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Violence against women in Latin America: Is it getting worse?

Across Latin America, women are confronting a rise in brutal attacks – as advocates struggle to sustain the progress that's been made in curbing violence against women.

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In 2009, Mexico recorded its highest number of femicides since 1985, recording 1,858 deaths, according to a UN report.

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"We have documented an alarming growth of femicide in the country," says Jose Martinez Cruz, the head of a human rights organization in the state of Morelos in central Mexico.

Patsili Toledo, a Chilean lawyer active in women's rights issues, says the drug war, like most armed conflict, is particularly dangerous for women. They become more vulnerable amid a breakdown of law and order and social mores.

Women have certainly become victims of the drug trade as they participate in it; but in some cases, women are used as a form of social cohesion among gang members. The men can bond over inflicting violence against women. That may have been a motive in another setback for women in Mexico, when a group of teens on a spiritual retreat in July was overtaken by a gang that raped five women and girls.

Three of the suspects admitted to doing so after other gang members pressured them.

"The bodies of these women are a way of hurting the enemy," Ms. Toledo says. "There are also many, many more guns and weapons. That [kind of] domestic environment is more dangerous for everyone."

But beyond the context of organized crime, gender violence is still firmly entrenched in Latin America. This is especially true in terms of domestic violence, which in some places is getting worse and more brutal.

The number of femicides in Chile, which defines it as the murder of a woman by a current or former partner or husband, has jumped 31 percent in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year, according to a study by the nongovernmental group Activa and Pedro de Valdivia University.

'Permanent face of violence'

At least 282 women were murdered in gender-related crime in 2011 in Argentina; and among 542 women killed there in the past two years, 43 died after being set on fire by their attackers, according to La Casa del Encuentro, a women's rights organization in Buenos Aires.

In Colombia, a phenomenon of acid attacks against women has been reported. It is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to record such acts, which are more common in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan.

"Acid attack victims are the most visible and permanent face of violence against women," says Linda Guerrero, a plastic surgeon who heads a foundation for burn victims in Bogotá and spearheads a campaign to highlight the prevalence of such attacks in Colombia.

In 2011, official records show 42 women in Colombia were attacked with acid, and in 2012 there have been at least 19. But Olga Victoria Rubio, a city councilwoman in Bogotá, says the number is much higher than what the official records show.

"Most women are attacked by their partners and are terrified of reporting it," Ms. Rubio says.

In Hernandez's case, her attack is not included in any official registry as an acid attack. Though she reported the event, no investigation was ever opened, she says, because prosecutors left it up to her to collect evidence.

Additionally, many victims see little point in reporting the attacks because they are treated as misdemeanors, and perpetrators are not likely to face harsh repercussions, Rubio says. A bill making its way through Colombia's Congress would change that, classifying acid attacks as attempted homicide.

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