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LATIN AMERICA: Everyone Pays for Domestic Violence

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 7 2009 (IPS) - After 26 years raising three children in an economically comfortable marriage, Dora finally understood that staying with her husband meant “choosing death.” “I had to lock myself into my daughter’s room at night for fear that he would hit me with a baseball bat while I slept,” she told IPS.

At the beginning, the mistreatment was verbal and so subtle that she didn’t even realise that she was a victim of psychological abuse. While her husband became more and more successful, she took care of the house and raised the kids. “He questioned my desire to study, my dreams; he criticised my family, my friends, and isolated me from everyone,” she said.

According to statistics provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Rebeca Grynspan, between 30 and 45 percent of women in the region suffer some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence.

The cost of that violence in Latin America and the Caribbean is equivalent to two percent of GDP on average, said the official.

Impact on state coffers

Ana Falú, director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Brazil and the Southern Cone region, told IPS that a more reliable estimate of the costs is needed, but that the impact on different areas is far from negligible.

For example, the costs are felt in the criminal justice system, special training for police and special police units, maintenance of shelters, medical care, social services, education and prevention.

Women’s organisations want this impact to become more visible, in order to demonstrate that everyone pays for domestic violence.

“We are talking about the costs of the judicial procedures that arise from domestic violence cases, the demand for health services for the victims, and the labour impact, because days of work are lost,” said Falú.

But the important thing is that because of violence against women, “society as a whole loses resources and skills that should be at the service of development,” without counting the “intangible costs” in the future – the children who grow up in homes where “machista” rage and violence are the norm, she said.

The slogan for International Women’s Day – Mar. 8 – this year is “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”.

Dora’s story

The first thing Dora, 47, did when she left home two years ago was to call the government hotline for domestic abuse victims. She remembers crying for an hour straight, unable to speak, and only able to listen to the woman who was helping her on the other end of the line.

From there, she was referred to group treatment with other women in similar situations, and to individual therapy. Once she realised that her life was in danger if she stayed with her husband, she received legal support from the state.

“What prompted me to make the call was seeing that my 17-year-old son already had really violent reactions, which is the worst thing – seeing that your kids have learned the same behaviour. My son insulted me, and instead of scolding him, his father laughed,” said Dora, who in spite of everything was able to “start a new life.”

“In the group there are women from all walks of life, there are even psychologists and lawyers,” which surprised her when she joined. “Many say they stay at home because of the kids, but for them that’s worse. My 12-year-old daughter helped me pack when I left, because she saw her father chase me with a baseball bat.”

When Dora left home, her husband tried to keep her from taking anything with her. “He told me that he had paid for everything we owned.”

Dora, who went back to school, said her husband’s violence moved on from verbal to physical when she began to set out on a career of her own. “For being myself, he said I had betrayed him.”

Now she is a “psycho-corporal consultant” who works on a team with psychologists and psychiatrists as part of a network that provides free assistance to people who suffer from anxiety disorders, the “Red Sanar” (Healing Network).

“I don’t have the same living standards anymore, but I’m happy, I’m studying, I try to be independent, I have friends, I can invite my family to my home,” she said.

In an interview with IPS, Sonia Stegman, coordinator of the six Integral Women’s Centres that deal with cases of domestic violence in the city of Buenos Aires, explained that the helpline that Dora called works 24/7, 365 days out of the year.

After the initial emergency is addressed, the women are referred to the centres, where they receive free psychological and legal assistance. Abuse victims facing a risk to their lives can go to battered women shelters, and there are four homes where the women can live for one or two years, to help them get back on their feet.

Provincial governments have also set up helplines and shelters.

In 2008, the Supreme Court opened an office on domestic violence, staffed by over 70 employees. In four months it received more than 2,000 calls, 86 percent of which were from women.

A similar service has begun to be organised in the provinces, under the authority of the highest court in each district.

“In the homes, which provide a temporary solution for women who have no social protection network, they receive support to gradually get back into education and work. Many of them have children attending school, and there are teenage mothers, as well as pregnant victims of sexual violence,” said Stegman.

In her view, the costs to the state in Argentina and other countries in the region could be brought down with greater prevention efforts and heightened awareness regarding the extent of the problem on the part of the authorities, institutions and society as a whole.

“We need a major cultural change, starting with education. We have women who have returned to the system up to three times because of violence, and this phenomenon has a multiplying effect on the children,” she said.

As UNIFEM’s Falú says, violence against women “is not a private problem.”

“It is not just a concern for women, but for society as a whole, for democratic systems everywhere; it is a key development issue,” she said, which is why precise estimates of the economic cost of domestic violence are so urgently needed.

Measuring the impact

The World Bank report “Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean” says it is necessary to gauge the economic impact in order to gain a true understanding of the magnitude of the problem and determine its relative importance within the spate of problems facing development.

In Colombia, for example, the state spends 74 million dollars a year in assistance for mistreated women.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that the cost of violence against women ranges between 1.3 percent and five percent of GDP in the region overall.

“El costo del silencio. Violencia doméstica en las Américas” (The Cost of Silence; Domestic Violence in the Americas), an IDB study, said women victims of domestic violence have lower overall incomes than other women, which represents a regional loss in terms of wages of between 1.6 and two percent.

In statements made in Venezuela, which she visited during the first week of March, Winnie Byanyima from Uganda, the director of the UNDP gender team, illustrated the problem by pointing out that in just one year, more than four billion dollars were spent in the United States on medical expenses and medical or mental treatment for the victims of domestic violence.

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