Violence against women, a result of gender inequality and unequal power relations between men and women, is a pervasive phenomenon. It occurs in all social classes and in all countries, from the most developed to the least developed. Despite progress in policies and legislation, it remains one of the top human rights issues in the Americas today.
Although little research exists, available data suggest the situation is bleak across the region. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that up to 40 percent of women in the region have been victims of violence at some point during their lives.1 And, according to figures from the 2004 Demographic and Health Surveys Project, 44 percent of women in Colombia have suffered from spousal violence. In Peru, physical violence affects 47 percent of women.
Femicide—the killing of women—has reached alarming levels in Latin America. The most recent region-wide statistics available, from 2003, show that seven Latin American countries score among the worst 10 nations when measuring the rate of femicide per one million women in 40 countries. In 2003, Guatemala had the world’s highest rate with 123 femicides per one million women. Colombia (70), El Salvador (66), Bolivia (43), Dominican Republic (37), Mexico (24), and the United States (22) followed.2 More recent figures from Guatemala showed that in 2006 two women, on average, were murdered each day.
Violence against women and girls not only costs lives, but stunts social and economic opportunities. Globally, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that in 2003 the costs of domestic violence in the United States exceeded $5.8 billion per year, with $4.1 billion going to direct medical and health care services and $1.8 billion the result of absenteeism.3
There have been encouraging legislative responses around the world. A 2006 study by the United Nations Secretary General on all forms of violence against women reported that 89 countries have passed some legislation on domestic violence, and a growing number of countries have launched national plans of action. However, in 102 countries there are no specific legal provisions against domestic violence, and in at least 53 nations marital rape is not a prosecutable offense.4
Over the last 30 years, most Latin American governments have implemented policies and passed legislation to address the issue. Many of these changes are guided by a regional legislative instrument, the Inter-American Convention of Belem do Para (1994), which recommends that states amend their penal codes to impose penalties for violence against women and adopt measures that prevent perpetrators from harassing, intimidating or threatening victims.
The convention also urges states to establish effective legal procedures for victims, including access to restitution and reparations. More recently, since 2005, six Latin American countries have focused on second-generation legislation, which has broadened the focus to address violence against women in the areas of migration, trafficking and conflict and crisis situations.
In Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela these second-generation laws have applied lessons learned from previous legislation. The underlying concept of the new legislation is that violence is a multidimensional problem, with multiple manifestations at the domestic level and in the public sphere. It has shifted the traditional concept of intra-family violence toward a broader understanding that women are victims of violence in the workplace, in the streets, in conflict situations, and in public transportation. Nevertheless, the incremental advances have been mainly linked to the judiciary, the provision of services to victims of violence, capacity building of police, and improvement of services in the health sector.5
Much more needs to be done. One of the main challenges is the failure of states to create a climate of justice—a problem that leads to alarming levels of impunity. For example, in Guatemala, of the 2,920 homicides of women registered in the last five years, there have been only 184 detentions, leaving 94 percent of cases unsolved.
One key reason for the failure of many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (and particularly in Central America) to tackle the problem in an integrated way is the lack of coherence between the legislative initiatives and the culture and practices of the legal and judicial system. When the concept and laws for gender equality and the protection of the rights of women have not been incorporated into the daily practice of judicial personnel, legitimate cases of violence can often be dismissed by judges.
Although mounting international and national efforts to eradicate violence against women testify to the progress in raising awareness among policymakers and communities, an important next step is to address the issue at its cultural roots and across institutions and sectors. This requires a coherent response that includes legislation, service provision and prevention. A long-term response involves addressing the larger challenges of gender inequality and women’s empowerment through education.
Gradual recognition of this larger context has increased. In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the global multi-year UNiTE Campaign to End Violence against Women, which identifies violence against women as one of the most prevalent violations of human rights and an obstacle to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The strategy calls for raising public awareness, political will and investment. Part of that effort will require persuading governments to make it a higher priority.
1. ¡Ni una más! Del dicho al hecho: ¿Cuánto falta por recorrer ? Únete para poner fin a la violencia contra las mujeres” CEPAL 2009
2. Sanmartín, José; Second International Report Statistics and Legislation Partner Violence against Women; Queen Sofía Center for the Study of Violence; 2006
4. Ending violence against women: From words to action, Study of the Secretary-General United Nations, 2006