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Latin America: urgent need for regional response as rates of femicide spiral

Ana María Hanssen

Alarmingly high rates of femicide across Latin America have prompted calls for new regional efforts to tackle gender-based violence.

Femicide – the killing of a woman by a man on account of her gender – is a huge and growing challenge in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. It’s led to increasing concerns that legislation and justice systems across the region are falling short. More than 16 countries in Latin America have laws to combat gender crimes.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called for more action to prevent and prosecute femicides, particularly in Brazil. ‘Murders of women are not an isolated problem and are symptomatic of a pattern of gender violence against women… the result of sexist values deeply rooted in Brazilian society,’ it says. The Commission adds that black women, those belonging to indigenous groups and the LGBT community, as well as female politicians, journalists and human rights defenders are most at risk.

There is resistance within the judicial system to fully grasp and recognise the concept of gender-based violence

Yamile Roncancio, Director, Femicide Foundation Colombia

The UN Women Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean records 4,646 women murdered in Brazil last year. The situation in Mexico is even worse. It has the highest number of femicides across Latin America.

‘In the first two months of 2019, Mexico has registered 568 women killed, which translates to 10 per day. Only 147 have been prosecuted as femicides,’ says Tania Reneaum Panszi, Executive Director of Amnesty International Mexico. She was speaking in April at the launch of the Amnesty campaign #JuntasHastaLaVida (‘Together for life’) to tackle femicide in the country.

Femicides are ‘taking on a devastating magnitude and trend in Central America, where two in every three women murdered are killed because of their gender,’ says a report by the UN Development Programme and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women.

‘There is resistance within the judicial system to fully grasp and recognise the concept of gender-based violence,’ Yamile Roncancio, Director of Femicide Foundation Colombia, tells Global Insight. She says Colombia’s femicide law, introduced in 2015, is a clear step in the right direction. It imposes a maximum sentence of 50 years for gender-based killings and has helped more generally to raise awareness of the problem. But, adds Roncancio, the media doesn’t rigorously report on femicides and continues to use inaccurate language, such as ‘crime of passion’, when referring to cases.

Paula Vieira, Gender and Diversity Compliance Officer of the IBA’s Latin American Regional Forum, agrees. ‘Femicide is often motivated by the feeling of ownership by partners or ex-partners over women,’ she says. ‘In certain cases, public authorities reinforce this culture. The crime tends to be normalised because it is wrongly considered passionate.’

The sentencing of a man to 52 years in prison for the rape and murder of seven-year-old Yuliana Samboní in 2016 was seen as a breakthrough in Colombia in addressing gender inequality in the justice system. The man was from a prestigious and wealthy Bogotá family. Roncancio says the lengthy sentence was somewhat unexpected due to the perpetrator’s connections, but that ‘the problem in Colombia is not impunity so much as that the justice system is overwhelmed and cannot handle all the cases of violence against women reported every year’.

Paula Vieira

Paula Vieira, Latin American Regional Forum

Lara Blanco, UN Women's Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, says there are significant challenges in the collection and analysis of data on femicides. ‘Femicides are not reported or are not known; they are under-registered or wrongly classified in official statistics.’

Herman Duarte, Latin American Regional Forum Liaison Officer on the IBA’s Human Rights Law Committee, says there should be greater focus on educating people about gender-based violence. He points to the problem of corruption within the judicial system in countries like El Salvador, coupled with a machismo culture. ‘It is critical to introduce curricula that teach gender equality and respect for differences,’ he says. ‘Education to eradicate machismo is the only answer in the long run.’

Argentina is one country making headway in tackling femicide through a combination of education and legislation. Grassroots movement #NiUnaMenos (‘Not one less’) has helped to significantly raise awareness. The campaign, begun in response to the murder of pregnant 14-year-old Chiara Páez, who was beaten to death by her 16-year-old boyfriend, has grown into a powerful women’s movement that describes itself as ‘a collective cry against gender violence’.

In mid-2018, Argentina introduced the ‘Brisa Law’, which aims to financially compensate children, teenagers or people with disabilities whose mothers or caregivers have been killed. Individuals have the right to receive economic aid until they turn 21. Paula Siverino, a member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee, was involved in the creation of the Brisa Law. She says the legislation is groundbreaking because it considers previously forgotten victims of femicide: the children who lose their mothers and, often, their fathers, to jail or suicide.

In December 2018, Argentina’s Senate also approved the ‘Micaela Law’ which, says Siverino, ‘creates a national and permanent programme aimed at institutional training in gender perspectives and violence against women’. Public workers in the government and judiciary must take courses on the subject.

Vieira agrees that education to break the cycle of violence against women seems to be the best strategy to combat femicide in the region. ‘The main reason for violence against women and the lack of accountability is cultural,’ she says. ‘Those deaths would not happen if the cycles were broken.’