Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

RIGHTS-LATAM: Violence Against Women Slugs Onward and Upward

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Nov 24 1998 (IPS) - “We are only want our half of heaven,” runs the pet slogan of Latin American women’s rights campaigners, but paradoxically the closer they come to their target in the public world, the more violence they suffer at home.

Wednesday is World Non-Violence Against Women Day and regional women’s organisations are starting 16 two-week awareness-raising workshops timed to end on December 10 – the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A regional document by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) distributed Wednesday stresses how gender violence becomes an obstacle to development in the Latin American nations.

More than half of all Latin American women have been assaulted at some point in their lives within their own homes, 33 percent have suffered sexual abuse and 45 percent have been insulted, threatened or have seen their belongings destroyed in front of them.

“We are talking of a form of violence which occurs within the domestic ambit and in public, containing physical, psychological and sexual elements and exposing women to devastating effects,” summed up Ana Maria Brasileiro, employed until recently in the UNIFEM regional office in Brasilia.

In the time it takes to read this article, another under age Latin American girl will be raped, and in 98 percent of cases the attacker will be a close male relative – her father or uncle, a neighbour or teacher.

And when women are raped, in 77 percent of cases the aggressor is her husband, a family member or friend.

However, only between 27 and 37 percent of attacks are ever actually reported, and this level is even lower when the victims of sexual violence are children. Even so, 80 percent of sex crimes reported to the authorities are against girls of increasingly younger ages.

Moves are afoot to counter the violence, and ever greater numbers of countries have laws to punish mistreatment of women and children, which in some cases include the issue of sexual harassment.

In August, Venezuela finally joined its Andean neighbours with a law against domestic violence describing sexual harassment as a crime, in line with similar laws in Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama and Paraguay.

Meanwhile, Mexico is the only American nation yet to ratify the 1994 Interamerican Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, already a law in the other 33 members of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Cuba, barred from the OAS since 1962, has no national law on violence against women, according to data provided by the IPS offices in the region.

But while advances are being made on the legal front, violence against women is on the increase in the region – and similar tendencies can be seen throughout the world.

Brasileiro explained this paradox as a product of the transition underway in the patriarchal model of Latin American societies, where women no longer behave according to the traditional model, fighting against submission and taking on new functions.

“Men are seeing the foundations of their world shaken, but they still hold the power within the family, the community and the State and react by generating violence in reaction to changes in the behaviour of women,” said Magda Moyano, gender coordinator for the United Nations Development Programme in Venezuela.

“Advancing female participation and the greater recognition of women’s rights were expected to reduce violence against them, but have in fact produced a resurgence of this,” explained Moyano, citing data from feminist organisations and UNIFEM.

In winning back her half of heaven, increasing female independence before the law has awakened both conscious and subconscious resistence from male sectors, “who feel their very essence has come under attack” resorting to violence to maintain their supremacy, said Moyano.

And this violence means not only domestic violence or sexual aggression, but psychological mistreatment, contempt and humilliation, compounded by active and passive discrimination and abuse in the public ambit.

The consequences go much further than individual and social circumstances, to affect the economy, and multilateral entities have started to measure their impact on national productivity.

The World Bank and Interamerican Development Bank have calculated at least one in every five days of sick leave taken by women come as a result of domestic abuse, swelling national spending on health and costing the region billions of dollars in lost productivity each year.

Another distinctive element of this nineties which also leads to greater violence against women is the imposition of the neoliberal model which has created a great host of excluded people in the region.

Meanwhile, explained Athenia Montejo, United Nations Children’s Fund representative in Venezuela, poverty itself represents a violent attack on human rights, a silent emergency where women and children are most vulnerable.

The loss of acquisitive power, job insecurity or unemployment, and the consequent inability to meet the basic needs of the family leads to men loosing their self-esteem and violence within their domestic ambit increasing, said Moyano.

Every day now, women’s shelters in the Andean nations are dealing with women over the age of 60, who have been beaten by sons, daughters or sons in law trying to force them from their houses, as economic crisis and loss of values form a cruel combination.

But although increasing poverty objectively contributes to violence, and the Latin America of the nineties has the world’s most serious social inequity, mistreatment of women and children is far from being restricted to the have-nots.

For domestic violence is not a class issue, and within the higher strata abuse “is more sophisticated and dangerous, with deeply traumatised family situations,” said Venezuelan specialist, Paula Guarisco.

The United Nations female directors all agreed the best response to both the old and new causes of violence against women lies in increasing awareness of the laws to punish this, both for the victims and those who should apply them.

Even the best laws in the world are no good if the victims are ignorant of them and if the police and legal entities support the traditional patriarchal view which excuses domestic violence.

Women’s organisations and UNIFEM agree it has proven easier easier to change the police mentality than that of the judges. The latter find it hard to punish the attacker, often holding the victim responsible for the abuse.

At present, in 12 countries of the region, a rapist is legally exonerated if the victim agrees to marry him, and Venezela – which has the newest laws – is the only regional nation to recognise the existence of rape within marriage.

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