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LATIN AMERICA: Women Victims of Violence Face Hurdles to Justice

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 13 2007 (IPS) - Violence against women “is one of the most serious public safety problems in the region,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Rapporteur on the Rights of Women said in the Chilean capital.

The situation is not only worrisome in Mexico and Guatemala, where the numerous cases of “femicide” have gotten wider coverage from the global press, said Víctor Abramovich, invited to this South American country by the government of Michelle Bachelet.

“In several countries of South America, (violence against women) has been gaining in visibility and is beginning to be treated as a key public security issue,” said Abramovich, who is also the vice president of the IACHR.

The Argentine lawyer told foreign correspondents in Santiago that “the dimension of the problem is frequently out of line with the response” by the state and the justice system.

Abramovich is visiting Chile from Tuesday through Friday to gather information on the discrimination suffered by women in this country, which will be compiled in a report, along with recommendations for the government, to be ready within a year.

His agenda has included meetings with representatives of the centre-left Coalition for Democracy government, the Supreme Court, the Carabineros (militarised police), academic institutions and social organisations.

On Wednesday, the rapporteur presented an IACHR report, “Access to Justice for Women Victims of Violence in the Americas”, at the Diego Portales University law school. The report studied the situation that women in each of the 34 Organisation of American States (OAS) member countries face when they are victimised by violence and turn to the courts to seek justice.

“There are no countries that can serve as an example of significant advances in the judicial investigation of these crimes,” Abramovich said later in the press conference.

“For that reason, the report reached the conclusion that above and beyond the varying levels of development of democracies and economies, or the strength or weakness of the different countries’ judicial systems, there is a common denominator: the lack of response to and investigation of cases of violence against women,” he said.

“The problem of violence is also closely tied to the problem of discrimination,” which is widespread in judicial systems, said Abramovich.

The IACHR report, which includes conclusions and recommendations for OAS member states, notes that victims who try to report violent acts often face discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of officials.

It also gives examples of cases in which prosecutors, police officers and judges discredit the victims and question the credibility of their statements.

In its response to the questionnaire for the IACHR study, Chile reported that in 2004, a total of 236,417 cases of domestic violence were reported, yet only 14,149 (5.9 percent) were formally investigated, while around 92 percent of the cases were closed after the first hearing.

And “In Bolivia, an investigation conducted by the administration of justice reveals that in 100 percent of the case files reviewed that address matters related to the rights of women, 71.2 percent were rejected by the prosecutors on the basis of lack of evidence and of these, 41 percent corresponded to sexual crimes,” says the IACHR report.

In addition, research carried out in Chile, Ecuador and Guatemala found that only a small proportion of cases involving sex-related offences actually go to trial: 3.89 percent in Chile and 0.33 percent in Guatemala in 2002, while just 2.75 percent reached the sentencing phase in Ecuador.

The tendency among police and prosecutors is to see domestic violence as a private matter, in which the state should not meddle, and abusers are often merely sent home, said Abramovich.

“With respect to sexual violence, the tendency is to stigmatise the victims, and lay the blame on them for what happened: how were they behaving, what kind of relationships they have had, why they were dressed in a certain manner, or why they were at a certain place at a certain time of night,” he said.

Along with the weakness of judicial protection services for women, the IACHR pointed to the phenomenon of “revictimisation,” in which victims of violence are forced to describe what happened to them over and over, and in conditions in which their privacy is not respected.

Abramovich also said there was a lack of coordination between the police and legal institutions and between legal measures and public policies for violence prevention.

The IACHR report expresses special concern about the difficulties in access to justice faced by women in rural areas and indigenous and black women, who face double discrimination.

The report recommends that countries in the region improve data collection systems to overcome the lack of reliable statistics on violence against women.

In a brief summary of Bachelet’s first year and a half in office, Abramovich said that some significant advances have been seen, “the first of which was the placement of these issues at the centre of public debate, along with the promotion of initiatives” to reform the civil code, combat domestic violence, and boost the participation of women in the spheres of labour and politics.

“I believe that this has more than symbolic value,” said the rapporteur, who added that he would follow up on the government’s initiatives. But, he said, “It would seem that the real core of the debate of these legislative reforms lies in Congress. What we have seen is that there have been many initiatives on the part of the executive branch and few significant advances in parliament.”

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