Femicides in Latin America: 21 Countries Face Alarming Violence
Where is the violence specifically against women rooted, and is it connected with the steep levels of overall violence?
The media organization, BBC Mundo, recently took on the challenge of addressing the alarming levels of deaths amongst women in Latin America, thus magnifying the social factors embedded in society, such as poverty, inequality, lack of education, and domestic violence. The investigative reporting team used the knowledge and expertise of Carmen Moreno, executive administrator with the Comisión Inter-Americana de Mujeres (Inter-American Commission of Women) to produce a “femicide map” depicting information or data relevant to femicides for each of the 21 countries (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina).
Moreno points to the inequalities that exist between the sexes, compounded by social problems as the root cause of the murders committed against women. Femicides or feminicidios (or femicidios) are specific murders against women because of their gender. This gender-base phenomena have just recently been recognized as a serious social problem and, although some investigations have been launched, overall the studies are too narrowly focused and lack in a comprehensive perspective (see Femicidio en América Latina). Moreno cites a serious problem with quantifying the numbers of murdered women by most of the countries in Latin America, and without the data to demonstrate as evidence of need, advocates are hard-pressed to convey a need for action when policy and lawmakers depend on “numbers” to pass legislation. Whether femicides are related to the ongoing organized crime violence raging the various Latin American is in one hand a part of the overall problem, however, Moreno points out that violence against women has been ongoing far longer than the violent incidents characterized by gang or drug-related battles or wars.
How many femicides or disappearances?
The following chart lists the approximate numbers of femicides or women that have disappeared and presumably dead, beginning with the country, a time period when these femicdes took place and the numbers. This data were collected from several sources and cited in BBC Mundo’s article.
Several striking observations are notable, namely that the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and additionally, the Dominican Republic and Colombia are at the top of the lists for the most femicides committed during the periods reported. However, official data on femicides or disappearances are missing from Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela. At first glance, it appears as though these countries lack the resources to collect the data, perhaps, systematically or technologically, however, that isn’t always the case. In Venezuela, for example, two important organizations are poised to conduct a project for data collection, Fundamujer, directed by Ofelia Alvarez, and in collaboration with the Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. One important issue in regards to quantifying femicides is the operational definition of violence against women. Some countries don’t recognize femicidal incidence as separate from domestic violence. Whereas their data reflect the number of women that have been victims of violence, there are no categories specifically for femicides.
Three questions central to the theme of this article are discussed in the following sections:
- Where does the data come from?
- Why the relatively frequent occurrence of femicides? and
- What are governments or organizations doing about this problem?
Where does the data come from?
If governments and/or other entities are to take measures to protect women from violence and death, it is imperative that a systematic structure is employed to collect and disseminate information in a timely and accurate way. The following list provides a general overview of data collection sources:
- “Observatorios” or monitoring systems such as the ones employed in Panama, “Observatorio de Feminicidio Panameño,” and the “Observatorio de la Criminalidad” in Peru. México has a similar system of collecting and organizing the data.
- Government-sponsored organizations such as “La Comisión Presidencial Para Abordaje del Femicidio (COPAF).
- Police departments such as “La Policia Nacional” in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador also relies on data from the United Nations Organization, the Global Homicide, 2011.
- Forensic sources, such as the “Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses,” and the “Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses,” in Colombia, El Salvador, and Cuba.
- Brazil relies on the data from the Facultad Latina Americana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO).
- Networks such as “La Red de Mujeres Contra la Violencia,” and “Centro de Información y Desarrollo de Mujer (CIDEM),” the “Servicio Nacional de la Mujer” (SERNAM) in Chile, and the “Centro de Atención Ayuda Para la Mujer” in Ecuador.
- The judicial division, “Poder Judicial de Costa Rica.”
‘Most Murders Are Committed by Someone the Victims Knew’
The ‘cause of death’ that explains why the femicides were committed often reflects the manner by which femicides are identified. Since a majority of the femicides are defined within the context of domestic violence, the data indicate that the most likely persons that committed the murders were men for whom they were having a relationship or had one previously, and the murder site was the home of the victim. This is the case for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Haiti was noted for increased femicides and violence against women due to the displacements of families as result of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. But, reports of femicides have been slowly exposed, breaking ground in an otherwise conservative environment where people seem to be in denial.
The Case of Karina del Poza Killed in Ecuador
When Karina del Poza’s badly beaten, lifeless body was found her family members, outraged and mournful, questioned why this senseless crime had been committed against a 20-year old. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled. Their outcry became a national voice for change and highlighted the hatred and aggression against women that is at the core of femicides. Besides justice, the family wanted other families who’s loved ones were victims of femicide to come forth and share their stories. Their stories exemplify how gender-based murders are increasingly discussed and treated openly as a social problem, and how the social media plays a huge role in rallying support around a once-taboo topic.
The Case of Fátima Catán in Argentina
Fátima Catán from Buenos Aires ultimately died from burns over 95% of her body. Her mother suspected her boyfriend who she said beat her and then, set her on fire to cover his tracks. Her cruel, horrendous death drew public attention, especially since the revelation that 13 other women had also met the same fate as Fátima within one year. Critics complained about the judicial system’s lack of efficiency in prosecuting the cases. The non-profit organization promoting justice and prevention of femicides, La Casa del Encuentro garnered the support of the public at a national level, and in its campaign broadcasted the information that femicides were a serious problem, that 210 women had been beaten to death in 2010. Congress woman, Cecilia Merchán elevated the cause for support and justice for women by introducing legislation to reform existing laws which she claims don’t do enough to protect women.
The Fight Against Violence Toward Women and Femicides
The wheels of justice may turn slowly but there is evidence that governments are making inroads in efforts to protect women. Several laws developed to do just that and punish the perpetrators have been passed and enforced. Among these are:
- Nicaragua’s Ley 779 passed a year ago has wrought strong reactions from both sides of the issue. Ley 779 punishes those guilty of inflicting physical or psychological harm to women of all ages. The punishment is hefty according to its critics, carrying prison sentences of up to 30 years. Many women have actively endorsed the law, however, many are vocal in their doubts on whether the law is enough to combat gender-base violence, adding that prison punishment would not deter someone who is intent on killing their wife or partner. The arguments have generated dialogue among Nicaraguans on questions regarding the role of women in society, what constitutes domestic violence, and what is fair in regards to justice for the victims.
- Peru passed a law that punishes the perpetrator for gender-base crimes in December, 2011.
- Bolivia passed La Ley Integral Para Garantizar a las Mujeres una Vida Libre de Violencia. Additionally, a special police force has been created to enforce the law called Policia Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra la Violencia. Their data from Cochabamba, Bolivia, indicate that 27 of 170 criminals convicted under the new law have received prison sentences, about 1.5%. A small percentage but on the right track.
- In Chile, the Ley de Feminicidio, passed in 2010, resulted in one conviction of life in prison for a man who killed his wife or girlfriend. However, their statistics show that violent crimes against women have not decreased.
- Haiti has proposed new legislation.
- Puerto Rico passed the Ley 54 de 1989 specifically for convictions of domestic violence. Recently, the legislature has proposed a new law that would punish perpetrators specifically for the crime of femicide.
- Honduras has one of the highest femicides per capita, yet supporters and activitist’ outcry is toward the lack of efficiency in enforcement and judicial systems rather than the absence of a specific law. Impunity for the perpetrators seems to be the rule than the exception since 97% of the 1,100 femicides committed in 2011-2012 have not been justly processed. Two important campaigns by the networks, Tribuna de las Mujeres Contra Femicidios and Mujeres de Tegucigalpa have raised awareness of the enormous challenge of gender-base violence, especially in Honduras where each month 51 femicides are committed.
- El Salvador’s problems with gender-base violence are closely aligned with Honduras’ in the steep number of femicides and incidence of violence against women. In response to the alarming rates, several steps have been accomplished. Levels of resources have increased as noted in the website, Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas Por la Paz, or ORMUSA with six resource centers located throughout the country. Clearly, the organization focuses on a prevalence of “machismo” as the important cause of gender-base violence, femicides, and gender inequality,. Interestingly, the number of femicides fluctuate with the violence between the two major gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 with increased gender-base violence correlated with gang violence and vice versa. However, the violent treatment of women is evident beyond gang wars, geographic locations, and social and income stratus. During the 80’s civil armed conflict, Salvadorian women were tortured, beaten, and raped as if they were pawns in a battlefield. But, what has significantly helped in reducing the gender-base violence and femicides is the campaign to educate the public and break taboo barriers allowing women to leave abusive, dangerous relationships and denounce their perpetrators, according to Director of ORMUSA, Silvia Juárez. A special force of trained police units is present in various specific geographic locations with high violent incidence, such as Puerto de la Libertad, granting women in need legal and social support. The campaign has yielded excellent results, however, advocates and supporters who’s goal is to shatter inequalities and machista practices deeply seeded in the social institutions admit to intense work and a long journey ahead.
- Guatemala’s new law that punishes crimes of femicide as well as physical, emotional, and psychological violence was passed in 2008. The case of Guatemala is similar to other Central American countries with staggering numbers of femicides and reports of domestic violence, yet so little resources are allocated for the victims and their families. In a well-publicized case, the murder of a 15-year old, Maria Isabel Veliz Franco, horrendously tortured and strangled to death in 2001 brought to the fore the issue of femicides, the problems of inefficiency in the legal and judicial systems, impunity, and gender inequality. Amnesty International’s statistics have stirred dialogue and initiated various strategies for combatting gender-base violence. However, critics of the recent law and subsequent efforts are quick to point out the failures: since 2007 only 30% of the femicide cases have been investigated and 97% of the cases do not lead to arrests or prosecutions.
The World Wide Perspective
Social media sources and networks have facilitated the dissemination of relevant and timely information. The social media has played a huge role in assisting activists and supporters in collaborating their efforts, and systematizing effective practices, making women more visible and vocal as they fight for justice, equality, against gender-base violence and patriarchal and oligarchical structures. Included here are some of their stories and words of hope, vision, and sisterhood:
- Uruguay’s conflict of the 70’s left victims of torture, sexual violence and abuse. Twenty-eight courageous female victims have come forth to demand justice for the crimes committed against them. Yvonne Klingler Lamaudie is spokesperson and lists the demands by the women victims as: a) to declare the torture and sexual violence inflicted on the women as “crimes against humanity,” and be brought to justice and the perpetrators punished to the full extent of the law; b) the creation of tribunals under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior; and, c) the creation of support services to aid the victims and their families.
- Guatemala’s recent genocide trial has leveraged opportunities for the women victims to voice their outcry and demand justice for crimes committed against them during the armed conflict of the 70’s and 80’s. Women from the Ixil pueblo gave testimonies during the trial of Rios Montt and others accused of genocide. Their courage and strength were pivotal to rallying cries of other women from different pueblos. Their efforts of healing are chronicled here and on how they continue to fight for justice in Garay and Gago’s article. Women leaders like Dr. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a social anthropologist from the K’iché pueblo, lends her voice through the blog site of Grupo de Mujeres Ixchel.
Three thematic threads dominate the discussions about women, their rights as members of a society. First of all, there is an overwhelming perception that advocating for women, their lives, rights, and voices is a collective process. Every aspect of each countries’ governing body must work in tandem with the community and non-profit organizations to garner the needed resources and carry out a well-planned, comprehensive strategy. Secondly, every member of our society needs to buy into the responsibility of educating oneself and others about the circumstances by which women are denied access to their rights and participation as members of their society. Testimonies abound in several contexts about how women became enlightened once the veil of taboo was lifted and education ensued, helping one another understand how women are treated badly and to begin to see the alternative. And, finally, and perhaps, the most important is that understanding how women can become masters of their destiny is hinged on making substantive changes in our society. The theme of how improving our society is prerequisite to change in women’s rights and protection is evident in every case throughout the world. When women embark in campaigns to eradicate gender-base violence and femicides their vision becomes broader as their fight becomes deeper. The violence and femicides are manifestations of women’s roles in the home and/or workplace, how society has shaped perceptions of women in the context of marriage, and how women feel about themselves in regard to their gender and place in society.