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Q&A: “We Have Linked Machismo and Femicide in the Public Mind in Chile”

Daniela Estrada interviews Chilean activist GLORIA MAIRA

SANTIAGO, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - More than 500 Chilean women have been killed by their partners, ex-partners or strangers since 2001. This year alone, there have been 52 “femicides”, economist Gloria Maira said on Wednesday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Of this year’s victims of femicide, or gender-based murders of women, 15 percent had filed formal complaints, 7.5 percent were protected by restraining orders or other precautionary measures, and 15 percent were raped before they were murdered.

In one of the cases, the killer had even served a sentence for an earlier femicide, said the 51-year-old Maira, one of the national coordinators of the Chilean Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence, who in this interview with IPS discussed the state’s response to the phenomenon and the campaign carried out since 2007 by more than 200 women’s organisations around the country.

The Network’s awareness-raising campaign “Careful: Machismo Kills!” is wrapping up this year with marches in 14 Chilean cities.

IPS: Based on your experience in the Network, how would you describe the situation for Chilean women today with regard to domestic and sexual violence? GLORIA MAIRA: There have been some advances, such as the growing awareness among women that their partners’ violence is a problem of human rights and discrimination.

But I believe the government’s response has fallen short. Although efforts have been made in recent years to expand coverage, we still have serious problems addressing the problem of violence against women.

In the case of domestic violence, the system of protection mounted by the president (Michelle Bachelet), involving shelters for battered women, as well as other state institutions like the prosecution service and health services, continues to provide fragmented assistance, because the multisectoral approach has translated into constant referrals to other offices.

Women (victims) remain trapped in this runaround of being sent from one place to another, without receiving integral protection.

IPS: Have things changed during the government of Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president (whose four-year term ends in March 2010)? GM: Unlike previous governments, the president has spoken out about violence against women. In every one of her annual May 21 state of the nation addresses, she has explicitly referred to women and domestic violence, which I believe marks a difference with her predecessors.

But the response has been limited to focusing on women as victims of violence, and the possibilities for them to transform and take power over their lives have not been strengthened. Nor is there a focus on combating the problem as a social and cultural phenomenon.

Despite the president’s good intentions of drawing visibility to the problem, the fact that it is not approached at all levels as a specific kind of violence that targets women means the response remains insufficient, precarious and fragmented.

A concrete example: women who suffer sexual violence at the hands of their partners do not have access to the special assistance and attention for victims of such crimes provided by the health services.

Women who are raped by their husbands are not given emergency contraception pills, which are provided to women who have been raped by a stranger when they show up at a hospital emergency room.

IPS: In your view, what are the critical problems in the institutional chain set up to protect women victims of violence in Chile? GM: One terrible problem is access to justice for women. Although much has been said in the media about how the concrete obstacles faced by women – such as the requirement for the family courts to define a case of domestic violence as “habitual abuse” before it can be referred to the criminal courts – are going to be lifted, the hurdles are still there.

And 50 percent of cases of “habitual abuse” referred by the family courts are closed, because the prosecutors say there are insufficient grounds for filing criminal charges.

The second critical problem is the precautionary measures (like restraining orders) against aggressors. Of the 52 women killed this year, four had obtained such measures.

One of them filed several complaints, and various precautionary measures were issued, but the guy kept harassing her. One day, he went into her house and waited for her for three hours. Since the neighbours knew there was a restraining order against him, they called the police. Although the police station was just a block and a half away, the police never showed up.

When the woman finally got home from the market, she went into her house with her bags. When she saw him, she ran, tried to open the door, but she was nervous and fumbled with the keys, and he stabbed her. Her neighbours caught the guy, and they called an ambulance for her, but it never showed up either. They flagged down a car, which took her to the hospital, but in the end she died.

IPS: How would you sum up the results of the three-year campaign “Careful: Machismo Kills!” GM: I think it’s been a really successful campaign, because we managed to link machismo with femicide, and machismo with violence against women, in the public’s mind, and especially among women.

I think that culturally we have taken a step forward in terms of showing that violence against women is a problem of domination, of control, of having power over a woman’s body and life.

IPS: What do you think of the campaign against violence by the governmental National Women’s Service (SERNAM), which ended Wednesday? GM: It was too short! But I think it was the first campaign, in all these years, that really got to the heart of the problem. For the first time it wasn’t a victim talking, but just any woman saying ‘No’. Fantastic, at last SERNAM understood. But the campaign only lasted two weeks, 10 days, too short a time.

If the state is truly committed to eradicating violence against women, the cultural transformation needed to bring about a society that rejects violence against women requires a sustained effort, not just something that occurs around Nov. 25.

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