Violence against women is not a private matter
Executive Secretary for the CIM
“The lack of consideration of the security needs of women (…) means that in the majority of the countries in the region, more than 50 per cent of the population is ignored in security policies.”
On September 27, 2011, during the International Seminar on Human Rights, Violence against Women and Access to Justice, organized at the OAS Headquarters by the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), Carmen Moreno, the Executive Secretary for the CIM sat down and spoke with Amertamerica.org. In this interview, she discussed how violence against women is often overlooked in national public policies.
Over the past ten years, would you say that violence against women has lessened, or worsened in the region?
The simple answer is that we don’t know. The fundamental paradox of violence against women is that we know it is highly prevalent in the region, but there still is not enough information about the incidence, causes, costs and consequences of violence against women.
This gap in our knowledge is due to two main factors: firstly, violence against women is extremely under-reported. Still today, police forces and the judiciary do not take this violence seriously, women remain afraid to speak out, and there is still a powerful social stigma that accompanies this violence (particularly sexual violence). These realities remain major barriers to dealing with the issue and the extent of violence. Therefore, statistics on violence against women are extremely poor. This is partly because crime is underreported, but is also due to the weakness of case registration systems and data collection.
There are various claims that we can make. A growing body of case studies supports the general assertion that 1 in 3 women has been, at some point in their life, a victim of physical or sexual violence. In recent years, femicide, or the death in women, has increased dramatically in several countries in the region. Finally, in times of crisis – be it after natural disasters or during security, economic, or financial crisis when there are high levels of male unemployment – we have seen a rise in violence against women. Therefore, we can say that the severity of violence against women has increased over the past ten years, but we have a less clear picture about the actual incidence of violence.
How can you compare the situation of violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean, to other regions in the World?
The severity of violence is much worse today than it was ten years ago, although we have a very poor idea about its real incidence
The answer to this question has a lot to do with how we define and conceptualize violence. Today, the region is experiencing a pandemic of violence. The impact is far greater and extends broader than any biological disease. Meanwhile, our understanding of the security situation in the region does not include – at the conceptual level or the security sector level – violence against women as a matter of insecurity for women. This has affected our ability to address the problem.
We can compare certain forms of violence as isolated issues. Sexual violence for example has received a lot of attention in Africa, particularly for its use as a weapon of war, and its prevalence in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But we cannot affirm that sexual violence in this region is lower, because we simply do not know the figures. The so-called "honor killings" in the Middle East also receives a lot of international attention, and the result has been a perception that this type of violence is endemic to the region. This is not true, what is known as honor killings in the Middle East are known as 'crimes of passion' in our region. Meanwhile, both are accounts of violent masculinity, or men seek to control the behavior and sexuality of women.
The incidence of violence against women in our region is no small figure. The way that we characterize the problem, the amount of public and political attention it receives, how it is discussed in the security sector and the effectiveness of our efforts – this varies a lot and I dare say that it is stronger in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In terms of violence against women, has there been any legislative advances or progress in the region?
Little by little, the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have adapted their national legislation and international legal frameworks on the rights of women. In fact, according to the OECD, Latin America and the Caribbean has achieved more progress in the formal recognition of the rights of women, then any other region of the developing world. This includes the adoption of international commitments – highlighting CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention of Belem de Para – the Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women. The signing of these agreements highlights a constitutional guarantee of equality between men and women and the formulation of laws and public policies to prevent and address violence against women.
Similarly, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region that has advanced the farthest in closing the gender gap between women and men. However, the commitments through conventions, and other noted advances have not yet resulted in adequate protection of the physical integrity and security of women. Physical and psychological violence remains an issue of particular concern throughout the region; the OECD highlights Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti and Jamaica in particular.
So, what is the answer?
Our understanding of the security environment in the region does not include – at a conceptual or security work level – violence against women as an issue of insecurity for women.
The most important obstacle in defeating violence against women is impunity. In many areas of our societies, violence against women is still is perceived as a private issue that should be resolved within the home. We must encourage a radical change in how we frame security. Traditional approaches can limit our understanding of violence as a social phenomenon and limit our ability to approach it integrally, through legislation and public policy as well.
Public debates about insecurity, as well as public policy actions attempting to resolve criminality and violence, are generally based on typologies that, often, exclude violence against women. The global change in the nature of the issue demands changes of focus on security policy in countries of the region. We should also acknowledge other threats inherent to security such as gender inequality, HIV, racism, domestic violence, ethnic conflict and displacement, between others. Insecurity is, explicitly or implicitly, associated with public spaces. Homes are assumed to be safe locations because violence is believed to be on the streets. For women, the reality could be the opposite because violence against women occurs, largely, inside their homes and from domestic partners or other family members.
Lack of understanding about women's security needs on one the hand, and an absence of places for decision-making and security actions on the other, means that security policy often ignores more than 50 percent of the population in the majority of countries of the region. However, these same institutional flaws, that allows the existence and growth of organized crime, also impedes the formulation of suitable responses to these new threats.
- Ratified by 32 countries in the region, the Belém do Pará Convention states that violence against women is a phenomenon based on gender inequality that results in important individual consequences, as well as social and societal effects.
- Some authors have estimated that 1 in every 3 women has been abused, assaulted, or violated in some way in their lifetime.
- For women between the ages of 15 and 44, violence represents one of the main causes of death and disability.
- According to UNIFEM, a number of researches around the world have determined that “half of the murders against women have been committed by their domestic partners, husbands, or former husbands”
- In Latin America, the number of women that have been victims of violence from their domestic partners at least once ranges from 19 percent in Paraguay (2004) to 42 percent in Peru (2000).
- In Central America, Honduras (2001) stands at 10 percent and Dominican Republic (2002) a 22 percent.
- Sexual violence within the home is also common in the region, with an estimated range of 4 percent of women in Ecuador to 47 percent in Cusco, Peru.
In the Bahamas, female homicide rates (or femicide) related to domestic violence represented a 42 percent of total murders in 2002, 44 percent in 2001, and 52 percent in 2002.
- Trinidad and Tobago it was uncovered through sampling that 30 percent of women have been victims of domestic violence. In 1991, police reports showed that every 1.75 days a woman was raped.
- In Guyana one in every four women have been victim of domestic violence
- In Suriname it was estimated that 69 percent of the nation’s female population were victims of domestic violence.
- In Dominica, qualitative results showed that 32 percent of the women interviewed had been victims of violence from their husband or domestic partner.
- In a study of Barbados, 30 percent of interviewed women had been victims of sexual abuse during their childhood.