Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: New Police Units for Domestic Violence Victims

Natalia Ruíz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - Police officers Juan Cantero and Karin Colmán are sometimes exhausted and depressed by the time they reach the end of their shift. But they quickly recover because they feel their work at a special new police unit for abused women and children in the Paraguayan capital is important.

Police officers in domestic violence unit.  Credit: Natalia Ruíz Díaz/IPS

Police officers in domestic violence unit. Credit: Natalia Ruíz Díaz/IPS

Cantero and Colmán, who are both 24 years old, have been working since Feb. 25 in the specialised division for victims of violence against women, children and adolescents at the seventh police precinct, one of the two stations in Asunción where the initiative has first been implemented.

The plan is to gradually set up such units around the entire country.

“Normally you receive all kinds of complaints in police stations, with domestic violence cases being mixed in with the rest, which means the people filing this kind of complaint often don’t receive the proper attention and follow-up,” Cantero commented to IPS.

His colleague Colmán said specialisation and training for this work is crucial, because most police officers lack a gender perspective, which is necessary in order to deal properly with such cases.

Statistics and investigations led authorities in this South American country to the conclusion that better police handling of domestic violence cases was needed.

For example, 911, the emergency number, received 17,000 domestic violence calls last year, but only 286 led to a formal police complaint.

In this country of 6.2 million people, which has an overall homicide rate of 16 per 100,000 population, one woman is murdered every 10 days on average, with 32 killed in 2009, according to government figures.

Based on 2008 data, the Paraguayan Centre for Population Studies found that 17 percent of girls and teenagers suffered physical violence before the age of 15 and 20 percent saw or heard their father or stepfather physically abuse their mother.

The new police units are the creation of an “inter-institutional committee for integral care for victims of violence”, set up in 2008 by the ministries of the interior and public health and the secretariats of women and children and adolescents.

In their aim to put in place mechanisms to protect and promote human rights, with a cross-cutting theme of gender equality, these government bodies identified police handling of domestic violence cases as the Achilles’ heel in efforts to fight such abuse.

The interior ministry then decided to create the new police units, with donor financing from Spain.

María Liz Román, head of the Colectivo de Mujeres 25 de Noviembre, a women’s group that provides advice and assistance to victims of domestic violence, said the initiative is “an essential step in the fight to eradicate gender violence.

“Many women have had to suffer the indifference of police officers when they file a complaint, meeting with phrases like ‘just go home, he’s your husband’, or ‘who knows what you did’, which were all too commonly heard by victims,” Liz Román told IPS.

Mercedes, a 39-year-old Paraguayan woman who asked that her last name not be used, is one domestic abuse victim who has felt more frightened of the prospect of bringing a complaint than of her husband’s blows.

At least three times she walked through the door of a police station near her house, with visible bruises and sometimes a broken lip.

But when she saw that detainees and victims were all mixed in together in the police station, and a gruff, unfriendly policeman told her to talk, and to do so fast and in front of everyone else, she would get uneasy, thinking about her husband’s threats to kill her if she ever reported the abuse, and would turn around and walk out.

And no one ever tried to stop her from leaving, even though she bore obvious signs of violence.

Her two daughters, ages 14 and 17, have pressed her to file a complaint, and have offered to go with her, while neighbour women have insisted that not all police are the same.

But “I’m terrified that my husband will go even more berserk, although one day maybe I’ll work up the nerve and go back to the station, for my daughters’ sake,” she told IPS.

Cantero said that he is now aware that domestic violence is a serious problem in Paraguay, and that a different kind of treatment by the police is needed.

“The victims are treated as vulnerable people – you have to be patient and help them feel safe and get them to understand that they will receive support,” he said with conviction.

The unit has a staff of 30 officers between the ages of 24 and 30, who after they were selected received two months of training on issues like human rights, a gender perspective and avoiding behaviour that “revictimises the victim.”

Colmán said the abuse victims make their complaints in private, and that they are given detailed advice on what steps to take.

Since it opened, her unit has received 110 domestic abuse complaints, with the largest number coming from women, and a smaller number from youngsters. The complaints included physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as death threats.

The unit also responds to consultations from police stations around the country regarding how to deal with such cases.

In the pilot phase of the project, six police units for women and children will be set up, three in Asunción and three in other cities, in districts chosen because of a high level of domestic abuse cases.

Colmán said the sharing of experiences with other police officers is essential. “We get together to see what we’re doing right or wrong, to improve our work,” she said.

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