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CHILE: Fine Tuning the Fight Against Domestic Violence

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, May 8 2007 (IPS) - The trial of Alfredo Cabrera, a Chilean man accused of murdering his six-year-old daughter by throwing her from the window of their seventh floor apartment after trying to kill his partner, will open Wednesday, amidst a clamour for him to be handed the maximum sentence.

“We are demanding the stiffest sentence for this emblematic case of violence against women,” Soledad Rojas, coordinator of the Chilean Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which groups more than 40 non-governmental organisations from around the country, told IPS.

“The justice system should send out a clear signal to society that this kind of crime just cannot happen,” said the activist.

The prosecutor’s office has asked for the most severe sentence, which in Chile is life in prison (40 years without the possibility of parole).

In December 2005, Cabrera tried to kill his partner by stabbing her in the head with a sharp object, and she almost bled to death. He later threw their daughter out the window of their seventh-floor apartment in central Santiago.

The start of the trial against Cabrera, 38, was scheduled for Monday. But it was postponed till Wednesday because his defence attorney failed to show up for the hearing – an unprecedented event.

The girl’s mother, Claudia Neira Oportus, 35, “is in really bad shape, and is medicated” for her psychological problems, Patsilí Toledo, the lawyer for the non-governmental Corporación Humanas, who is acting as her legal representative, told IPS.

According to data compiled by the governmental National Women’s Service (SERNAM) from the crime pages of local newspapers, 14 women were murdered by their boyfriends, partners or spouses, family members or stalkers in the first quarter of the year.

The Chilean Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence, meanwhile, counted 18 cases in that period of “femicide”, a term that has been coined for misogynist or gender-motivated murders of women or girls. The latest victim was a 13-year-old girl who was raped and then hung by a 30-year-old man in the city of Chillán, in the southern Bío-Bío region.

According to Rojas, some 50 “femicides” are committed annually in this country of 15.6 million people – nearly one a week. In 2006, just under 39,000 cases of domestic violence were filed with the prosecutor’s office.

“The femicide problem is becoming more visible in Chile, but is still not fully understood,” said Rojas.

These murders “are related to the abuse and violence that women suffer every day, in all spheres of life – in the home, workplace and street; they are not an isolated phenomenon” that only involves people with mental problems, she said.

“Underlying the domestic violence, sexual harassment, groping in the subway, or unequal wages is a culture that favours male authority and exercise of power over women,” said the activist.

Although the proportion of femicides committed in Chile is not as high as in many other Latin American countries, the persistence of the phenomenon is a concern for civil society and the government.

In Mexico, a country of 104 million people, some 2,000 women are murdered every year, more than five per day, according to Mexico’s National Statistics Institute. However, this figure includes both women who are killed as a result of domestic violence and the victims of other kinds of violence.

In Guatemala, population 12.3 million, 566 femicides were committed in the first 10 months of 2006, and in El Salvador, a country of seven million, the total for the first eight months of 2006 was 286, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

In Peru, population 28 million, 142 women were killed by their partners or spouses, family members or acquaintances in 2003.

Since early 2006, the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet has opened 14 battered women’s shelters in Chile and more than 30 walk-in centres to which victims of domestic violence can turn for help.

The shelters, which have space for a total of 900 people, currently house 15 women at risk and their children under the age of 12.

Last year, the walk-in centres provided some 6,000 women with legal and psychological aid as well as assistance for completing studies and gaining economic independence.

Deputy Adriana Muñoz of the co-governing Party for Democracy (PPD) told IPS that “femicides are merely articles in the crime pages in the press. There is little awareness of how serious the situation is, and a great deal of ignorance, which is even reflected in the statistics.”

A month ago, Muñoz presented two draft laws aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence, to replace legislation that she considers inadequate.

One of her draft laws would classify femicide as a specific crime in the penal code. “The bill also proposes to eliminate (the benefits available to the accused) for irreproachable former conduct” and lack of a criminal record, said the lawmaker.

She also presented an initiative to amend the law on intra-family violence, in order to give judges more legal instruments to protect women.

“We need to use modern mechanisms to keep attackers from even getting near their victims. Batterers could use, for example, electronic bracelets with GPS (global positioning system) that allows their location to be tracked, or women could be given radios for early alerts” in case of danger, she said.

Muñoz believes that to better assess and combat the problem, the authorities must keep closer records on cases, and not only compile newspaper reports.

The newspaper La Tercera reported Monday that the public prosecutor’s office is carrying out a study, to be ready by the end of the year, that will gauge the proportion of cases in which victims of domestic violence drop the charges and ask that the investigation be closed because they have forgiven their abusers.

Although reliable statistics are not available, it is estimated that charges are dropped in 50 percent of domestic violence cases.

“Women drop the charges out of fear that the batterer will beat them again when he finds out about the complaint,” said SERNAM Minister Laura Albornoz.

Other reasons that lead victims to follow that route include “the shame of being publicly identified as a battered or psychologically abused woman..and because women believe that they are solely responsible for keeping the family together.”

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