When I was sixteen, my grandmother talked to me about gender violence. Her tone did not seek to warn me against it, nor was it full of outrage. As she sipped her tea, she told me about the times she had to break into her friends’ apartments with my grandfather to interrupt episodes of gender violence. She told me about a friend of hers who called her from the bathroom of her apartment, saying that she couldn't walk outside because her husband was “mad” and threatening to hit her. My grandmother had to take her friend out of the house while my grandfather held her husband, letting the two women escape. They were in their twenties.
These stories are not scarce, and my grandmother's was not the worst. In Ciudad Juárez, México, there have been 1,500 femicides in the last twenty years. Frequently, the perpetrators are either partners or acquaintances of the women. At a local level, there is little effort on behalf of authorities to look into files or pursue leads in investigations. In Ecatepec, in the greater Mexico City area, people must bribe the justice system if they want an investigation to be opened for the death of their loved one. People distrust the criminal justice system, so few report crimes. There were up to 19.7 deaths for every 100,000 women in Ciudad Juárez in 2009. María Luisa Andrade, whose sister was a victim of femicide, puts it clearly: “It seems like we've become used to losing our girls [in Mexico], and that it is normal.”
In May 2012, Rosa Elvira Cely was brutally murdered by an acquaintance in Bogota, Colombia. On the night she was murdered, she had drinks with friends and left with one of them on his motorcycle. He hit her on the head with his helmet, beat, raped, and impaled her before leaving her in a park. Cely called for help and managed to give an account of what happened before going into cardiac arrest. She died four days later in the hospital. Between 2009 and 2014, reports showed that there are up to four femicides a day in Colombia and that rate of impunity for these cases reaches 90 percent.
In October 2016, Lucía Pérez, a sixteen-year-old woman from Mar del Plata, Argentina, was brutally drugged, raped, and murdered by three men. Pérez was trying to buy a marijuana cigarette from the men, but when they met, she was forced to consume a high dose of cocaine. The men then raped her in a case described by the DA on the case as an “inhumane sexual assault” by multiple offenders. She qualified the events as a “conjunction of abhorrent facts.” Pérez was bathed and clothed by the accused before being dropped off at a medical center where she died from cardiac arrest due to the trauma. In Argentina there is reportedly one femicide every thirty-five hours.
So what drives violence against women in Latin America?
The cultural tolerance of violence is probably the greatest cause. Not only is it concerning to see widespread tolerance of the denigration of women and of the beliefs that women are inferior or “worthless,” it is jaw-droppingly outrageous to see that people, including women, actually justify violence against women.
It is not the case that legislation endorses violence against women. In fact, there are quite severe sanctions across the board. Only to follow up on the three aforementioned examples, in 2007 Mexico passed the Law of General Access of Women to a Life Free of Violence, which penalized crimes against women with forty to sixty years of prison. In Argentina, the law 26.791 of 2012 against femicide and domestic violence gives up to a life sentence, classifying these crimes as aggravated homicide. In Colombia, legislation from 2008 proposed thirty to forty years of prison, classifying femicide as an aggravated crime against a protected person. In 2012, the Rosa Elvira Cely Law entered into force there, punishing femicide with up to fifty years of prison and forcing the government to take action to sensitize Colombian society about crimes against women.
But, naturally, there is a long way between law and action. The first one, already mentioned, is impunity. According to the Global Impunity Index, a study conducted by the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, Mexico that evaluates the fifty-nine countries around the world that have data on impunity, in 2015 Mexico was the country with the second-greatest rate of impunity and Colombia was third. There is no effective sanction that dissuades people from committing femicide. Sure, penalties are high on paper, but that is worthless if no one gets caught and put in jail. In the last decade in Colombia, there were 34,571 criminal investigations have been opened for femicide, but only 10 percent have resulted in a conviction. But, as the GII study suggests, impunity is high for all crimes, not only for femicide. The ineffective criminal justice systems are a key part of the problem, but do not completely explain the increase in femicides (especially in the context of internal conflict) in Latin America.
In 2014 the Pan-American Health Organization published a 198-page long report on violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Chapter Ten discusses gender norms and violence, surveying women (fifteen to forty-nine years old who had lived with a partner) about whether there are “reasons” or “good reasons” for a man to beat his wife or partner. The data was collected from 2004 to 2008 in different countries. In Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, the rate at which women answered “yes” was below 5 percent. In Ecuador, 38.2 percent of the women said men were “justified” if they hit they partner for certain reasons. In Haiti, 28.5 percent of the women agreed, while in Paraguay, 22.9 percent did. The two most common “justifiable reasons” were “not having taken care of the home or children” and “failing to tell the husband they were leaving the house,” although refusing to have sexual relations and “burning the food” also made the list. The answers seem to have a strong urban-rural divide, with women in rural areas being more tolerant of violent behavior from their partners than their urban peers were. The study showed that there are high rates (from 28.5 percent to 48 percent) of women who say that they are against someone who is not from the family intervening when they see a case of violence against women. Still, there is hope given that these statistics show a decrease from surveys done in the year 2000.
Victim blaming is blatantly accepted in much of Latin America. Take Rosa Elvira Cely´s case. In May 2016, the secretary of government for Bogotá issued a document claiming that Cely’s murder was “exclusively the victim´s fault.” According to the document, her murderer and his accomplice had a reputation for “acting weird and acting with ill-intended manners.” The document closes saying, “She [Cely] risked her integrity and life to the point that [the perpetrator] killed her; if Rosa Elvira Cely had not gone out to have drinks with her classmates that night, we would not be lamenting her death.” This is an official document issued from a public office that engages in victim-blaming. It was condemned by human rights and women's rights organizations, and many members of the government rejected the secretary of government´s position. The evidence that there is hope is that the government did pass the Rosa Elvira Cely Law.
Violence against women has been challenged by many social organizations and NGOs in the region. The most vocal campaign is Ni Una Menos (Not a Woman Less), which has spread to over eighty countries, including most of Latin America. The Argentine organization recently received a lot of media coverage because of their activities after the murder of Lucía Pérez. The murder, committed a month ago, led to great outrage in Argentina and around the globe. Ni Una Menos in Argentina summoned Argentine women to a work strike and a march on what they called “Black Wednesday,” October 18. The initiative was echoed in fifty-eight cities around the world. Ni Una Menos published a list of nine demands on their website, intended to make the government guarantee the rights to justice, aid, and protection for female victims of violence. Two of the demands are related to education, including both education in schools and training of public officials about gender issues. More importantly, there is a claim throughout the document that femicide is the result of tolerance to “machismo” culture.
Ni Una Menos calls upon the citizenry to commit to the advocacy of women's rights under the motto “women’s rights are human rights.” They criticize mass media for victim-blaming and for replicating images and words that perpetuate stereotypes of female inferiority. The organization condemns the use of “they must’ve done something to deserve it” language by mass media when reporting on these cases, which greatly affects how society views and processes violence against women. This echoes the perspective of women in Mexico. As Anita Cuellar Figueroa, whose sixteen-year-old daughter disappeared four years ago, puts it, “Here, women lack value. Being a woman and being pretty in Ciudad Juárez is a sin. From the moment you live here, you feel the machismo strongly, and men are responsible, in whatever position they have; even in my home there might be a man harassing me.”
Since the problem of gender violence in Latin America is cultural, the solution must address what society values and transmits to its youth. It must account for what people are watching on television, listening to on the radio, and giving importance to. The answer would be education and law enforcement, right? Well, it might be harder than that.
This is part one of a two-part series on gender-based violence in Latin America. Stay tuned for part two.
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