, violence prevention, and the construction of a culture of peace. The project works in collaboration with the Foundation for Applied Legal Studies, FESPAD, within the Program for Citizen Security and Penal Justice.
How we started
I first went to the detention center in October of 2010 with a coworker from FESPAD, a lawyer that focuses on juvenile justice and children’s rights. We worked with approximately twenty girls who were detained provisionally, meaning that they had not yet been sentenced. Our workshops focused on issues of human rights, the youth penal code, the anti-gang legislation, and conflict resolution. We always left space for the girls to share their personal experiences and opinions. Once getting to know the girls and hearing parts of their stories, we realized the great need they had to express themselves and the high level of emotional stress that they were living. Many had suffered abuse by the police, didn’t know their rights, didn’t understand the details of their court case, and was the first time they had been incarcerated and far from their families. We saw such great need that we weren’t able to touch through workshops on human rights.
The Cuéntame Project begins
Inspired by the work with the group with provisional sentences, I began to design a project directed at improving their emotional heath, creating a space in which the girls could express themselves and work with the girls who had already been sentenced, especially those who had received longer sentences, that surely were suffering the emotional consequences of being incarcerated for a long time. Based on the experience of FESPAD working with incarcerated youth and the work of other NGOs that focuses on emotional health and personal growth with the prison population, we initiated the Cuéntame project in February of 2011.
In the detention center, there are approximately forty girls that have been sentenced and about twenty at any given time that are in provisional detention and have not yet been sentenced. They are serving sentences for robbery, extortion, drug posesión, rape, kidnapping and homicide. One concerning trend in the juvenile justice system is defining a person by their crime, and as a result, dehumanizing them and justifying punitive actions to repress and incarcerate them. By defining the girls as extortionists and murderers, we stop recognizing them as human beings, with pasts, presents and futures, who have suffered the trauma of abuse, loss and abandonment. We remember that they have been victims in addition to being victimizers.
Therefore, the principal objective of this project is to provide a space in which the girls can express themselves, for them to share their life stories, memories, dreams, opinions and feelings. We believe that their experiences are valuable and deserve to be listened to, written down on paper to be read, shared, learned from and appreciated.
Sharing our work
This blog is an opportunity to share our work with the girls, to share, with their permission, the poetry that they write, and reflect on the topics that come out of their work, such as abandonment, abuse, violence, love, family, street life, violent death, and migration. Additionally, we want to touch on broader topics such as the situation of marginalized youth in El Salvador, youth violence, and trends in the juvenile justice system. We are working against the popular belief that incarcerated youth are inherently bad people that only do damage to society and don’t deserve an opportunity to succeed in life and develop as human beings. In order to acheive integral justice, we must open up spaces and processes for personal and community healing to everyone.
We welcome your thoughts, experiences, and opinions! The purpose of sharing this project is to touch your hearts, inspire you to reflect about youth justice and youth offenders through a new lens, and to become more connected to fellow humans through hearing their experiences and struggles!
In the next post, I’ll talk more specifically about the project, how we interact with the girls, the writing process and share some of their poetry!