Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

WOMEN-VENEZUELA: Law Against Domestic Violence Key Objective

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 7 1998 (IPS) - Angelica, age 52, does not want to report her 32-year-old son who cruelly beat her and threw her out of the house where she raised him. She is ashamed and only seeks to recuperate her home, her only property, and to stop the abuse.

Angelica sought assistance Friday in a legal clinic in the capital of Venezuela, unaware that she had swelled the ranks of a group that has grown alarmingly over the past two years: elderly women maltreated by members of their families.

Nor is she aware that women’s organisations in Venezuela have decided to make Mar. 8, International Women’s Day, a day of struggle to push the 94 percent male Congress to stop blocking a draft law on Violence Against Women and the Family.

Venezuela is the only country in the Andean region lacking legislation against domestic violence, even though it has ratified the Inter-American Convention on Prevention, Eradication, and Punishment of Violence Against Women. Signatories to that convention are obliged to enact domestic legislation, and indeed the treaty itself is a national law, although it is not enforced.

Venezuela’s penal code, which dates back to 1922, considers violence against women a private matter.

The legislators were not even moved by the highly publicised Jan. 8 beating of Vivian Stusser by her ex-husband at her workplace, in front of witnesses. As a result of the brutal beating, Stusser suffered severe trauma to the skull and a broken nose, and required 40 stitches on her face.

Unlike Angelica, who had raised three daughters and her son by herself on a seamstress’ wages and extra money earned by selling homemade pastries, Stusser is a well placed young psychologist, who thought she had put an end to a traumatic relationship.

The Justice of Peace, a new legal institution in Venezuela which attends cases involving disputes between families or neighbours, reports that 97 percent of the cases involve domestic violence – in which the victims are always women and children.

Ofelia Alvarez, with the Foundation for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Against Women, explained that in Venezuela – as in the majority of countries in the region, according to Pan- American Health Organisation statistics – at least 60 percent of the women were mistreated by their partners or former partners.

A daily average of nearly 10 reports of domestic violence against women are filed with the justices of peace in Caracas. But that is only a fraction of the cases, because the majority of the victims do not dare go public, due to fear or shame.

Paula Guarisco, the legal coordinator of the Office for Attention to Women set up by the parliamentarians of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), says the draft law will help give the problem visibility and provide an instrument to fight the current impunity, which is based on the fact that domestic violence is not considered a crime.

Guarisco is one of the sponsors of a nationwide signature drive seeking to pressure Congress to approve the bill, one of the activities of International Women’s Day, which will also be a day of homage to recently deceased MAS leader Argelia Laya, who had fought hard for the new law.

The bill has already been submitted with the popular support of 20,000 signatures, which few of the laws enacted by the current legislature could claim. Only six percent of the members of Congress are women today, down from 10 percent in the last legislature.

But the congressional legal consultancy has had no shortage of objections which have frozen the bill drawn up by the bicameral Commission for Women’s Rights.

The Mar. 2 designation of Social Democratic Deputy Ixora Rojas as speaker of the lower chamber has encouraged the country’s 60 non-governmental women’s organisations, as Rojas is a staunch defender of the draft law, and even participated in its drafting.

In a break from the unceasing traffic of battered women in the tiny Office for Attention to Women, Guarisco said “abused mothers and grandmothers,” beaten by sons or other family members, are an alarming new development in which taking over the house tends to be the main objective.

But she also explained that it is frequently grown children who force mothers to seek assistance and leave their abusive partners, after years of physical, psychological and sexual maltreatment. Guarisco pointed to a common pattern: women in their 40s and 50s, who have suffered 20 or 30 years of abuse, dragged into the office by their teenage sons.

Like Angelica, they are seeking a solution to their problem, but they do not want to report their aggressors. Not only have their self-esteem and health been destroyed, but they know there will be no punishment, and that the rage of their abusers – with whom they will have to continue sharing the streets or even their homes – will only increase.

Another aspect of the abuse is that while domestic violence does not recognise social class, at the lower socioeconomic levels the wounds are mainly physical, while pyschological mistreatment is generally added to physical abuse in the middle class.

At the highest income levels, violence “becomes more sophisticated and dangerous,” said Guarisco. “There are incredible cases, and family settings that are totally and completely damaged by domestic violence.”

A third, little mentioned, element that Guarisco said continued to shock her was that the professions in which men were most likely to be aggressive towards women were lawyers, doctors and military – auxiliaries of the justice system.

“The reason is that they are professions in which special power is felt, and that power is bolstered by violence,” she commented, citing Colombian sociologist Julio Restrepo, who explains domestic violence as part of an interior process in which the abuser feels like a winner by having someone to defeat.

Reporter Sergio Dahbar summarised the situation without mincing words: in the same country that boasted this week a woman president of the Supreme Court of Justice, a woman speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a female presidential candidate as front- runner in the polls, “as long as he doesn’t kill her, a man can beat a woman as often as he wants.”

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