Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: Domestic Abuse Shall No Longer Go Unpunished

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jan 11 1999 (IPS) - The saying that he who abuses his family will come to ruin is finally beginning to resemble reality in Venezuela, where a progressive law against domestic abuse goes into effect this year.

The new law is not limited to physical and sexual abuse against women, but covers all members of the family and its definition of crimes includes behaviour such as emotional violence, threats, marital rape and sexual harassment.

“This represents a gigantic step forward, and it gives way to a different struggle against violence,” Ofelia Alvarez told IPS. Alvarez directs a pioneering organization which supports battered women and was one of the civil-society promoters of the new law.

For Alvarez, one of the more hopeful aspects of the law is that “it has connotations that are not only punitive but also educational and preventive”. It also promotes the participation of society, which will facilitate greater sensibility, knowledge and awareness of the problem.

Venezuela was one of the few Latin American countries that did not have a law against domestic violence, and the new legislation capped a seven-year battle by the women’s movement.

Alvarez noted that it was difficult to come up with statistics on domestic violence in Venezuela because there was not enough data, something the law will help correct.

But some indicators give an idea of the gravity of the situation.

The Pan-American Health Organization and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with battered women here agree that “at least 60 percent” of Venezuelan women suffer domestic abuse.

The Inter-American Development Bank calculates that violence is a problem in one of every three households and that “at least” half of the time female workers stay away from the job it’s because of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse accounts for 80 percent of the cases examined by the country’s justices of the peace, the legal authority closest to the population. It is also the reason why eight out of every 10 women who visit hospital emergency wings in Caracas do so.

It is impossible to calculate the number of deaths caused by domestic violence, because until now state officials had no mandate to collect data on the phenomenon, and the forensic director of Caracas was notorious for not including abuse as a cause of death for murdered women, who numbered 591 between 1992 and 1997.

Isolda Salvatierra, president of a parliamentary commission which prepared the final text of the proposed bill in 1991, told IPS that one essential aspect of the law was that domestic abuse was no longer a private issue and was now considered a crime.

In addition to protecting the entire family, the law obliges all legal and police agencies to receive domestic abuse complaints and set up a special office to address this crime, with specialized personnel and medical and psychological advisors.

Other important elements of the law include the creation of municipal shelters for battered women and their children, conducting awareness programmes in all educational and health centres, and providing for massive TV and radio campaigns to promote gender equality.

Under the law, which has eight chapters and 50 articles, complaints are not the sole responsibility of the victim, relatives, and public agencies, but also involves NGOs, which will facilitate the creation of community networks to confront the crime of domestic abuse and create greater awareness of its extent, said Alvarez.

Some women’s rights advocates were surprised because, after facing many obstacles in the outgoing parliament, only seven percent of whose members are women, three novel norms were finally approved. These relate to treating rape within marriage as a crime, sexual harassment, and viewing threats as psychological violence.

Domestic abuse trials will have special guarantees. For example, they will be free of charge, held immediately and conducted speedily. Precautionary measures will be taken to protect those involved, and their confidentiality will be guaranteed.

On the other hand, the sentences for such crimes are considered too mild by NGOs and women parliamentarians, and in the case of homicides and rape, they date back to an anachronistic penal code which still treats rape like a threat to good customs and not a crime against an individual.

Penalties for such crimes range from six to 18 months’ imprisonment, and half as much again when there are aggravating circumstances. NGOs believe the penalties can be stiffened once there is greater awareness of domestic abuse.

The law aims to prevent, control, penalize and eradicate violence against women and the family, protect the dignity and physical, psychological and sexual integrity of individuals and the family, and promote equal rights for men and women.

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