The term feminicide refers to the sum total of various forms of violence against women, characterized by impunity for perpetrators, complicity of local or state authorities and a lack of justice processes for victims. Feminicide occurs in conditions of social upheaval, armed conflict, violence between powerful rival criminal gangs and militias, rapid economic transformation, and the demise of traditional forms of state power. Those conditions apply to quite a few of the communities where MADRE works. Feminicide is happening in Iraq, for example (though it’s been off the media radar for most of the US occupation). And feminicide is happening in Guatemala, where more than 2,500 women have been murdered since 2001.
I’ve talked before about what happens when feminicide occurs in the Middle East; namely, that many people in the US assume that this violence derives somehow from Islam. Identifying Islam as the source of violence against women serves to dehumanize Muslims and justify US aggression against them. It also deflects attention from factors (like politics, economics, and militarism) that influence the prevalence of gender–based violence in every society. And finally, that racist assumption obscures the ways that US actions have exacerbated the very conditions that give rise to violence against women.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a cultural dimension to violence against women. There is a cultural dimension to every human behavior, including gender-based violence. The point is that culture alone explains very little. It’s a context, but not a cause or a useful explanation for violence, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else.
It makes much more sense to examine gender—a system of power relations whose number one enforcement mechanism is recourse to violence against women. There is nothing "Muslim" about that system, except that its Muslim proponents, like their Jewish, Christian, and Hindu counterparts, use religion and culture to rationalize women's subjugation. In fact, shifting the focus from culture to gender reveals a system of power that is nearly universal.
Which brings me to Guatemala. A 2005 Amnesty International Report on the mass killings of women in Guatemala could easily refer to Iraq when it describes a “notable sense of insecurity that women in Guatemala feel today as a result of the violence and the murders in particular. The resulting effect of intimidation carries with it a perverse message: women should abandon the public space they have won at much personal and social effort and shut themselves back up in the private world, abandoning their essential role in national development.” This passage also captures the intent of Iraq's Islamists, who have little in common with the perpetrators of feminicide in Guatemala, other than a rigid adherence to a gendered system of power.
MADRE’s programs in Guatemala work to transform the conditions that give rise to violence against women by strengthening women’s economic autonomy, community organizing, food security, and political participation. As the global economic crisis hits Guatemala, these programs are becoming even more critical to safeguarding women’s rights, including their right to a life free of violence.
You’re invited to see these programs in action. MADRE is organizing a delegation to Guatemala in February 2009. Keep an eye on this blog for more information in the coming weeks. Consider joining us and tell your friends!