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Set on Fire – New Form of Sexist Violence in Argentina

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 19 2011 (IPS) - “I knew he beat her but I never imagined that she would end up like this,” Elsa Jerez told IPS, talking about her 24-year-old daughter Fátima Catán, a victim of domestic violence in Argentina who died of severe burns to her body.

Fátima Catán and her mother, Elsa Jerez, in a photo from the family album. Credit: Courtesy of Catán Jerez family

Fátima Catán and her mother, Elsa Jerez, in a photo from the family album. Credit: Courtesy of Catán Jerez family

Catán’s partner, Martin Santillán, was not arrested. Twice he has sent someone to threaten to set his mother-in-law’s house on fire. The courts are investigating a double homicide, because Fátima was pregnant, but he has only testified as a witness.

The young woman’s death five months ago was one of 260 “femicides” — a term coined for misogynist or gender-related murders of women — documented in 2010 by a special observatory of La Casa del Encuentro, an Argentine civil society association, which has produced an annual report on gender-related murders since 2008.

The 2010 total represents a 12.5 percent increase from 2009 in this South American country of 40 million people.

Victims of femicide in Argentina are stabbed, strangled, shot, drowned, beaten to death — and more recently, set on fire.

In 65 percent of the cases of femicide, the murderer is the woman’s partner or ex-partner. And many of the killings occur after the courts have ordered the partner to leave the home or have issued a restraining order to keep him away from the victim of domestic violence.

Last year “we saw a veritable epidemic of women who ‘accidentally’ caught on fire,” Fabiana Tuñez, who heads La Casa del Encuentro, told IPS, pointing out that the number of cases rose from six in 2009 to 11 in 2010.

Tuñez said that after a famous musician allegedly doused his wife with alcohol and set her on fire in February 2010, “a copycat effect occurred.”

Domestic abuse hot-lines have reported that they have lately received more and more calls from women saying their partners or ex-partners have threatened to burn them alive, douse them with gasoline, or set them on fire — threats that are often accompanied by the tag-line “like Wanda.”

According to Tuñez, the case set a terrible precedent. The former drummer of the Argentine rock group Callejeros, Eduardo Vázquez, was not arrested after his wife, 29-year-old Wanda Taddei, was admitted to the hospital with burns over 50 percent of her body.

After Taddei died 11 days later, Vázquez was arrested and an investigation was launched. He is now in prison awaiting trial.

But the impunity he initially enjoyed may have encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, Tuñez said.

Catán’s mother said her daughter had repeatedly been beaten by her partner in the past, and that several reports were filed with the police. “You nasty old bag, they called the cops on me,” he complained to his mother-in-law at the time.

After Catán and Santillán separated briefly, he managed to persuade her to get together again. “She told me she wanted to give him a chance,” Jerez said. “But I told her: ‘He’s not going to stop until he kills you.’ I think he killed her because she was pregnant.”

She saw her daughter, beaten and badly burnt, in the intensive care unit after Santillán took the young woman to the hospital. “I think he beat her really badly, and thought he had killed her, which his why he set her on fire,” she said, in her heartrending attempt to comprehend what happened.

Catán died five days later, without ever being able to explain what occurred.

In the meantime, the apartment where she and Santillán lived in Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, had been cleared of all evidence, Jerez said.

Santillán said Catán had been using alcohol to clean CDs while smoking a cigarette, and accidentally set herself on fire. The story was similar to the account given by Vázquez when his wife Wanda Taddei was admitted to the hospital. According to the musician, his wife was cleaning a shelf with alcohol.

Tuñez said that funds are lacking to implement an ambitious law passed in March 2009 to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women. She also said a clear political message from the government and the justice system is needed, to begin changing attitudes towards sexist violence.

The Supreme Court’s office on domestic violence acknowledged the magnitude of the problem in 2010, when it reported that 40 percent of murders of women were the result of domestic abuse.

But in late 2010, the Public Defender’s Office presented the study “Discriminación de Género en las Decisiones Judiciales” (Gender Discrimination in Court Verdicts), which concluded that discrimination “ensures impunity” for the perpetrators of gender-based crimes.

Gabriela Boada, executive director of Amnesty International in Argentina, told IPS that the law is complex, and that a great deal of coordination is necessary between different ministries and jurisdictions. She said the legislation has not yet been fully put into effect.

“The law is not reality yet, and it does not clearly show, with evidence, what difference it has made in addressing and preventing the violence suffered by at least one out of three women at some point in their lives” in Argentina, she said.

Boada described the law, which takes into account physical, psychological and economic violence, as “a major stride forward,” but said that “we know that there are huge gaps between the law and its implementation.”

Tuñez said that what is needed is “a sustained, comprehensive policy for assistance to victims and an autonomous, specific legal classification of femicide, as already exists in Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Spain.

“Another basic problem is that many women are not financially independent, which makes it even more difficult for them to leave,” she said. “That’s why we believe there should be subsidies for housing and food, and that education on these issues is necessary at all levels.”

Tuñez underscored two positive aspects of the new law: its definition of violence against women is broad and not just limited to physical abuse, and it stipulates the creation of an observatory to compile specific official statistics on the phenomenon, although this has not yet begun to function.

“Awareness-raising campaigns are also necessary, not only on symbolic dates, but permanently, in the media, the schools, everywhere — and funds are needed for that,” Tuñez said.

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