Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: Finally, A Law Against Domestic Violence

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Aug 20 1998 (IPS) - The Venezuelan parliament approved a law criminalising domestic violence and sexual harassment, after seven years of debate and just when the current legislature is finishing its last session.

Venezuela was the only South American country still lacking a law cracking down on domestic violence, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Ixora Rojas, commented Thursday. She added that she considered the new law one of the major legislative achievements of the year.

The new Law Against Violence Toward Women and the Family was one of Venezuelan women’s biggest battles both within and outside of the two-chamber Congress, 94 percent of whose members are men.

Rojas underlined that the law was preventive as well as punitive in charater, and ensured that it would “contribute to reinforcing family ties and the relationship of couples and protect the basic value of the family.”

Legislative and regional elections are scheduled for November and presidential elections for December, and the current five-year legislature will end its activity on Sep. 3.

Lisbeth Guevara, the legal coordinator of the non-governmental National Women’s Commission, commented that the law against domestic violence would also have a positive effect in cracking down on the crime that plagues Venezuela’s 23 million inhabitants.

Guevara noted to IPS that many public hospitals in Caracas had found that half of all cases attended were the result of domestic violence, the repercussions of which go beyond the home to society as a whole.

Paula Guarisco, legal coordinator for a parliamentary office that addresses women’s issues, said the most important aspect of the new law was that it transformed domestic abuse from a private affair to a crime.

It also protects the entire family, making it compulsory for all legal bodies from the bottom up to receive complaints on domestic violence. And it sets up an office within the Judicial Technical Police with specially trained personnel to handle such cases.

Another important aspect of the 50-point law is that it provides for the establishment of shelters for abused women and their children, who are to be assisted and advised on how to defend themselves.

Women’s organisations consider the eight days for minor charges and six to 18-month sentences for more serious cases stipulated by the law as too light. Still, the Coordinator of Women’s Organisations called the law a “historic achievement.”

The rape and murder of a partner are also covered, but the sentences entailed are provided for by the Penal Code, whose initial text dates back to 1922, and which classifies sexual aggression as a crime against “decency” rather than against persons.

Ofelia Alvarez with the Foundation for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Against Women told IPS that an estimated 60 percent of Venezuelan women were mistreated within their homes, as in a majority of countries in the region according to the Pan- American Health Organisation.

Up to now, only three percent of women who are physically or psychologically attacked by their partners, their children or other immediate family members have dared to report the abuse.

Since domestic violence was treated as a private matter women had to present injuries measuring more than seven centimetres in order for the crime to be classified as aggression in a general sense and for the perpetrator to be sanctioned.

Deputy Isolda Salvatierra, president of the bicameral commission which drew up the final draft of the bill in 1995 with the support of women’s groups, underlined that visible signs of abuse would no longer be necessary to prove that physical violence had taken place.

With regards to sexual harassment, ommission by employers or superiors who know of a case and fail to take measures to avoid the situation is defined as a crime punishable by a fine of up to 300 days of the guilty party’s salary.

Guarisco told IPS that sexual harassment was the aspect of the bill that drew the greatest number of objections from legislators, who feared abuses of such a law. “We had to make it clear to them that in order for sexual harassment to exist there had to be a relationship of power and an explicit rebuff by the woman in question of sexual advances.”

The new law defines sexual harassment as the action of an individual seeking sexual favours or responses for him or herself or for a third party, or seeking any kind of undesired sexual proximity, taking advantage of a situation of superiority in the workplace, academic institution or similar setting.

In order for the crime to exist there must be a clear or tacit threat to the victim of “a negative result related to the legitimate expectations that the victim could have in the setting of such a relationship.”

Sexual harassment is to be punished with a three to 12-month prison sentence, increased by one-third if the harassment is accompanied by physical or psychological aggression.

The law is aimed at preventing, controlling, sanctioning and eradicating violence against women and the family and protecting the dignity and physical, psychological and sexual integrity of persons, the family and each of its members, as well as equal rights between men and women.

The law stipulates that crimes against women and the family must be handled promptly, confidentially and orally and that preventive measures must be taken.

Regarding preventive measures, Maria Cristina Parra, one of the sponsors of the law, stressed to IPS that the Education Ministry would be required to include teaching programmes at all levels to foster gender equality, mutual respect and the sharing of family responsibilities.

The Ministry of Transport and Communication was also instructed to take measures requiring the broadcast media to air messages designed to bolster family values and gender equality.

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