'Femicide' in Guatemala: Does the concept obscure more than it illuminates?

Guest blogger Mike Allison argues that when we talk about 'femicide' or the killing of women – a major concern in Guatemala – one should look beyond murder rates to victims' conditions.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
A woman holds a sign during the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women march in Guatemala City on Nov. 25, 2011. The annual march aims to raise public awareness of violence against women. The sign reads, "Together and united for justice".

Two thousand women marched through the streets of Guatemala City last week in support of the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. 

"Violence and impunity are still the major problems facing Guatemalan women. Violent deaths are not ending, and the crimes are more and more violent," activist Sandra Moran told AFP.

As I mentioned last week, "femicide," or the intentional killing of women, continues to be a major concern in Guatemala. Approximately 650 women have so far been killed this year and the country is on pace to record the same number of female murder victims as 2010.

Obviously, it's terrible anytime that a person is killed. However, it's important to keep a few things in mind when it comes to the murder rate of women in Guatemala. Most of the following statistics come from Carlos A. Mendoza's post on ¡NO MAS VIOLENCIA CONTRA LAS MUJERES!

First, Guatemala's homicide rate in 2010 was 41 per 100,000. This is the rate based upon the entire country's population. For men, the homicide rate was 75 per 100,000 and the rate was 9 per 100,000 for women. In terms of homicides, it's dangerous to be a female but it's much more dangerous to be a male, especially a young male.

Second, while the absolute number of women killed in Guatemala is on pace to reach the number killed last year, the rate in 2010 (9 per 100,000) and probably 2011 will be down from 2008 and 2009 (10 per 100,000). Not great, but again, I'd rather that the rate be in decline than on the uptick. On the other hand, the drop in the murder rate between 2009 and 2010 was much greater among men (85 to 75 per 100,000) than it was among women (10 to 9 per 100,000).

Third, on average, 18 percent of the world's murder victims are women. In Guatemala, 10 percent of the victims are women. Therefore, as a percentage of murders in Guatemala compared to other areas of the world, women are murdered at a lower rate than men. In the United States, 21 percent of the homicide victims in 2005 were women. As recently as 2008, 23 percent of the US' murder victims were women.

Finally, the 838 women killed last year is the maximum number of women killed because of femicide – they were killed because they were women or as a consequence of gender-based violence. Some of the women were killed in robberies, extortion attempts, and drive-by shootings of one kind or another. Not all were necessarily killed because they were women. So the 838 number is the maximum number of women who were intentionally killed because they were women.

My point isn't to say that life for women in Guatemala is easy or that one should be happy about any reduction or leveling off of the murder rate against women. I would say that when we talk about femicide or the killing of women in Guatemala and around the world, one can't just start and stop with the number killed.

The killing of women in Guatemala and elsewhere is particularly heinous because women are often killed by their spouses or other family members. Women are frequently the victim of long-term abuse that only ends in murder. Focusing solely on their deaths neglects the long-term suffering that they endured in life. 

Finally, women are often sexually abused or tortured immediately before being killed. Their bodies are then left in a public place, for among other reasons, to instill fear in others. It's not just that women are murdered; it's the fact that they are so horribly victimized in death.

Those who use the term femicide would most likely agree that the term is not meant to characterize only the act of murder. However, I do wonder whether the increased use of the term obscures more than it illuminates.

--- Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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