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Violence Against Women in Latin America

Posted on: Friday, January 6, 2006

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Latin America and Caribbean, Guatemala, Colombia

A MADRE Position Paper

Violence against women in Latin America reflects global trends, mediated by histories and conditions specific to the region. These include colonization, war, migration, and neoliberalism. As in other regions, gender-based violence was integral to the European conquest of Latin America, setting a pernicious pattern in which Indigenous women have been disproportionately targeted for rape as a weapon of war. Non-Indigenous women have also been abused during armed conflicts, including more than 70 US military interventions into their countries. Under the military regimes of the Southern Cone countries in the 1970s, thousands of women endured the disappearance and murder of their children and other loved ones, while women political prisoners were systematically subjected to sexual torture. Violence against women was also a widespread counter-insurgency tactic in Central America in the 1980s. During the 1990s, women in the heavily militarized state of Chiapas, Mexico were subjected to sexual harassment, rape, forced prostitution and compulsory servitude in military camps. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, Latin American governments have followed the Bush Administration's lead in subordinating human rights to militarized notions of "national security". The trend has undermined governments' obligations to human rights, including women's right to a life free of violence.

Women who were active in the region's liberation and democracy struggles during the 1970s and 1980s gradually developed an autonomous women's movement that grew to challenge violence against women. However, the defeat and co-optation of liberation struggles in the 1990s undermined progressive politics, including the fight against gender violence. In Nicaragua, for example, the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas refortified the Catholic Church and its oppressive gender policies. A powerful institution in all Latin American countries, the Church hierarchy reinforces gender violence by encouraging reconciliation in cases of domestic violence and denying women reproductive rights. The end of armed conflicts also created new political spaces in which women have mobilized to pursue anti-violence agendas. For example, Guatemalan women have demanded legislative reforms in the context of the 1996 peace accords.

As the most marginalized sector of Latin American societies, Indigenous women are effectively denied access to most public services—including education, medical care, police protection, telephone service and transportation—that could prevent or redress violence. In fact, public services are themselves a site of violence against Indigenous women. For example, in numerous Latin American countries, poor and Indigenous women seeking professional healthcare have been forcibly sterilized. Many rural Indigenous women do not speak fluent Spanish—the language of public education, mass media and the courts. Even inside the women's movement, persistent racism means that programs to combat violence against women usually do not include segments designed by Indigenous women and therefore do not adequately address the problem as it affects them.

War and economic ruin have triggered the displacement and migration of millions of Latin Americans. These women are particularly vulnerable to abuse by soldiers, bandits and "coyotes" (guides offering transport to the US). In Latin America, as elsewhere, refugee communities show high levels of domestic violence. Displacement undermines women's capacity to meet their family's needs, sometimes triggering abuse as a reaction to women's failure to fulfill this primary social role. Refugee women, who are unfamiliar with or fearful of local authorities, have little access to legal recourse. Those displaced inside their national borders, like the hundreds of thousands of Colombians and Guatemalans dislocated from their lands by political violence, lack legal status as refugees and are therefore denied services or protection by international authorities.

The Economic Link

A 1996 Inter-American Development Bank study in Nicaragua reveals strong links between women's economic dependence on men and physical abuse. This correlation exists internationally. However, employment does not necessarily provide sufficient leverage to challenge domestic violence. Many Latin American women report male relatives using violence or the threat of violence to take their earnings from them. And for thousands of women, the workplace itself is a site of abuse. In fact, the sector most emblematic of Latin America's role in the global economy is also the most notorious for the abuse of women. Export manufacturing sweatshops, or maquilas, hire mainly women who are paid less, work longer and are subjected to worse conditions than men. Many of these women are migrants who have left behind social networks that could provide protection from violence. Documented examples of violence against women in maquilas include humiliation, sexual harassment and intimidation, sexual assaults and beatings, strip searches, forced pregnancy tests, termination of pregnant workers and violence against union organizers.

The maquila boom is one feature of the neoliberal economic restructuring that swept Latin America at the end of the 20th century. These policies, including privatization and Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), have intensified poverty, urbanization, migration and women's employment, inducing rapid changes in traditional social structures throughout the region. Violence against women was one manifestation of men's attempts to reassert traditional authority and cope with economic crisis. Privatization of hospitals and schools and the displacement of peasant farmers by agribusiness have meant life-threatening deprivation for poor women and girls, who are less likely than boys and men to receive costly medical care, schooling, or scarce food.

SAPs, instituted by nearly every country in Latin America, have drastically cut public services that help prevent gender violence, including education, drug treatment, job training and women's leadership development programs. SAPs have also slashed resources that support survivors of violence and provide alternatives to abusive situations, including counseling, shelters, healthcare, and subsidized housing. In poor communities, birth rates rise as women's access to education, information, and reproductive healthcare diminishes. More children means greater dependency on male wages, which increases vulnerability to male violence.

As Latin American women's economic opportunities shrank and the AIDS epidemic shifted sex tourism away from Asia, sex trafficking increased throughout the region. Brazil's sex tourism industry exploits an estimated 500,000 girls under the age of 14. Thousands more serve as prostitutes in remote mining camps under conditions of virtual slavery. Guatemala City has also become a center of international sex trafficking, with girls from all over Central America smuggled in and forced to work as prostitutes. Illegal trafficking of children for adoption—mostly to the United States—is another growing business in Guatemala. Almost 3,000 children are taken from Guatemala in what has become a $50-million-dollar-a-year industry. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of these "adoptions" are illegal; Guatemalan women report people knocking at their doors offering money for their newborns or simply snatching babies from their arms as they walk down the street.

Challenging Violence

The Latin American women's movement is recognized internationally for its advances in combating violence against women. Latin America was the first region in the world where all countries ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the first to formulate a legal instrument explicitly designed to eradicate gender violence: the Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women. Until the 1990s, most countries in the region lacked any domestic violence legislation. By the end of the decade, women's organizing had yielded new laws in nearly every country; though neoliberal policies had concurrently undercut governments' capacities to meet their legal obligations. Moreover, many laws continued to trivialize gender violence as a civil rather than criminal offense; neglect prevention and rehabilitation as keys to eradicating violence; discriminate against women by exonerating rapists who offered to marry their victims; and deny redress to non-wage earning women by recognizing "injury" only when victims were rendered unfit for paid employment.

After more than two decades of combating gender violence, Latin American activists' most fundamental challenges are those shared by women globally: to transform social attitudes that reproduce male violence and oppose all policies that violate women's human rights.

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