Young women take part in a demonstration calling for an end to violence against women in San Salvador last year. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate for females in the world. CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters

Working to change Latin America's culture of violence against women

By  Ezra Fieser, Catholic News Service
  • April 9, 2012

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - On a Friday in mid-March, Dominican police were called to a three-story hotel that sits off a major highway in a busy neighborhood here.

Inside, they found a grisly crime scene: a woman, strangled to death, and the 37-year-old man who'd killed her hanged dead with the bed sheets.

Police said the murder-suicide was the result of a fight between the couple. Human rights groups called it something else: an example of the growing trend of violence against women.

"Women are being killed and are subjected to abuse just because of their gender," said Virgilio Almanzar, director of the Dominican Human Rights Committee in Santo Domingo.

The murder became the country's 53rd case of femicide in 2012. The term, commonly used in Latin America but rarely seen in the United States, originally meant the targeted killing of women, but has since expanded to include all murder of women.

"It's a serious problem, not just in the Dominican Republic," Almanzar said. "It's a problem we share with other countries in Latin America."

A majority of the most dangerous countries in the world for females are found in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where historical patriarchy is increasingly clashing with a changing role for women. While some, including Catholic officials working on the issue, see signs of progress, such as new laws and public awareness campaigns, observers say changing the deep-rooted culture is a slow process.

Of the 25 countries around the world with the highest homicide rates for women, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a recent survey by Geneva-based research organization Small Arms Survey.

The three most dangerous countries were El Salvador, Jamaica and Guatemala, respectively. The countries were ranked by female homicide rates for 2011.

Women are killed far less frequently than men, the study's authors noted: "Men are up to 10 times more likely to become victims of a homicide in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela."

But women in these countries are often subjected to violence simply because they are women and seen as the weaker sex. What's more, the increase in drug-related violence has translated into more gruesome crimes against women, including decapitations and torture.

The issue is a particularly touchy one for the Catholic Church. Church workers have been effectively working with women to reduce violence in hotspots throughout the region, often in trying circumstances. Meanwhile, Catholicism has received sharp criticism for not taking a stronger position on the issue.

Editorial writers criticized Pope Benedict XVI for not highlighting the issue in his two-country visit to Latin America in March.

"He arrived in Mexico while the country is fighting two deadly battles: drug trafficking and femicide. On the first, he said something strong. ... On the second: nothing," wrote El Telegrafo, a daily newspaper in Ecuador. "The violence (against women) must be part of the central concern for the Catholic Church. It cannot ignore femicide."

A 2011 U.N. study of worldwide violence found that, as a region, the Americas, including the U.S. and Canada, ranked second to Africa for female homicide rates. While females represent only 10 percent of murder victims in the Americas, the sheer level of violence in the region, particularly in Latin America, puts women at risk.

"The smaller share of female victims among the total number of homicides in the Americas does not equate to a lower female homicide rate there in comparison to other regions," the report concluded.

From the patriarchy of Spanish conquistadors to the machismo for which many of its countries are infamous, Latin America has long cultivated a culture in which women are particularly vulnerable to violence.

More recently, the region has elected several female presidents, including Dilma Rousseff, who in 2011 became the first female president in the region's largest country, Brazil. Political successes underscore the changes for women in the workplace.

"Women are not just wives and mothers. They're also increasingly providers in the family" in Latin America, said Hilary Anderson, a specialist with the Inter-American Commission of Women, part of the Organization of American States. "Neither the state nor the church has kept pace with the changes in Latin America, or any other part of the world."

Women's groups have blamed the church for reinforcing stereotypes, such as blaming women for violence because of the way they dress.

Last year, for example, activists demonstrated in front of the cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a bishop urged women to dress "modestly" and with "decency" and to not become "an object anymore."

The marchers chanted, "Out with the bishops!" and, "What are we going to burn? The Episcopal Conference!" according to news reports.

Signs exist, however, that the tide is slowly turning. The issue of violence against women is starting to receive attention from governments and church officials alike.

Several countries have passed laws specifically targeting violence against women. Governments and civil society organizations have teamed to produce awareness campaigns. And, in several cases, dioceses have established gender-based violence programs.

Guatemala, the third most violent place in the world for women, passed its own law targeting violence against women in 2008, making it one of the first countries in Central America to do so. Four years later, the law has rarely been employed, underscoring a larger hurdle found throughout the region.

"The legal framework is in place in Latin America. It's a matter of implementation," Anderson said. "Laws are on the books. But women are still finding it difficult to pursue their cases."

Located in a mostly rural and indigenous area in Guatemala's western highlands the women's pastoral commission, part of the social affairs commission of the Archdiocese of Los Altos, Quetzaltenango-Totonicapan, works on both prevention of domestic violence and legal assistance for women.

"We are in an area that is among the most violent for women in Guatemala. So we felt we had to do something to provide legal assistance to women who are victims," said Patricia Castillo, coordinator of the women's commission.

"Within indigenous communities and households, it's a very serious problem. There is a strong culture of male dominance that's been in place for a very long time," Castillo said. "Changing that culture is difficult."

Margoth Catalina Buesaquillo sees a similarly uphill battle in southern Colombia, where she coordinated a gender-based violence project for the Dioceses of Pasto.

"It's structural. I think the increase in awareness about gender is leading to more discussion," she said. "But at the same time, it's attempting to address something that has been in place for generations. It's a very slow process, but I think we are making progress."

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