In Latin America, Women Still Confront Violence

Today, the United Nations (UN) observes International Woman’s Day. The theme of this year’s UN meeting focuses on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. Women and girls suffer gender-based violence not just in conflict countries but domestic violence more often than not, often resulting in the “killing of a woman” or femicide, in places as diverse as Guatemala or India.

Despite the progress that women have made in industrialized countries, violence remains unresolved in much of the world. Numerous countries, mostly poor but also emerging market economies, are places where impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against women remains the norm. Rapists and traffickers of women and girls often go unpunished by legal systems that are ill-equipped to prosecute offenders or that sometimes show little interest in doing so.

For women in many Latin American countries violence has been a constant. In spite of economic gains, places like Bolivia and Guatemala still have the highest rates of femicide according to a recent 13-country study by the Pan American Health Organization. Central America, because of the crime associated with the rise of illicit trade in narcotics, also ranks among the most dangerous places on earth for women. Honduras is especially violent, with little sign of any improvement. In Haiti, where gender-based violence has been prevalent especially since the 2010 earthquake, efforts to protect women have yet to resolve this dreadful situation, particularly among homeless women.

What may be less known is how widespread sexual violence and femicide is in this hemisphere. Bolivia has the highest rates of domestic violence in South America according to UN Women data collected in 2011. Of 442,000 reports of gender-based violence in Bolivia between 2007 and 2011, only 96 have been prosecuted, according to the Centro de Informacion y Desarollo de la Mujer. The Bolivian minister of information, Amanda Davila, pledged the government’s commitment to raising awareness and fighting against domestic violence. Bolivian vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, announced that the “Law to Protect Women” was being introduced in Congress in February 2013. The proposed legislation would carry a 30-year sentence and the possibility of chemical castration for those convicted of rape. While not yet approved, this law supplements landmark legislation passed in May 2012, the Law against Harassment and Political Violence against Women. Pressure to improve both the legal framework to protect women and to prosecute crimes comes from the national Coordinadora de la Mujer with the support of the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality.

Guatemala is experiencing an epidemic of gender based violence and femicide that particularly affects young girls and older women. This Central American country ranks third in the world for the murder of women, with two women killed on average every day. In many male-dominated cultures, but especially ones with histories of violence from long-running civil wars, it is hard to repair the damage arising from a legacy of violence. Even with a 2008 femicide law that was passed in Guatemala’s Congress, it is impossible to note any change in behavior or prosecution of such crimes.

With the 2010 appointment of a female attorney general, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz, things are improving. She declared violence against women as a priority issue for the government upon assuming office. She also created a Criminal Court for Crimes of Femicide and Violence against Women. Yet there is a real challenge in getting women to come forward and report crimes for fear of retaliation in their communities.

Like Guatemala, Colombia is a country that has made great strides in resolving armed conflict. But due to a culture of violence that emerged as a result of this conflict, ongoing violence against women and girls in Colombia has morphed into an irrational variation of machismo misogyny. Hate crimes in a macho culture involve giving license to any man who thinks being young, pretty, and independent merits an acid attack as revenge. The women who have been attacked have generally been victims of domestic violence.

In one case cited by Washington Post columnist Juan Forero, a jealous boyfriend paid a “sicario” or young hit man, to throw acid at his girlfriend in return for $1.75. In 2011, official records show 42 women in Colombia were attacked by acid. In 2012, that number nearly quadrupled, with 150 reported acid attacks. Acid violence rarely kills, but it causes severe physical, psychological, and social scarring.

What will it take to help change a culture of acceptance regarding violence against women and girls? A recent World Bank Study on gender norms that compared attitudes toward women in 20 countries, including Peru and the Dominican Republic, suggested that access to education and access to credit for women through microenterprise funds helps empower them. More than men, women desired an education with the purpose of gaining better employment and greater autonomy. The study also suggested that women’s ability to contribute to family finances helps them gain more voice at home and in public spheres. Access to small, low interest credit can help place women in situations that allow them to support their families, be valued by their families, and help transform the future of their daughters and sons.

While income inequality and poverty indices improve for citizens in the Americas, this positive trend must be supported by a strong commitment to end impunity when it comes to violence against women. Only when the police and the judicial systems in many Latin American countries takes the crimes that impact women most seriously—rape, domestic violence, and trafficking—will we see attitudes regarding the abuse and violence against women and girls change.

On International Women’s Day, when world leaders take a few minutes to consider the state of half the world’s population, it is worth remembering that in the Americas, our work is far from done.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program and Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic Studies. All rights reserved.

Johanna Mendelson Forman and Carl Meacham