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ARGENTINA: Bold New Law on Violence Against Women

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 12 2009 (IPS) - Argentina now has an ambitious new law to prevent, punish and eradicate physical, psychological and economic violence against women, in both the private and public spheres. But the big challenge, say experts, will be to put it into practice.

The new legislation approved by a broad majority of lawmakers Wednesday replaces a national law on domestic violence, which failed to recognise that women are not only the targets of violence in their homes.

Studies estimate that 4.5 million women a year in Argentina suffer some kind of gender violence.

In an interview with IPS, sociologist Eleonor Faur, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) official in Argentina, said the passage of the law “is excellent news” and underlined that it defines violence against women “in a broad sense,” based on a comprehensive concept of the phenomenon that is not limited to the family setting.

But Faur admitted that the state faces “an immense challenge” in turning its promises into reality.

She said the institutions in charge of enforcing the law will have to be granted the authority and funds to effectively protect women.

Faur also highlighted the creation of an Observatory on Violence against Women, under the new law, which will keep track of all cases of violence nationwide and monitor the effectiveness of the country’s policies and legislation.

The new law is in line with cutting-edge legislation against “machista” violence in the broadest sense, passed in the last three years in Spain, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guatemala and, this year, Colombia. But in general, there have been complaints of a lack of will on the part of the authorities to enforce the new laws.

The Argentine legislation foresees a national action plan to combat violence against women, guarantees access to justice by providing for free legal assistance and expedited legal proceedings, ensures comprehensive assistance for the victims, and makes a commitment to tear down socio-cultural patterns that foment gender violence.

The challenge ahead

Silvia Casiró, the director of technical assistance on the National Women’s Council, told IPS that implementing the new law “will be an enormous challenge.”

The state “will have to be equal to the commitments assumed, by providing an adequate budget as established by the law.”

“Laws in and of themselves can be dead letter,” said Casiró. “The important thing is for women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, to commit ourselves to applying it nationwide. To that end, we are going to design a plan in which civil society organisations take part, to ensure the effective implementation of the law.”

According to a report by the Argentine chapter of Amnesty International, violence against women is a generalised practice in this country, in the home and in the community, and an effective, coherent and coordinated policy is needed to prevent and eradicate it.

In the November 2008 report, the rights watchdog complains that the National Women’s Council’s global budget is less than one-sixth of what is dedicated to promoting tourism, and that only a small fraction of the funds goes towards addressing violence.

But now, the new law specifically calls for a budget “in accordance with” the ambitious goals it sets out.

Although the legislation passed on Wednesday came in for isolated criticism from opposition lawmakers, for failing to specifically mention the case of women in prison, or the victims of networks that traffic women for the purposes of sexual exploitation, for instance, it was applauded by a majority of women’s groups.

Different forms of violence

The law defines violence as “any behaviour, action or omission that directly or indirectly, in the public or private sphere, based on an unequal relationship of power, affects the life, freedom, dignity, physical, psychological, sexual or economic integrity, or security of women.”

It adds that this includes behaviour, actions or omissions on the part of the state or its agents, which implies a commitment on the part of the police, judges, doctors and other officials who deal with problems involving gender violence.

According to La Casa del Encuentro, a women’s centre in Buenos Aires, the press reported the murders of 207 women in 2008, most of whom were killed by their partners or former partners.

But the law goes beyond physical violence, condemning psychological violence that causes “a loss of self-esteem and seeks to degrade women or control their actions by means of threats, harassment, bullying, manipulation, isolation, feelings of guilt, demands for obedience, excessive jealousy, ridicule, etc.”

It also takes aim at sexual, economic or symbolic violence in the home, public institutions or workplace. For example, setting requirements in the workplace related to age, physical appearance or maternity is considered a violation of women’s rights, as is unequal pay for the same task.

The law also covers violence or abuse during childbirth and obstacles to reproductive freedom.

Susana Chiarotti, a specialist in violence with the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), told IPS that the group’s recommendations regarding this issue were incorporated by the women legislators who sponsored the law.

For nearly a decade, CLADEM has been carrying out research on the mistreatment of women recovering from illegal abortions, or expectant mothers, in public health institutions. The group has also been involved in providing special training for health professionals in several provinces, to prevent such abuses.

“It is a deep-rooted and widely accepted form of violence, disguised by a false show of paternalism, and women believe they must accept this treatment because the service is free of charge,” said Chiarotti.

She said the legal framework provided by the law “was necessary, in order to continue making progress, and to send out a clear message to the justice system, that it must act quickly.”

At any rate, the law “will be even better once it has a budget and an action plan, and is effectively put into practice,” she added.

Chiarotti also said there was heated debate in Congress with respect to the violence “that undermines women’s right to decide, freely and responsibly, on the number of pregnancies, or to space their births,” with a handful of legislators abstaining from voting on the bill on the argument that this article opened the door to the future decriminalisation of abortion.

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  • fabrizzo

    I dont get why women council has to be allocated any funds at all,seeing that there isnt a men’s council in the first place