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November 30, 2016

Native Pro Bono Consultant Works to Promote Rights of El Salvador’s LGBTI Community

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) Program to Promote the Rights of El Salvador’s LGBTI Community works to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. In El Salvador, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community is disproportionately targeted with violence, and police often fail to sufficiently investigate if sexual orientation or identity were causal factors in cases of physical violence. To address this, ABA ROLI conducts trainings for justice sector operators and health care workers on how to investigate, prosecute and combat violence against LGBTI persons. ABA ROLI also works with “De La Mano Contigo” (Hand in Hand with You), a Salvadoran not-for-profit organization that seeks to increase awareness and respect for LGBTI rights. Together with “De La Mano Contigo,” ABA ROLI is leading a working group of LGBTI-rights organizations to identify common goals and strategies to advocate for the LGBTI community in El Salvador.

ABA ROLI recently interviewed Bessy Rios, the president of “De La Mano Contigo,” to ask her about her experience volunteering with the program and translated her responses from Spanish.

ABA ROLI: Please describe your personal history (education and employment).

Bessy Rios: “I completed my elementary and high school education at a Jesuit school in El Salvador. I later went on to study law at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas. I subsequently joined the law firm Ríos and Associates where I worked primarily on recovering arrears and on human rights focused cases in collaboration with civil society organizations. One of these organizations was the “Asociación Pro-búsqueda,” founded by Father John Cortina. This organization searches for missing children as the result of the armed conflict. Currently, I am the president of “De La Mano Contigo” (Hand in Hand with You), an organization for family members and friends of the LGBTI community. We provide legal support, human rights assessments and support for friends and family of the LGBTI community. This support is shaped by promotion and education of LGBTI rights, and most importantly is driven by the core value of respecting all human beings. The organization also educates Salvadoran families on topics of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

ABA ROLI: How did you find out about ABA ROLI? What drew you to collaborate with ABA ROLI?

Bessy Rios: “Our focus (on) defending human rights began when we saw many instances of human rights violations in El Salvador which prompted us to look for support for the LGBTI community. We came across ABA ROLI’s work online, which led us to meet with ABA ROLI’s country director for El Salvador in order to exchange ideas and work experiences. We have similar interests and common work (experience), and were interested in the objectives ABA ROLI intended to accomplish through its Program to Promote the Rights of El Salvador’s LGBTI ICommunity.”

ABA ROLI: Please describe your work with ABA ROLI. Which program are you currently working on? What are some interesting aspects you would like to highlight?

Bessy Rios: “Currently, I am working as a pro bono consultant for ABA ROLI’s Program to Promote the Rights of El Salvador’s LGBTI Community. Together with program staff, I lead an LGBTI community working group in creating a five-year strategic plan for the Salvadoran LGBTI rights movement. This work is important because the involved groups have lacked clear strategies and agendas in order to advance the defense of their rights. Some progress has been made but advances have been isolated. The idea for the new strategic plan is that it will bring groups together and provide them with a sort of map or guide to create sustainable advancements for the LGBTI community so that they can defend their rights, have access to justice sector intuitions and create a replicator effect.”

ABA ROLI: Why is the work that you are doing with ABA ROLI important?

Bessy Rios: “This work will generate ties within the movement that promote(s) integration of the various LGBTI organizations, something which was needed in this community. Each organization had their own strategic plan, mission and vision for their organization, however coordination is key. A shared vision will enable each organization to meet their individual goals as part of an integrated movement.”

ABA ROLI: What has been your most memorable moment working with ABA ROLI?

Bessy Rios: “The most exciting moment was the support we received from the strategic planning consultant hired by the program. He has been able to compile inputs for the elaborate strategic plan articulating the working group’s needs. In addition to this, when there were ups and downs in the programming and execution of working group meetings, some felt that advances were not being made. The consultant’s arrival encouraged representatives of the various organizations to participate in the working group meetings and put forth their best efforts. This in turn has helped greatly in the development of the program.”

ABA ROLI: What advice would you give to someone who would like to do pro bono work for ABA ROLI?

Bessy Rios: “I would tell them that they must have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish in their country, as well as extensive knowledge about the topic, but most importantly, they must be willing to work with people because working pro bono requires passion for the cause. You have to believe in the work you are doing and communicate with others who join the work to help. During this period of time I have learned and grown a lot. Although this kind of work is pro bono and entails no income, it does provide an invaluable experience for growth and learning.”