Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

LATIN AMERICA: Women Murdered, Raped – and Ignored

María Cecilia Espinosa

SANTIAGO, Nov 11 2004 (IPS) - Women, especially if they are young, working class and poor, run the risk of having their murdered, mutilated and raped bodies show up some morning in the streets of numerous Latin American cities, as evidenced by the more than 1,500 cases reported in the last decade that remain unsolved and unpunished.

The critical situation throughout much of the region, and most especially in places like the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, Guatemala City, and Alto Hospicio, Chile, as well as Brazil and El Salvador, led Amnesty International (AI) to organise a conference entitled Day of Reflection: Femicide in Latin America, held in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 5 and attended by women’s rights activists, academics, lawmakers and officials.

According to the conference participants, these crimes weigh upon the conscience of the region’s governments, because they have failed to take action in accordance with their obligations as established in international law, and have thus permitted the impunity of femicide – the murder of women who are killed specifically because they are women.

Anthropologist Isabel Espinosa, one of the speakers at the conference, told IPS that femicide typically involves sexual violence. "Quite often these women are found with their genitals mutilated, and most of them have been raped," she said.

"Their bodies are positioned so that their sex organs are exposed…There is an intentional sexual connotation in these murders of women," she added.

The London-based Amnesty International, which organised the Day of Reflection, launched a global Stop Violence Against Women campaign on Mar. 8, 2004 – International Women’s Day. The organisation has stressed that the problem of violence against women is a human rights problem, and should be addressed on the basis of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of these rights.

The steps needed to stop the violence include promoting gender equality, seeking justice for gender-based human rights violations, and clearly defining the responsibilities of individual governments and the international community in punishing the perpetrators of these crimes, according to AI.

Femicide has cost the lives of thousands of women in Latin America over the last decade. Women in the region have been made particularly vulnerable by the decline in socio-economic indicators, added to the deep-rooted patriarchal culture of machismo, in which misogyny is more easily tolerated, and violent death can be used as a form of intimidation to "keep women in their place".

One of the most highly publicised cases is that of Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the border with the United States. Since 1993, at least 300 women have been kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered.

All of the victims were young and poor. Some were migrants on their way to the United States, some were students, others were workers in "maquiladoras", for-export assembly plants located along the border that are primarily foreign-owned and completely unregulated thanks to trade liberalisation.

International pressure forced the Mexican government to open an investigation in 2001. According to the information gathered by Espinosa, however, not only have the original murders remained unsolved and unpunished, but there have also been an additional 400 to 4,000 reports of missing women and between 30 and 70 unidentified female corpses found.

"The discrepancy between the figures provided by the government and women’s organisations is suspicious," the anthropologist added.

In the meantime, in the impoverished Chilean town of Alto Hospicio, 1,800 kilometres north of Santiago, 17 young women, of whom 11 were under 18 years of age, were kidnapped, raped, beaten and murdered between 1998 and 2001.

Each time another young women was reported missing, the authorities blamed the victims themselves, alleging that they had run away from abusive homes or were involved in prostitution or human trafficking, reflecting an attitude described by specialists as criminalisation of the poor.

"The women of Alto Hospicio were not treated as full citizens while they were missing, nor after they were found dead," said sociologist Sonia Vargas, another of the conference’s speakers.

In the case of Chile, the government offered financial compensation to the families of the victims of Alto Hospicio, but they are still marked by the stigma of being poor, which deprives them of their right to justice, she said.

Guatemala is another example of critical levels of violence against women that have been largely ignored, a situation that AI would like to remedy.

Since 2001, the bodies of over a thousand women who have been strangled, decapitated or otherwise mutilated have been found in hotel rooms or on the street. In many cases, a sign has been placed on their corpses, reading "death to the bitches," reminiscent of the torture used by government troops against women human rights activists during the country’s bloody 36-year civil war (1960-1996).

The victims lived in working-class or slum neighbourhoods, and most were either domestic workers or students. They ranged in age from 13 to 36.

Last year alone, there were 383 violent cases of femicide reported in that Central American country, and 306 of those cases remain unsolved, according to the only study carried out on the matter, by the Non-Violence Network, a Guatemalan non-governmental organisation.

In February, the United Nations acknowledged that the number of femicide cases in Guatemala, while almost completely overlooked, far outstripped those reported in Ciudad Juárez, which has been much more widely publicised.

Yakin Erturk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, personally visited Guatemala and concluded, among other things, that the high degree of impunity for violence against women made it likely that at least some of the violence was committed by the authorities.

For women’s organisations, these murders are a result of the patriarchal system that prevails throughout Latin America, where power is exercised almost exclusively by men, and women who dare to break with cultural expectations place themselves in a vulnerable situation.

In the case of many of the victims in Guatemala, Espinosa noted, "These were girls who didn’t follow traditional gender roles. They were young students who went to discotheques, and weren’t afraid to go out at night, which was seen as a transgression."

Ingrid Wehr, a political scientist from the University of Chile, commented that in all of the different cases, the apathy shown by the police in responding to the murders "reflects the stereotypes of patriarchal societies where violence is tolerated as a form of domination over women, who are seen as lesser beings."

Claudio Nash, the coordinator of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Chile, told IPS that the lack of concern on the part of the authorities "results from cultural and institutional factors that permit not only serial violence, as in these cases, but also domestic violence, which are both essentially ignored by the state."

As a consequence, he said, the state is indirectly responsible for violence against women, for having failed to act with due diligence in ensuring the investigation and punishment of these crimes and providing compensation for the victims and their families, as it is obliged to do by virtue of international law.

For Nash, there is also a cultural gender bias that serves to downplay these problems. "It’s as if for the simple fact that they are women, the violence or poverty they endure is not important, and being subjected to these kinds of attacks is almost intrinsic to being a woman. They are not seen as violations of basic human rights."

The concept of femicide has yet to be incorporated in any national legislation, and is still used primarily in academic circles and the feminist movement, because "it is more political. It doesn’t refer solely to an individual aggressor, but also alludes to the existence of a state structure and legal system that permit these crimes," Espinosa explained.

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women – also known as the Convention of Belém do Pará, in reference to the Brazilian city where it was adopted by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1994 – established precise definitions of violence against women and clearly specified the rights of women and the duties of the states in ensuring that those rights are fulfilled.

The Rome Statute, which is the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court, also specifically refers to persecution on the grounds of gender and defines crimes against humanity as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack, both of which are basic elements of femicide.

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