Latin America’s Uneven Response to Growing Violence Against Women.
The Editors Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Earlier this month, lawmakers in Uruguay announced they were working on legislation that would classify femicide—the gender-motivated killing of women—as a crime. In an email interview, Patricia Leidl, a Vancouver-based international communications adviser, discussed government responses to crime against women across Latin America.
|People demonstrate against violence against women outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 3, 2015|
WPR: What has prompted the recent public outcry against violence against women in Latin America?
Patricia Leidl: The “recent” outcry over violence against Latin American women is in fact not recent at all. Since the early 1990s, human and women’s rights defenders have been raising the alarm over steadily climbing rates of gender-based violence in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with the sharpest increases beginning in 2006 and escalating by as much as 21 percent each year. In South America, human rights observatories have likewise reported steadily rising rates of violence against women—but most particularly in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the 25 countries that are home to the highest femicide rates in the world, more than half are located in Latin America.
It is perhaps no coincidence that many of these Latin American countries were embroiled in the “dirty wars” of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These wars were characterized by the proliferation of small arms and extreme and systematic violence against women, which many scholars now believe set the stage for today’s epidemic of femicide. Human rights activists also speculate that women’s greater economic independence—in the form of low-paying and unskilled factory jobs in the wake of free trade agreements with North America, Asia and Europe—could be contributing to a climate of violence against women in a region whose culture of “machismo” traditionally relegates women to the domestic sphere.
WPR: What measures are currently being considered by Latin American governments to curb violence against women?
Leidl: Women’s groups have been agitating for many decades for legislative and judicial changes that will make it easier to prosecute perpetrators of femicide. Thus far, their efforts have been largely successful. According to The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 15 Latin American countries now have some form of progressive legislation aimed at protecting women from violence, even though not every country has typified femicide as a crime, and those that have aren’t necessarily in agreement over what the term means. Latin America’s failure to protect women isn’t due to a dearth of good legislation, but rather, a lack of execution.
Despite this, change is coming to Latin America—particularly to South America. More progressive governments such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have paved the way for the spate of new femicide laws, which effectively classify certain types of violence against women as hate crimes.
Still, progress remains highly uneven. In Guatemala and Mexico’s Chihuahua state, for example, the government only instituted new femicide laws owing to a series of judgments handed down by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Elsewhere, laws and policies tend to be unevenly applied—if at all. Throughout Central America and the Caribbean, rates of violence against women and girls continue to skyrocket.
WPR: Where does Latin America stand globally in terms of protecting women from violence and, more broadly, advancing women’s equality?
Leidl: Latin America both leads and lags when it comes to protecting women from violence. On the one hand, several Latin American countries recognize that sexually based crimes such as rape, human trafficking and domestic violence constitute hatred or misogyny—something many policymakers in North America, Europe and elsewhere fail to grasp. On the other, the continued low status of women throughout Latin America continues to impede change.
Police forces, medical examiners and the judiciary tend to be under-resourced or too corrupt to even investigate crimes, while police and the military are often implicated in murders and disappearances. In many Latin American countries—most notably Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—women’s rights defenders are being systematically disappeared and murdered, their bodies showing up bearing signs of almost unimaginable sexual violence and torture.
The so-called “war on drugs” is also contributing to increase in femicides, owing to gang activity and large deployments of heavily armed young men to already insecure areas. Where militarism and organized gangs hold sway, so too does impunity.
Nevertheless, in a number of South American nations, the very legacy of brutality and repression that has contributed to femicide may now help bring about its end, as former victims of repression acquire the political means to effect change