Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 215 | Junio 1999


Latin America

Violence against Women: A Centuries-Old Plague

The 20th century has been the women's century. The advances have been colossal, but so are the still-pending challenges, including the eradication of violence against women. Not only do the majority of violent acts against women still go unpunished, they are silently tolerated by society and by the victims themselves.

María Eugenia Meza Basaure

The sight of someone slapping a woman's face now sparks general rejection and alarm. This public show of virtue, however, can conceal the private vice of violence within family life. And this dramatic but daily domestic situation in turn represents just the tip of an iceberg about which we still know very little. The problem has existed throughout human history and has affected, and continues to affect, all women in some way or another. Given the magnitude of this drama, the process of making the problem visible, raising awareness about it and taking legal action might appear to be moving slowly, but the tide has been steadily rising since 1979, even if it still has a long way to go before reaching the beach. Meanwhile, custom, that atavistic figure that hates change, and the patriarchal system that is struggling to remain intact would prefer to keep the past centuries of silent suffering and the painful reality of the present hidden from view.

The most common violations

A man walks into a polytechnic school in Montreal, Canada, on the evening of December 6, 1989, and kills fourteen young women just because they are women. Every year, two million girls suffer genital mutilation. Rape has become a weapon of war. At least one in every four women in the world suffers domestic abuse. There should be around 60 million more women in the world today, but they were never born due to the practice of selective abortion. In almost every country in the world, women suffer from job discrimination and are the poorest among the poor. Violence against women and girls represents today's most common breach of human rights.

Latin America and the Caribbean are no exception. In twelve countries in this region, a rapist can be exonerated if he agrees to marry the victim and she accepts. In Costa Rica he can be let off even if she refuses his offer of marriage. Violence in most countries of the region comes from the immediate surroundings. In Guyana, for example, a 1989 study found that two out of every three women in a relationship had been beaten by their partner at some time, and one third was beaten regularly. In Surinam, women who had been raped made one out of every five charges registered at police stations in 1993, while in the Dominican Republic, a woman was raped every eight hours.

In Costa Rica, 94% of the victims of sexual aggression against children are girls and 96% of the offenders are men.
The region's indigenous and Afro-Latin women also suffer from racial discrimination, and are therefore discriminated against twice over. Women have also suffered from political violence in countries such as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru and Guatemala, and more recently in Haiti and in Chiapas, Mexico.

There are 150 million Afro-Latin Americans in the region; 70 million of them live in poverty. This implies a greater burden for the women than for the men because it means they are discriminated against in three different ways: due to their race, their sex and their economic situation.
Such figures, reflecting a reality that is at times directly brutal and at times subtle and sibylline, pile up in reports, specialized magazines and journals. They make one's hair stand on end. To ignore them, disbelieve them, cover them up would be to add one more aggression to the long list that already includes rape, murder, mutilation, marginalization, unjust trials and sentences, incarceration, blows, psychological abuse and discrimination.

"I got married because I was pregnant. When I was three months pregnant my husband kicked me, pulled me by the hair and dragged me along the floor. All I could do was cover my belly.

At times he would say to me, `Kneel before me, indian; you're an indian, you're nobody.' Last week he took my daughter away. Yesterday I went to the police and they told me I had to find a lawyer. I want them to help me. I'm scared.
" Sandra from Quito, Ecuador, 27 years old, 10 of them married.

One has to look this dramatic situation square in the face. One must disperse the fog cast over this reality by the atavistic systems and cultures that grant predominance to men, and join those working to stop this endemic and often invisible plague. This aberration is not natural or inevitable.

Historical silence and fear

In past centuries, the violence of the system and of men against women was part of daily life. No one even called it violence. It was just how things were. In the various patriarchal societies a woman was the property first of her father and then of her husband. And any woman who wanted to escape this destiny? She was a witch, a danger, a cancer that had to be removed. Only in this century, as women moved en masse into the various areas of society, from private into public life—as giant a step for humanity as Armstrong's step onto the surface of the moon—was the true nature of this persistent situation exposed.

Violence toward women has always been—and still is—an instrument of power and a means of maintaining a status quo that favors men. But it hurts all the inhabitants of every country, because it not only affects the half of the population that directly experiences it in various forms, but also endangers development and the continuity of life on the planet. The elimination of gender violence—understood as any physical, psychological or sexual manifestation that affects women's development—is essential for the construction of human security, of peace, in all areas of life. This violence also implies disrespecting and breaking each and every human right, making women the main victims of the daily violations of each of those principles.

A study of 450 students between 13 and 14 years old in Kingston, Jamaica revealed that 13% had been victims of attempted rape, half of them before they were 12. A third had suffered undesired physical contact and a third reported that they had been verbally harassed.
In order to make progress in resolving this problem, it is necessary to know it inside and out. But violence toward women is a field of study that has come under real examination only recently. Although past and future research studies will continue to be essential tools for learning the real situation, the work has limited coverage for the moment. If figures for the most visible aspect of the problem, those practices now considered to be crimes in most countries, under-represent the true situation, its cultural, religious, ritual, labor and political nuances remain much more deeply hidden. Therefore, though it may come as a surprise, most gender violence is not only unpunished but also tolerated in silence by both society and the victims themselves. It is a silence full of fear: fear of reprisals, of censure over sexual matters, of shame. It is a silence full of the victims' own feelings of guilt and fear of breaking the "tradition" of resigned acceptance that is the fruit of male dominion. In many countries, active or passive complicity by the state and other institutions with moral authority helps perpetuate the situation.

"I was brought up by a woman who took me in. I never knew my mother or father. That woman raised me until I was six. She and her husband conspired to rape me. When they were arrested, she said that she hadn't done anything. He got away. After that, we went to San José to stay with a daughter of hers, but they threw me out. So I grew up on the street. At first I didn't mix with the men. I begged for money until I met Manuel. He abused me, but he looked after me. He also got me into prostitution. No one believed I was 9. When I was 11 I was already dancing in a night club and by the time I was 12 I was pregnant with my first child." Milagro Rojas from San José, Costa Rica

In the name of tradition

It might be thought that the progress made in women's participation, feminist movements and recognition of the rights of women, among other factors, would have reduced the violence against them. Quite the opposite. There has been a new outbreak of resistance to such advances and even an increase in violence. Many men have been unable to accompany the feminist revolution and have reacted violently to the change of roles and to women's growing autonomy because they have seen it as an attack on their supremacy and their supposed "essence." As a result, gender violence has taken on varied and not random expressions, with more forms that do not involve sexual activity. There are thousands of forms of discrimination such as contempt and economic dependence, which reaffirm control over women's lives and maintain them as second-class citizens in the day-to-day life of society. The new legal measures to protect women and reaffirm their rights undoubtedly help palliate the situation as they allow the offenders to be charged, and this is increasingly happening everywhere.

Despite this, however, the fact remains that every woman has suffered some form of violence at some time during her life. Sometimes it is obvious, because the action puts the woman's life in danger. But other less obvious expressions, such as psychological and economic violence and political and job discrimination, are no less pernicious. On the contrary, they appear impossible to fight against because they are camouflaged in cultural systems.

In El Salvador in 1995, the Office of Ombudsperson for the Defense of Human Rights dealt with 667 charges of domestic violence and 573 of rape.
Women in Latin America and the Caribbean are still a long way from living a life free of violence. And the struggle to achieve this goal is not a simple one. The angry enemies of women's dignity and security are slippery and persistent because they belong to the forces designed to preserve male dominion and female subjugation, which is often defended in the name of venerable traditions. It is therefore essential to educate girls to be fully aware of their rights, while educating boys in a new concept of their masculine role.

"When I was 24, my boyfriend tied me to an oven, poured alcohol over me and set me alight. I spent a long time in the hospital and lost all my teeth because of an overdose of antibiotics given me to keep my burns from getting infected. He's out now." María Celsa da Conçeiçao from Brazil, in a testimony to the Vienna Tribunal, 1993.

Nowhere to go

A World Bank analysis of 35 recent studies related to industrialized and developing countries shows that between a quarter and half of all women observed had suffered physical abuse from their partners. Although there is still not enough data to do reliable country by country comparisons, it appears that the prevalence and patterns of domestic violence are significantly similar between cultures.

"I have to look after my brothers and sisters because my mom works. There are seven of us and I'm the oldest. I wash the dishes, clean up, cook and make sure they don't go out into the street, because if something happens to them, my mom hits me. She also hits me if things are a mess when she gets back. I have a schedule and I only get Thursdays off. I can't wait for them to get big so I can to go to school and play." Nine-year-old girl from Mexico City.

"Sleeping with the enemy" is a situation that women most often experience in silence. Figures show that barely 1% of the women beaten in their homes report the abuse. The silence also speaks of the proximity of the aggressor: criminal statistics reveal that most women who have been raped know their attackers. The same is true of 40% of the women who are victims of attempted homicide, while 80% of girls who have been sexually abused have been molested or attacked by fathers or neighbors. The home, which should be a secure space, is a place of danger. So where to seek shelter? Where to turn if officials—and this often includes female officials—act under the premise that behind every male attack is a woman who provoked it?
During the first half of 1997, 35,000 accusations of abuse of minors were reported in Mexico, most of them sexual abuse.
The world's states are still accomplices to the violations, however, because they do not have adequate legislation or systems to ensure fair application of the laws. For example, only 44 of the world's 193 countries have produced legislation on intra-family violence, including 21 countries in the region. Although this does represent a major achievement, it is still not enough. Systematic public campaigns against domestic violence, of the kind that have been carried out around other social problems such as drunk driving or smoking, for example, have not been seen in Latin America and the Caribbean. The majority of countries still officially consider domestic abuse to be a private, family matter, but the problem is so widespread that it has begun to worry those in charge of the world economy.

According to the daily paper La Nación, 93% of the cases of sexual abuse of minors in Argentina do not reach the courts.
Studies carried out in several countries in the region by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) show that labor absenteeism among battered women results in an economic cost of 2% of the GDP, which in turn leads to less development.

At first I wasn't sure if my boss was harassing me. When it became obvious, I confronted him and told him to stop hassling me. Then he said that I was just making it up, that I was the one who had started the flirting and he asked me to sleep with him. I didn't dare denounce him so I resigned, even though I needed the work." Natalia, a student from Santiago de Chile.

From the home to society

But the situation does not remain behind closed doors. It also affects society. It is a known fact that children of both sexes from homes where the mother has been beaten tend to reproduce the same roles of aggressor and victim later on. The family is not isolated from society and men who are violent at home will find other ways of attacking women outside of it. And those attacked will be inhibited, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives, from normally developing their different social roles, in school, at work, as citizens. This in turn directly affects a country's development, from the most private spheres to the most public ones, such as administration and economic production. Domestic violence implies maintaining a vast female population right across the world incapacitated in terms of personal and social growth.

According to official estimates, there are around 40,000 widows and 200,000 orphaned children in Guatemala as a result of the violence during the eighties.
Women who do not live in situations of immediate violence do not escape the other forms of discrimination that society affords them just for being women. Thus a long time after slavery was abolished in most of the world, many societies still treat women as inferior beings. The chains are intangible and their links include factors such as deficient education, economic dependency, minimal political power, limited access to control over their own fertility, inflexible social conventions and inequality before the law.

"One day in the street a soldier shoved me into a taxi and abducted me. Another soldier was with him. I resisted but couldn't get away. In the end the inevitable happened. I felt as though everything I had planned for in my life had been destroyed. I wanted to kill him, but my in-laws and my parents decided that I should marry him." A women from the city of Jalisco.

Violence is the padlock that closes the chain. Eliminating it implies not only punishing individual actions, but also changing the perceptions that are often deeply embedded in the collective subconscious of both men and women.

A rising tide

This century has been the women's century. In a relatively short period of time, compared to the centuries of silence that came before, women have managed to attain some of their objectives through peaceful means. From the suffragettes on they have kept up the struggle, even though their movements have had their contradictions and problems, and they have sometimes committed errors or even mimicked the behavior of masculine power.

One in every 11 Jamaican women between the ages of 25 and 60 has suffered from physical violence perpetrated by a man. In 1995, the police announced that 39% of murders committed resulted from domestic fights.
Although women feel alone in the world with a burden too heavy to bear and a whole atavistic system conspiring against them, each day there are more examples of actions taken to help establish the full rights of women and children within a just society. In the region, initiatives launched by organizations have led to the establishment of research, help, information, contact and solidarity networks and have forced governments to take action.

According to the World Bank, one out of every five working days lost by women in the region due to health problems is the result of expressions of domestic violence.
At least six countries have established police units dedicated exclusively to women, Brazil being the first to do so in 1985. Mexico has named a special prosecutor for sexual crimes and several states have established special women's defense units to attend to their problems. Almost half of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have introduced reforms into their judicial systems with respect to children and others have reinforced existing legislation aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation.

Nonetheless, the effort to expose the violence committed against women as a first step toward eradicating it concerns all sectors of society: the judicial and health systems, the media, the producers of culture, the education sector, nongovernmental organizations, the political and religious worlds. And of course it also involves the women themselves, who will continue joining this nonviolent, positive struggle for the rights that protect us from economic and political discrimination, from racism, sexism and homophobia.

"What I most remember is that one day he asked me what I thought... Nobody had ever asked me that in all of my 60 years." An elderly Salvadoran woman remembering Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, murdered by the death squads in El Salvador.


The region's women's movement has played a leading role in assessing the problem and encouraging actions from both governments and civil society.

Although organizations have been working in this area for some 20 years, the first concrete measure emerged in July 1981 in Colombia, during the First Feminist Conference held in the Latin American Caribbean region. The participants agreed to establish November 25 as the International Day against All Forms of Violence against Women, in memory of the three Mirabal sisters murdered by the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

The second conference, held in Peru in 1983, saw the creation of the International Feminist Network against the Trafficking of Women and Female Sexual Slavery. Between the third conference in Brazil and the fourth in Mexico it was agreed to use the news bulletin of the Latin American Network on Women's Health to examine the topic by considering racism, violence, and human rights. The fifth conference gave rise to the Latin American and Caribbean Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, which has produced a news bulletin ever since and is coordinating the "16 Days of Activism Campaign" against violence, which starts every year on November 25 and ends on December 10.

Meanwhile, research has been another area of work for the women's networks and organizations. Isis International did its first project in 1988 with support from UNIFEM. Published in 1990, it is the first solid source of reliable data. Another international institution that has worked relentlessly on these issues is the Latin American Committee for Women's Rights (CLADEM), headquartered in Peru.

Over the last ten years, and especially the last five, international and national organizations and the women's movement have won several victories. The first step was taken long before, some 50 years ago, when after a long fight led by Eleanor Roosevelt it was rightly established that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would refer to "human beings" and not "men." It was a linguistic change that effectively brought half the planet's population out of the shadows.

The UN's first International Conference on Women in 1975, which marked the beginning of its Decade for Women, exposed the subject of violence against women, but only in terms of domestic violence, confined to the family. Five years later, after the 1979 UN General Assembly approved the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the second Conference on Women in Copenhagen extended the subject to the social sphere by stating that it is an obstacle to equity and an intolerable offense to human dignity. This idea was ratified and expanded on during the conferences on women in Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995), which established that "violence against women is an expression of the historical power relations between men and women that have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and have impeded women's full development."
But the historical year par excellence during these decades of struggle was 1993, when an international tribunal in Vienna on the violation of women's human rights heard the testimonies of 33 women concerning the abuse they had suffered. Their words were emblematic and officially revealed for the first time the kind of atrocities that have been committed for centuries, making it clear that the international community has a responsibility to protect women from such abuses. The Vienna Declaration of the Second World Conference on Human Rights established that the rights of women and children are "an unalterable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." It was a momentous recognition: for the first time violence against women was set within the human rights framework, extending the definition to all aspects of women's and children's lives. The female condition was also identified for the first time as a basic risk factor. The following year saw the creation of the UN Special Reporter's Office on Violence Against Women. In this region, the OAS countries signed the Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Sanctioning and Eradication of Violence against Women (the Belém do Pará Convention). This represented a great advance for Latin America and the Caribbean in that the convention establishes the obligation of the signatory countries to implement the convention as well as mechanisms to ensure its fulfillment, something not contemplated in the UN declarations.

In 1994, the Cairo Conference on Population and Development adopted the idea that violence is a form of control over health and sexuality and an obstacle to women's rights to reproductive self-determination. The search for gender equity and elimination of violence against women was declared to be a central component in the UN Population Fund's strategy and priorities.

In recent years, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 190 countries as of May 1997, has been particularly important. UNICEF links this convention and the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in its conceptual framework, emphasizing the need for specific attention to the rights of girls and recognizing the essential link between the assurance of these rights and the condition of adult women.

The legal road traveled so far is important, but laws—both national and international—are not a magic wand that will solve the problem. They represent a first step in the marathon to close the distance between what is and what should be.


The fight against violence towards women, especially domestic violence, has gained momentum in the last ten years. So far 44 countries around the world have passed laws against domestic violence, and 27 against sexual harassment, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama and Paraguay. In addition, 17 countries have implemented laws criminalizing rape within marriage, although the only countries in this region to have done so are the Caribbean countries of Barbados and Trinidad-Tobago, while 12 African and Arab countries now prohibit sexual mutilation. Among the countries in the Andean sub-region, only Venezuela does not have a law against domestic violence, although a bill was presented to Congress in 1993.

Ecuador's law (1995), which prohibits physical and mental abuse and defines psychological violence, is considered one of the world's most comprehensive laws on the subject.

The Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Sanctioning and Eradication of Violence against Women, also known as the Belém do Pará Convention, represents a vitally important instrument in this struggle. It was signed in 1994, and has since been ratified by all OAS member countries except Mexico.

This article was first published in María, a publication produced by ten United Nations agencies in the context of the 1998 Campaign for the Human Rights of Women and Girls. Translated by envío.

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