(October 2001) Despite laws against domestic violence, many women in Latin America and the Caribbean continue to be failed by the legal system. In Mexico, for example, two 30-year-old women from Mexico City recently suffered the consequences of intimate partner abuse, according to Comunicación e Información de la Mujer, Asociación Civil (CIMAC) and La Jornada. Rocio Mancilla had an extramarital affair and was killed by her husband last April. He received less than two years in jail because he pleaded "violent emotion." International business specialist Carolina Gaona's husband threatened her life in October 2000. A judge, who was sympathetic to her husband's feelings of jealousy, sentenced her to return home.

To date, nearly 30 countries in the region have enacted laws against domestic violence or have characterized the violence as a crime. Surveys from various countries, however, indicate that an estimated 10 percent to 50 percent of women report being physically assaulted by their male partner. This violence exacts a heavy toll.

"Violence against women devastates people's lives, fragments communities, and prevents countries from developing," said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) at the 2001 Symposium on Gender Violence, Health and Rights in the Americas in Cancun, Mexico.

Domestic violence is increasingly recognized as a critical public health problem by organizations like the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States and as a serious violation of basic human rights under international treaties. (See Box 1 below for a definition of gender violence.) According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), countries in the region invest 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in addressing its effects on victims. Victims of domestic violence average more surgeries, physician and pharmacy visits, hospital stays, and mental health consultations than other women. (See Box 2 below for the health effects of domestic violence.)

Experts agree that women are most exposed and unsafe in their own homes. Husbands or partners are responsible for the majority of aggression, injuries, sexual abuse, and homicide. One 1996 study of domestic violence cases in 17 states in Brazil by researchers Luiz Sores, Barbara Soares, and Leandro Carneiro for Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos, a human rights organization in the country, indicated that husbands, companions, or former partners had committed 230 prior assaults as opposed to 31 by relatives, neighbors, or others.

Enforcement of Laws Remains a Major Concern

Enforcement of domestic violence laws remains a major concern. Police often fail to respond or are hostile to women who report domestic violence. To address this situation, women's groups in the region have begun to promote special women's police units to be run and staffed by women. Brazil was the first country to establish these special units in 1985 with five countries following suit. According to the IADB, success has been mixed due to units' shortage of staff, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of social and psychological support teams.

In many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, police require women to undergo a medical examination and receive a certificate before they can file an official complaint for domestic violence. The medical certificate may be the only evidence to substantiate the victims' testimonies and provide them with legal protection and redress. Medical examiners frequently underreport injuries sustained through domestic violence due to the difficulty of determining what this violence constitutes. Consequently, many medical examiners classify injuries they perceive as less serious as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. For instance, superficial wounds like bruises would constitute a less serious infraction than broken bones. This has profound consequences as misdemeanor offenses carry much less stringent penalties than felonies. In Peru, for example, misdemeanor offenses carry a maximum penalty of 20 to 30 days of community service.

Human Rights Watch, a human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), cites the 1996 case of Verónica Alvarez, a 36-year-old mother in Lima, Peru, who was hit in the face with a metal typewriter by her partner and left permanently scarred. Because the medical examiner classified her injuries as needing fewer than 10 days of treatment and recuperation, Verónica's case was classified as a misdemeanor.

The justice system in many countries may fail to make adequate use of protection measures. According to Movimiento Manuela Ramos, an NGO in Peru that provides legal counsel to victims of domestic violence, prosecutors issued protective measures in only one out of 45 domestic violence cases filed in Lima in 1996 and 1997.

In other instances, judges may not order protective measures quickly enough or judges may let measures expire, leaving victims with no protection. The law may also be flawed. In Peru, the law urges conciliation over prosecution, and state prosecutors prefer to hold mediation hearings even when the victim's life may be at risk. This sends a disturbing message that violent interpersonal relationships should be resolved through negotiation rather than punishment.

Other problems include victims' ignorance of the law and their rights, hesitance in reporting injuries, and the reluctance of judges to take action. In Nicaragua, according to the 1998 Demographic and Health Survey, over one-third of women who had been abused by their partners had never told anyone. Research suggests that shame and fear of reprisal are primary reasons why many women remain silent.

Some Countries Are Making Progress in Addressing Domestic Violence

Legal and judicial reforms are meeting with limited success in some countries. Costa Rica enacted the Law against Domestic Violence in 1996, which allows protective measures to be enforced without criminal or civil proceedings. Under this law, anyone who inflicts psychological, physical, or sexual violence on a relative may be ordered out of the home and prohibited access to the victim, be temporarily barred from caring for, raising, and educating any underage children, have weapons taken, and be ordered to pay for the family's food, medical care, and any property that was damaged during the assault. In the year after the law had been in effect, over 7,000 legal actions involving domestic violence were reported.

Costa Rica has also formed a National Plan to Treat and Prevent Intra-Family Violence coordinated by the National Center for the Development of Women and the Family. It aims to provide an integrated system of services and actions to prevent domestic violence. The nearly decade-long effort has heightened public awareness and sensitivity to the problem, extended an existing network of shelters and an emergency hotline, trained more than 1,000 people in various institutions to recognize and deal with problems of family violence, and promoted research regarding the issue.

Efforts are also underway in Costa Rica to provide sensitivity training programs for judicial personnel ranging from Supreme Court justices to social workers.

A Call to Action for Latin America and the Caribbean

To address the ongoing barriers to ending domestic and other types of gender-based violence, the United Nations and other organizations recently held the 2001 Symposium on Gender Violence, Health and Rights in the Americas in Cancun, Mexico. It was sponsored by six UN organizations, the Latin America and the Caribbean Women's Health Network, the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Network Against Domestic Sexual Violence (Isis International), the Inter-American Commission of Women, and the Canadian Center for Research in Women's Health, a World Health Organization collaborating center.

Representatives from 33 countries in the continent went back to their countries with a new task — to make sure that "A Call to Action" becomes a reality to those living in every country in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"A Call to Action," the document endorsed by all participants at the symposium, asks countries to fully guarantee women's access to protection mechanisms and justice by promoting new legal measures against gender violence either at a national or an international level. It urges countries to strengthen the response of the health sector to identify, screen, and care for victims of violence and to provide them with the tools, psychological support and judicial and personal protection to help them refer cases to the legal system. Finally, it calls on all participants to promote the creation of a nonviolent culture through education and sensitization strategies targeting women and men.


Prevalence of Domestic Violence Against Women in the Americas and Status of National Legislation

Country Coverage Population/Age/Sample Size Finding (Physical Violence Only) National Legislation/ Year of Enactment
Antigua and Barbuda (1993) Random subset of national probability sample All women 20-45 (97) 30% Yes/1999
Argentina N/A N/A N/A Yes/1994
Bahamas N/A N/A N/A Yes/1991
Barbados (1993) Island-wide national probability sample All women 20-45 (264) 30% Yes/1992
Belize N/A N/A N/A Yes/1992
Bolivia (1998) 3 districts All women 20+ (289) 17% (previous 12 months) Yes/1995
Brazil N/A N/A N/A Yes (included in the federal constitution, 1988 and a specific legislative decree, 1995)
Chile (1993) Santiago and provincial Santiago Currently married women 22-55 (1,000) 60% (26% severely) Yes/1994
Chile (1997) Santiago Currently married women 15-49 (312) 23% (previous 12 months) Yes/1994
Colombia (2000) National (DHS) Ever-married women, 15-49 (7,602) 41% Yes/1996
Costa Rica (1994) Representative for San Jose metropolitan area 1,312 women 10% Yes/1996
Dominica N/A N/A N/A Yes/1996
Dominican Republic N/A N/A N/A Yes/1997
Ecuador (1992) Sample of Quito barrio 200 low-income women 60% Yes/1995
El Salvador N/A N/A N/A Yes/1996
Guatemala (1990) Random sample of Sacatepequez 1,000 women 49% Yes/1999
Guyana N/A N/A N/A Yes/1996
Honduras N/A N/A N/A Yes/1997
Jamaica N/A N/A N/A Yes/1996
Mexico (1996) Metro Guadalajara Ever-married women (650) 15% (previous months), 27% (ever) Yes/1996
Mexico (1996) Monterrey Ever-married women, 15+ (1,064) 17% (ever) Yes/1996
Nicaragua (1995) Leon Ever-married women, 15-49 (360) 27% (previous 12 months), 52% (ever) Yes/1996
Nicaragua (1995) Managua Ever-married women, 15-49 (378) 33% (previous 12 months), 69% (ever) Yes/1996
Nicaragua (1998) National (DHS) Ever-married women, 15-49 (8,507) 12% (previous 12 months), 28% (ever) Yes/1996
Panama N/A N/A N/A Yes/1999
Paraguay (2000) National (except Chaco region) Ever-married women, 15-49 (5,940) 10% (ever) Yes/2000
Peru (1997) Metro Lima Currently married women, 17-55 (359) 31% (previous 12 months) Yes/1993 (strengthened in 1997)
Puerto Rico (1995-1996) National Ever-married women, 15-49 (7,121) 13% (ever) Yes/1989
Saint Lucia N/A N/A N/A Yes/1995
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines N/A N/A N/A Yes/1984
Trinidad and Tobago N/A N/A N/A Yes/1999
Uruguay (1997) Montevideo and Canelones Currently married women, 22-55 (545) 10% (previous 12 months) Yes/1995

Sources: Selected population-based studies, 1982-1999 compiled by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) for the Johns Hopkins University, Population Reports, 1999; the Colombia Demographic and Health Survey, 2000; Lori Heise, Jacqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germain, "Violence Against Women," World Bank Discussion Paper (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1994); and the Inter-American Commission of Women, Organization of American States, 2000 (www.oas.org/cim/English/LawsViolence.htm, accessed on August 10, 2001).


Liz Creel is a population specialist with the Population Reference Bureau. Sara Lovera is a journalist and the founder of Doble Jornada, the first feminist supplement in a Mexican newspaper — La Jornada. She is also the Executive Secretary of Comunicación e Información de la Mujer, Asociación Civil (CIMAC), a news agency that seeks information on women and makes it available to the journalist community. Miriam Ruiz is a reporter and copyeditor at CIMAC. She is interested in women's human rights issues around the world. Staff of the Inter-American Commission on Women, Organization of American States, provided valuable suggestions and review for this article.


For More Information

Comunicación e Información de la Mujer (Communication and Information Services for Women)
Balderas No. 86, CP 06050, México, D.F.
www.cimacnoticias.com
e-mail: cimac@laneta.apc.org

Inter-American Commission of Women, Organization of American States
www.oas.org/cim

Inter-American Development Bank, Women in Development Program
www.iadb.org/sds/wid

Isis Internacional
Casilla 2067 Correo Central, Santiago, Chile
Tel: 562 633 4582; Fax: 562 638 3142
www.isis.cl

United Nations Inter-Agency Campaign on Women's Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean
www.undp.org/rblac/gender

Women Watch
www.un.org/womenwatch
e-mail: womenwatch@un.org

Brazil
Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos
www.mndh.org.br

Costa Rica
Instituto Nacional de la Mujer (INAMU)
Apdo 59-2015
100 metros oeste ICE an Pedro, San José
Tel/Fax: 2537841 ó 2539624
www.inamu.go.cr
e-mail: info@inamu.go.cr

Mexico
Asociación para el Desarrollo Integral de personas Violadas, A.C. (ADIVAC)
Pitagoras 842 Narvarte CP 03020
Tel: 56 82 79 69; Cel: 59 04 70 65; Fax: 55 43 47 00
www.laneta.apc.org/adivac
e-mail: adivac@laneta.apc.og


Box 1
Definition of Gender Violence
The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, Convention of Belem do Para, adopted in 1994 and ratified to date by 30 of the 34 member countries of the Organization of American States, defines violence against women as "any act or conduct, based on gender, which causes death or physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, whether in the public or the private sphere."

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, Convention of Belem do Para, adopted in 1994 and ratified to date by 30 of the 34 member countries of the Organization of American States, defines violence against women as "any act or conduct, based on gender, which causes death or physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, whether in the public or the private sphere."

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, Convention of Belem do Para, adopted in 1994 and ratified to date by 30 of the 34 member countries of the Organization of American States, defines violence against women as "any act or conduct, based on gender, which causes death or physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, whether in the public or the private sphere."


Box 2
Health Effects of Domestic Violence

  • Poor nutrition
  • Exacerbation of chronic illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Brain trauma
  • Organ damage
  • Partial or permanent disability
  • Chronic pain
  • Unprotected sex
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Gynecological problems
  • Low birth weight infants
  • Miscarriage
  • Adverse pregnancy outcomes
  • Maternal death
  • Suicide
  • Death