Born in El Salvador and exiled in Switzerland, Karla Avelar has been fighting from a very young age for the rights of the LGBTQ community, specially trans women. She was born in 1978 to an impoverished and profoundly Catholic family. She suffered from abuse and violence –including of sexual nature– within the family setting, and she was forced to move out when she was 9 years-old. She was homeless for a few years, and she experienced different types of violence, including from public authorities and gangs.
In the late 90s, Avelar was imprisoned for 4 years for hurting a man, although she acted in self-defence after he attacked her. Her time in jail was really tough for her. Not only was she a HIV carrier, but she was also subject to abuse from gang members, who treated her like a servant and sex object.
Before going into prison, Avelar had already become a strong defender of LGBTQ rights. In 1991, with a group of activists, she tried to organise and register the association El Nombre de la Rosa (The Name of the Rose), although they weren’t successful. Later in 1996, she was a founding member of Aspidh Arcoiris Trans, a foundation that aimed to raise awareness on the community’s needs, especially trans women. After her experience in the penitentiary system, her commitment to human rights did nothing but strengthen.
In 2008 she started COMCAVIS Trans, Comunicando y Capacitando a Mujeres Trans (Communicating and Educating Trans Women), an organization she led until 2017. Her task within this association had an important impact on politics, both in El Salvador and abroad. For instance, in 2013 Avelar became the first trans woman to appear before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, where she condemned the discrimination and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community in El Salvador. This fact inspired many organizations to learn about the mechanisms of the United Nations as well.
Avelar’s personal safety had always been under risk –there had been numerous attempts to murder her–, but it was gradually worsening. In 2017, she was nominated for the prestigious award Martin Ennals for human rights defenders. Once in Switzerland, where she travelled to attend the awards ceremony, she and her mother decided they could not return to El Salvador. Their lives were at risk.
She has been living in Switzerland ever since. She still works with COMCAVIS Trans as a delegate for the UN in Geneva. She is working to raise awareness about her organization and is also taking part on other projects. Moreover, she is a consulting member of the International Platform against Impunity. This coalition of organizations gives support to different LGBTQ associations which take part in UN initiatives such as the Universal Periodic Review. She is part of the steering committee of Asile LGBT -an organisation based in Geneva- and of the Martin Ennals network of advocates, made up of all the ex-finalists and people awarded the prize.
What is the COMCAVIS Trans’ roadmap?
For 2020-2025, the organisation will keep working on the central points and will add some new ones. We will work to enhance the recognition and protection of the LGBTQ community’s human rights in El Salvador via including the needs and realities of the community in public policies and the social agenda. We will also strengthen the procedures and tools to respond to violence towards LGBTQ people, and the forced migrations. Further to this, we will work to contribute to local development and boost the skills and abilities of the community so they can contribute to society and strengthen their rights. Finally, we will develop abilities and tools to promote social inclusion and prevent reoffending and vulnerable situations of LGBTQ people in prison.
One of the main fights of COMCAVIS Trans is the improvement of imprisoned trans women lives.
We take inspiration from my own experience as a trans person in prison, where I was subject to multiple violations. We have been working since 2011, when we included in our strategic plan an action point in penitentiaries focused specifically in LGBTQ prisoners, in coordination with the penitentiaries board of directors and the human rights solicitor’s office. We aimed to raise awareness and train the clerks and guards of the Sensutepeque prison. We also wanted to empower LGBTQ prisoners so they could claim their rights and compile their human rights violations accusations.
Can you share some of the success stories since then?
We managed to create a special section for LGBTQ prisoners, where they have access to female clothes and there is no requirement for trans women to cut their hair. In addition, we have managed donation projects for trans people deprived of their freedom. In the institutional arena, we have signed a deal with the penitentiaries board of directors and we have worked in creating and implementing a LGBTQ policy within the Ministry of Justice, which includes multiple government authorities (such as the penitentiaries board of directors).
Currently, COMCAVIS Trans is working in three of the main penitentiaries with LGBTQ prisoners. In the near future, the organisation aims to identify and investigate accusations to dispute in court and present information to human rights protection institutions.
In addition to giving support to LGBTQ individuals, specially trans women, COMCAVIS Trans also works in their social setting.
For us it is very important to work with the social and family settings of trans individuals to raise awareness and influence. We aim to bust false conceptions and stereotypes about the LGBTQ community. We aim to bust false conceptions and stereotypes about the LGBTQ community. We provide current and trustworthy information to help parents, partners and friends of young LGBTQ people to better understand their situation, so they can build stronger relationships. We organise trainings, gatherings, research and interventions with family and friends, individually or in groups. We aim to provide basic knowledge about human rights so they can react when they experience or observe discrimination.
In 1995 you announced that you were a HIV carrier.
The Ministry of Health refusal of assisting and giving antiretrovirals to HIV carriers forced me to make this public in a society which demonises, criminalises and discriminates LGBTQ people, even more so if they are HIV carriers. I made this decision for many reasons, but the main one was my willing to live. In the end, I was very satisfied and it led to a very strong political stance in my country.
What are the barriers for trans women with HIV to an appropriate medical attention?
The barriers of transgender people in medical attention are related to a founded fear of being discriminated by the health professionals or seeing how their treatment is refused due to their sexual identity. These barriers make it more likely that trans people avoid taking the test and therefore is less likely that they receive medical care for their HIV.
What advocacy do you do from here in Switzerland?
I collaborate with the International Platform against Impunity based in Geneva and Guatemala and I also collaborate with Asile, an association made up of LGBTI refugees and that works with other refugees or asylum seekers. I also collaborate with Martin Ennals here in Geneva giving lectures and talks in schools. I am also the point of contact between CONCAVIS and the United Nations, collaborating with the human rights council and in the preparation of reports for the universal periodic examination that takes place every four years.
At the legislative level, do you foresee any changes in El Salvador?
No. In fact, the current legislative assembly of the country is going to leave without having passed any kind of law in favor of the LGTBI community despite its promises during the campaign. They promoted legislative initiatives, but we are left with the bitter aftertaste of this outgoing legislative assembly.
On the part of the judicial system, however, there has been some change: a trans woman was convicted of murder. An action that gives hope to the LGBTI movement and makes us see that justice can come for all. This is the only case in which justice has been done, the case of Camila Diaz, an internally and externally displaced person who was killed by police when she returned to El Salvador from the United States. This case shows us that protection mechanisms must be more effective.
There is a great deal of political disinterest on the part of our legislators, also those who will now enter after May 1, who come with the same mentality of denying rights to the LGTBI community. The new legislature that entered this May comes with the same mentality of degrading, humiliating and denying rights to the LGBTI community and without the will to address the worrying situation of forced displacement due to police and gang persecution which continue to drag victims.
A difficult time is coming for the social movements of the LGTBI community, a time of great struggle is coming, because the incoming government has already rejected equal marriage or abortion, very controversial issues that are leaving many victims directly affected and also their families and bringing serious consequences to a society that does not allow us to move forward.
How do you live in exile?
Being an activist allowed me to have perhaps more help when asking for the right to asylum, but there were also complicated episodes of homophobia, xenophobia and racism. But I knew how to act and how to assert my rights, I was even planting the seeds to make structural changes within the institutional bodies. To this we add the issue of the name in the document, which is always a problem, they call you sir and not madam. But the truth is that what helped me the most was being informed and prepared, having the documentation ready, because the system of the reception flats is prepared to expel you and not to receive you and this is my criticism. I recommend that people who apply for asylum prepare themselves in the best way possible.