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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The numbers are shocking but reflect some positive news: More women are reporting the crime, and the news media are paying attention to it, particularly when it comes to domestic violence.Skip to next paragraph
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"For a long time, women didn't come forward," says Alessandra Guedes, the regional adviser on intrafamily violence at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office of the World Health Organization, and coauthor of a forthcoming study comparing violence against women in 12 countries in the region. "It was very much a private issue ... dealt [with] within four walls."
Initiatives such as all-female police stations in Brazil for battered women have made it easier for women to come forward. Nonprofit organizations are reaching out to young men and boys to help chip away at machismo. There is also a spate of new legislation across the region.
A 2010 law in El Salvador and one in 2008 in Guatemala seek stronger protections for female victims of violence. On Nov. 15 the Argentine congress passed a law making femicide a crime that carries a life sentence.
In Colombia, new legislation that went into effect this summer stipulates that victims of domestic violence cannot withdraw their complaints and that persons other than the victim can report violence. Medical personnel who suspect a person is the victim of domestic violence are now obligated to report their suspicions to police.
Another initiative seeks to include femicide in the Colombian penal code, a bill that was prompted by a brutal attack on Rosa Elvira Cely in a Bogotá park last May. Ms. Cely, a single mother who sold candy on the streets, was found under a tree; she was barely alive after being raped and tortured. She died four days later. The brutality of her attack prompted nationwide demonstrations and campaigns.
"We had been working on drafting something like this for some time, but what happened to Rosa Elvira was the last straw. It mobilized so many people," says Teresa Martinez, an aide to Sen. Gloria Inés Ramirez, who is sponsoring Colombia's bill.
The 'biggest challenge'
But women's rights advocates say that impunity is their biggest challenge, which is one of the main priorities of the UNiTE campaign. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, half of all Central American women have been subjected to violence during their adult lives, but half of all verdicts delivered in cases of violence against women end in acquittals.
"Impunity sends a message of tolerance. I can rape you and nothing happens, and I can kill you because nothing will happen," says Ms. Juarez from El Salvador.
The limits of legislation are clear in Brazil. In 2006, the Maria da Penha Law was signed, increasing the maximum sentences for domestic violence from one year to three, and providing protective measures for at-risk women. The year following its enactment the number of women murdered dropped significantly.
But according to a 2012 study by the Instituto Sangari, by 2008 the rate had returned to pre-law levels.
In February, a congressional investigative committee in Brazil began analyzing cases in which public officials have refused to invoke the law.
Sen. Ana Rita, a member of the committee, says the law faces resistance from judges. She cites the recent case of Renata Rocha Araújo, a 28-year-old who was turned down twice for protective measures against her husband by a judge who argued that the María da Penha Law was not made to break up families. She was killed in May.
Senator Rita implored the nation to demand more from all parts of society.
"What vision of family do these judges have that they ignore the violence against women in their homes?" she says.