What’s Behind Gender Violence in Latin America: Part II

 /  Dec. 24, 2016, 1:19 a.m.


This is part two of a two-part series on gender-based violence in Latin America. Read part one here.

Discussing gender violence in Latin America is complicated, not only because of the local uniqueness of violence in every country, but also because of the lack of clarity in the causes of the phenomenon. There is a general acceptance of “machismo” violence in Latin America, aggravated by factors like female objectification in reggaeton music, and the notion of Latin Americans being Catholic, conservative, and resistant to changes in gender norms. We know these are some of the key cultural traits that fuel gender violence; the problem is what to do about them. The fight for women's rights in Latin America has been long and tough, and it is ongoing. Society as a whole has become aware of violence against women, and many women have broken through the cultural wall that kept them from accessing higher paying jobs, obtained better degrees in college, stopped getting married as frequently, and made other departures from traditional women's roles. But violence against LGBT persons and their rights has fallen through the cracks of the system and has gone ignored for a long time. Now, as LGBT persons try to claim their constitutional rights, they crash into another cultural barrier.

According to the Organization of American States (OAS), one of the challenges in addressing violence specifically against LGBT communities is the lack of information about it. In its Registry of Violence against LGBT Persons, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) notes that most member states do not collect data on violence against LGBT persons. The information they work with is based on analyzing information from individual cases or from reports in local media. The OAS then compiles this information to create a hemisphere-wide report on violence against LGBT persons. In the thirteen-month period between January 2013 and March 2014, 594 persons who were LGBT or perceived to be so were killed, and 176 were victims of serious non-lethal attacks. A total of 770 acts of violence against LGBT persons were identified in twenty-five of the thirty-five member countries, but the OAS is clear in stating that “cases do occur in all thirty-five OAS Member States but are not always denounced or covered by the media.” It points out that “the common denominator of this violence is the perception by the perpetrator that the victim has transgressed accepted gender norms.” This is echoed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as quoted by the IACHR report on “Violence Against LGBT Persons,” which says that violence against the LGBT community constitutes “a type of gender violence fueled by the desire to punish those who are believed to be challenging gender norms.”

Notice the justification for violence against the LGBT community as “punishment” for not following gender norms. Does it sound familiar? Recall that Latin American women believed their husbands to be “justified” in hitting them for reasons like refusing to have sexual relations with them, not taking care of the house or children, failing to tell their husbands when they left the house, and even burning the food. Violence against women is justified through their failure to comply with what wives “should” do. The victim-blaming in Rosa Elvira Cely’s case or the cases in Mexico all point to women not conforming to the fine print of gender roles in their respective cultures. Gender violence is cultural, and education is not fixing it.

Over the summer, I went home to Colombia and experienced a reverse culture shock. The government, specifically the Ministry of Education, issued a booklet that promoted “school environments free from discrimination” and dealt with gender identity and sexual orientation. The booklet deals with topics like the difference between gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation, family diversity, and how to identify and stop homophobia. It provides guidelines for schools to change their policy handbooks to integrate non-discriminatory policies. This booklet was created by the ministry of education in association with the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Population Fund, and UNICEF. As of now, its non-discriminatory policies have not been officially implemented (as a matter of fact, Jorge Parra, representative of the UNFPA, claimed that the booklet was only made public to guarantee transparency in the production of educational material). The booklet was created as a response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling in favor of Sergio Urrego’s family. Urrego had committed suicide due to sexual discrimination in his high school. In the ruling, the court determined that there were violations to Urrego’s right to dignity, a good name, and privacy; ordered the school and its officials to organize a public act of redress and issue statements on Urrego’s legacy; and defined a one-year deadline for the ministry of education to reform handbooks of educational institutions to promote non-discrimination. To do this, the ministry issued these booklets to school principals as guidelines to modify school handbooks and also potentially as educational material.

Justice had been served and policy was acting in favor of progressive, rights-endorsing values! Quite a milestone for a country whose constitution had been subject to Vatican Law until the 1980s.

But that was not the end of it. Before long, the media was bursting with news about marches opposing the changes in school handbooks. Many of them were led by a group of parents who, through social media, published alleged pictures of the booklet. The pictures were actually from “In Bed with David and Jonathan,” a pornographic Belgian booklet. So those parents protested an initiative of the executive branch taken in accordance with a decision of the judicial branch on the basis of false information from a pornographic booklet.

Comments from other figures in politics came to light soon enough. Many showed their support for the ministry of education. However, many popular figures rejected the policy vehemently. Senator and former president Álvaro Uribe was quoted asserting: “To say that one is not born a woman or a man, but that ‘society’ defines this, is an abuse against minors and a lack of respect against nature and families.” Former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez claimed that the ministry was using the court ruling and laws that promote equality to “indoctrinate our children with gender ideology.” He even accused the ministry of trying to “dissolve the family, corrupt youth, and take away their innocence.” Despite the opposition, the ministry of education continues to push for a more liberal sexual education. That is when my reverse cultural shock came.

The issue lies in the concept of “gender ideology,” a vague term used to make reference to the notion that gender is socially constructed. The concept is so vague that there is debate as to whether or not the concept is even valid in the social sciences, beyond its use and appropriation by Christian and Catholic churches. Like most so-called ideologies, it is popularly feared because it “indoctrinates,” and this one, specifically, goes against “nature” and the “family.”

I came back to campus to share my concern with a friend from Mexico. She was quick to show me pictures from a march led by “El Frente Nacional por la Familia” (The National Front for the Family). In Mexico, recent legislation that recognizes the rights of the LGBT community sparked the creation of the National Front, which says it represents “millions of parents and more than a thousand institutions of civil society who promote and stand up for the most important institutions in society: marriage between a man and a woman and the natural family, both of which are the basis of our society.” They also have a strong opposition to the government’s education policies. The Secretariat of Public Education issued textbooks for the academic year of 2016-2017 that promote a liberal approach to gender diversity. On their website, the Frente Nacional por la Familia accuses the textbooks of teaching “gender ideology” and quotes pages from them to refute what they say. For example, they criticize an exercise that “shows a family with two fathers and labels it as a “family” because it “normalizes” a situation in which a family has two fathers. They oppose a line in the text that says that “masturbation causes no physical or mental harm” because “saying masturbation is good promotes it becoming a habit, which leads to serious problems among couples.” Also, they criticize the idea that femininity and masculinity are social constructs because “sexuality has its origin in the biological sex of a boy or girl and their sex manifests itself in a natural way in their psyche and conduct.” These are their arguments.

The problem about their arguments is not only that they seem outdated or conservative, but also that they attack groups in society beyond the LGBT community with false information. Normalizing family structures that are not biparental with heterosexual couples is necessary. Consider the data from the World Family Map in 2014 and 2015: over 60 percent of children in Colombia, Perú, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil are born out of wedlock. Nearly one out of ten children in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile and Bolivia live in single parent households. And these trends are increasing. The information used to argue against masturbation and against gender as a social construct is dubious, to say the least. The UK’s National Health Service website reports that masturbation is “normal and healthy.” It is also extremely common, with 89 percent of women and 95 percent of men admitting to having done it. The social construct of gender can be observed or at least debated by the historical changes in expectation of what women and men are expected to do. Back in the 1950s, college-educated women were scarce, as the expectations were for them to get married and take care of a family. According to data from the World Bank, the percentage of women in the total labor force has increased in most Latin American countries from 1990 to 2014, from 36 percent to 40 percent in Argentina, 35 percent to 42 percent in Brazil, 30 percent to 43 percent in Colombia, 30 percent to 37 percent in Mexico, and 28 percent to 37 percent in Costa Rica. Clearly, the social role of women has changed, and their role is no longer limited to the household. Historic and social dynamics have changed what it means to be a woman, showing that gender roles are defined by elements far beyond biology.

As in Colombia, governmental action in Mexico defending LGBT rights began in the courts. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Mexico legalized gay marriage. In several rulings, the court has consistently labeled state laws that deny marriage rights to homosexual couples as discriminatory. Specifically, the court has put out several rulings that say that “the political constitution of the United States of Mexico does not allude to this civil institution [marriage], nor does it refer to a specific type of family on the basis of which one can affirm that it exclusively consists of the marriage between a man and a woman.” On May 17, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto submitted a Decree Initiative to the Mexican congress to change the fourth article of the constitution to introduce a clause that states that “any person over 18 years old has the right to get married and cannot be discriminated against because of their ethnic or national origin, ability, social condition, health condition, religion, sexual preferences, or anything else which attacks human dignity.” This initiative is what the Frente Nacional por la Familia opposes above all, and on November 10, the congress voted against it.

In brief, the situation was this: in two Latin American countries, at the same time, courts had issued rulings in favor of recognizing rights for the LGBT community that were echoed by the executive but blocked by civil action. It’s not that the executive and the judicial branches are not offering education to combat gender-based violence and discrimination: it is civil society and the pressure it creates on legislatures that do not want children to have access to it. Can we submit the rights of minorities to the whims of the majority? Let's hope not.

The prospect is not optimistic. As long as any of the measures that intend to grant LGBT persons rights have to pass through legislatures, be certain that they will fail. As long as lawmakers have to win the votes of an electorate that is vehemently opposed to equal rights, in any country where the majority opposes equal gender rights, the legislature will vote against every equal rights bill that comes to the floor. And what is worse yet, while this notion of making LGBT persons second-class citizens continues, violence will increase against them and against anyone who does not conform to cultural gender norms. This includes women, because the foundation for arguing that a homosexual person does not have the right to marry is the same due to which millions of women were denied the right to vote, work, or live freely. The resistance to gender-tolerant education will confine the potential and lives of millions of people to a chromosome, a penis, or a vagina.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Patricia Van Hissenhoven Florez


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