Many families in this small and densely populated Central American country have been left with deep psychological, emotional and physical scars as a result of illness and years of conflict.

Extreme poverty and gang violence continue to plague communities despite a UN-brokered peace agreement ending the bitter civil war in 1992 – with the most vulnerable being left behind, shunned and neglected.

Violent street gangs have turned El Salvador into the murder capital of the world with a national rate of over 100 murders per 100,000 residents, more than 17 times the global average. In September alone there were 435 homicides – almost 15 per day.

Around 10% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are disabled and 82% of them are living in poverty. People with disabilities in El Salvador are often ostracised, ignored, bullied and stigmatised, even in their own homes, and they receive no extra health care support from the government.

SCIAF (the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) has been working with local partner CESTA (Friends of the Earth El Salvador) for the past eight years helping people with disabilities, including many severely injured during the war, overcome the challenges they face and fight for their rights, as well as lift themselves out of poverty and become champions in their own communities.

CESTA brings people with disabilities together to form local associations, offer training so they know their legal rights, provide small loans and grants to help them set up and run their own businesses, as well as provide livestock such as chickens, as well as seeds and tools so they can support themselves and work their way out of poverty.

Linda Guadalupe Rubio, the head of CESTA’s disability project, said: “There are many problems in El Salvador facing disabled people including invisibility, the lack of rights, accessibility of public transport and public places. There are also no specialist health care provisions for people with disabilities.

“We’re empowering others to realise their rights and give them the tools to fight for them. We need to leave the knowledge with the people. Through a national committee for people with disabilities, we’re holding meetings at a political level to try and influence the government and change policy.”

Linda said many Salvadorans lost family, friends and land during the civil war but now they are living in constant fear of criminal gangs which are everywhere and there are areas where it is no longer safe for CESTA to work.

SCIAF Director Alistair Dutton said it was vital that Scots remember people in need around the world this Christmas by supporting its appeal and giving them the gift of hope for the future.

He said: “Christmas is a time for hope and joy to triumph over adversity. It gives us the opportunity to stop and think about the important things in our lives and hold our loved ones close. It is also a time to consider those less fortunate than ourselves – like the inspirational disabled people we are helping in El Salvador – thanks to the generosity of our Scottish supporters.

Scotland has a long history of caring and generosity, and I urge everyone to support our Christmas Appeal to help give families in poor countries the gift of hope, dignity and the tools they need to work their way out of poverty. Your donation will change the lives of communities living in poverty and help bring hope for the future.”

One of SCIAF’s community champions in El Salvador is wheelchair-bound Freddy Rodriguez, 51, who is a paraplegic and has no movement from his waist down after being shot at the age of 21 while serving in the army.

“My whole life changed. My body didn’t work anymore. A lot of my friends were killed too. It was very difficult,” said Freddy. “I’ve had to face a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities. In the beginning there were no facilities for disabled people. I had to readjust everything I imagined for my life.”

Freddy lives in a poor community in El Salvador, where the only industry is farming and 172 people live with disabilities – 84 are in a wheelchair. Freddy and two others run an official association, with CESTA’s help, to fight for the rights of the disabled and build their confidence.

Freddy added: “People with a disability are not recognised. With this group we are fighting for our rights. In all the years I have been working with disabled people in the town, I have seen from start to finish what people go through and what happens to them. People used to crawl on the street. They couldn’t leave the house. They were hidden away.

“I’ve seen a lot of psychological changes in people. Someone once told me they were not worth anything and that they wanted to die. We went to meet him and were able to motivate him to be part of the association. In the association we have outings, we worship together and run activities. He is now an active board member.

“CESTA helped us become an organised and official group. In my town disabled people have become fighters in order to survive. CESTA has helped us to create employment for local disabled people. Many have opened small shops selling clothes and vegetables, and 11 work as cleaners. They are now out in the community and earn a living.”

Another disabled man, Mario Bonilla, who is also confined to a wheelchair after developing polio at the age of three, is now the president of his local disability association after becoming involved with CESTA.

He helps get disabled people out of their homes and into the town by providing them with access to mobility equipment, building their self-esteem, and giving them training on rights as well as basics like providing sugar and flour to families really struggling to survive.

Mario said: “Without SCIAF and CESTA, we wouldn’t be anything. We wouldn’t know where to go and what to do. They helped with training and self-esteem and rights for people with a disability.”

Thanks to the work of the association, raising awareness of people with disabilities, Mario was able to get his first job as an attendant in the town.

“Thank you very much for all the help you are giving. Thanks to your help, we’ve learnt so many new things. Please do support us in the future, there are so many more things to improve. Your help not only supports people with disabilities, but helps all of El Salvador,” he said.

By donating to SCIAF’S Christmas Appeal you can help change lives today. You can support some of the poorest and most neglected people like those in El Salvador build a better future for themselves, their families and their country.

To make a donation visit or call 0141 354 5555.


Tina Hernandez, 66, lost her husband and three sons in the civil war, and was blinded in one eye and suffers memory loss after being caught up in a bomb blast which killed 14 people.

Despite her grief and disability, she is on the board of her local disability association - helping people fight for their rights and distributing small loans to others in the community to support their businesses.

She said: “The war left a lot of damage in many ways. You never really get over it. I lost my family and having a disability is a day to day struggle.”

Her life was turned around when she met the CESTA team ten years ago. They gave her training in making organic fertiliser and taught her how to take care of her land. They gave her tools and a small loan to buy seeds and improve her garden.

She used to own a bigger piece of land near-by but it has become a no-go area after being taken over by criminal gangs. Tina said it is too dangerous to go there and fears she will be killed.

Tina, who lives with her surviving son and five grandchildren in San Salvador, grows fruit and vegetables and sells her produce in her community. She has also taught her family to work on the garden.

Tina added: “It is difficult to imagine life without CESTA. I am very happy, content and grateful for your support. The people of Scotland love the poor and fight for them to have a better life. As a disabled person, I feel the love from you, that you want to support me. I hope the people of Scotland never forget us. Please always have us in your mind. We need you.”

Gerardo Guzman, 59, who lives in the district of Ciudad Arce, was shot in the head during the war and left partially paralysed on the left side of his body when he was just 17 years old.

He recalled: “The war caused a lot of damage - financially, emotionally and physically. Young people lost parents and saw a lot of hatred. People were killed in front of their eyes.

“Some people have recovered well, but others have given up. There wasn’t help for people to recover. People with disabilities are always last on the agenda for politicians. It’s much easier to ignore us. The war is difficult to talk about because it left so many scars.”

At first Gerardo struggled to come to terms with his disability because children and adults were afraid of him but since he got involved with CESTA he has become very much part of the community and more confident.

He now has a job in the town hall as social promoter for disabled people. It is the first paid role of its kind in El Salvador, and only exists because he lobbied for it with CESTA’s help.

However, he said the rise in gang violence means that his job is restricted and it has become extremely dangerous to visit disabled people in their homes.

“The gangs affect me in my work. I used to visit people in their neighbourhoods and go to their houses - now the gangs make it too dangerous for me to go to their houses. Because I am disabled, I’ll be an easy target. It limits my work. Some people won’t come to us, and it might be dangerous for them. It’s a lot harder than before. We can’t do the work we want to do.”

Gerardo said CESTA was the only charity in El Salvador helping disabled people and thanked the people of Scotland for their support.

“CESTA makes us realise that you have to get out there and do things for yourself and for others. Thank you very much. Without your support, I couldn’t do this work. Step by step, we can get there,” he added.

Maritza Portilla, 38, contracted polio when she was a baby and her legs didn’t develop properly. She can’t walk and used to get about by pulling herself along the floor and crawling.

She received a wheelchair and mobility bike for getting around from another local charity and is now earning a living giving pedicures to locals after CESTA helped her believe in herself.

Through joining her local association for disabled people and receiving training from CESTA, Maritza learned how to fight for her rights, grew in self-confidence and used her own experiences to help others overcome their problems.

Maritza is also on the national committee for disability associations – created by CESTA - fighting for the rights of people to have ramps in shops, hospitals, schools and other public places.

She won a campaign to get a ramp and the toilet doors widened for wheelchair access in her local community centre.

Maritza had this message for people in Scotland who support SCIAF. “Thank you. Through you, small projects are able to make small changes in the world. The fact that a country so far away wants to help our small country is a blessing. I hope you will continue to support us in the future.”