Human Rights Latin America LGBTQ Social Issues Venezuela Women

Breaking the Cycle: Stopping Gender Violence in Latin America

The apparent rise of gender-based homicide has impelled Latin American countries to legally distinguish the crime as “femicide.”

Latin America has long been a region marked by staggering rates of female homicide and endemic violence perpetrated against women. The apparent rise of gender-based homicide has impelled Latin American countries to legally distinguish the crime as “femicide.” In spite of its local acknowledgement as a human rights issue, femicide rates have not fallen in Latin America. Administrative failure to not report or investigate the crimes, prevailing cultural and behavioral norms, and persistent impunity fostered by the justice system continue to curtail the proper protection of women’s lives and their advancement of equality.

Femicide in Latin America, or the murder of women because of their gender, is the highest in the world. The combat towards violence against women was freshly brought to life in 2018 after the body of a pregnant 14 year old Argentinan girl, Chiara Paez, was discovered under the patio of her teenage boyfriend’s backyard. The brutal murder sparked the condemnation of thousands of protestors on the streets followed on social media by the hashtag #NiUnaMenos. Like most online social justice phenomena, the slogan trailed onto neighboring countries, providing a platform for individuals to publicly denounce violence against women and call for legislative action towards reproductive rights and other related causes.

Enjoined in nearly every facet of Latin American culture, toxic machismo reveals itself in the daily public and private lives of women, often manifesting into gender discrimination, harassment, violence. The Catholic Church has played a role in enforcing the learned social behaviors of men and women that often lead to authoritative and submissive gendered positions. Gender-based violence is not solely grounded in machismo, but rather a complex web of colonialism, means of systemic mass terror, and internalized oppression. These norms and values encircling power complexes such as patriarchal entitlements and female subordination continue to justify violence so long as they are not socially denounced. 

The permenting of machismo has given rise to a society predisposed to sexual violence throughout Latin America. Recent women’s justice movements are evocative of the paradigm between two contrasting tenets of modern society, grappling between tradition and progress.

Since World War II, the vast linkage of the global economy and society ushered the emergence of pluralistic tendencies towards self-establishment in political and moral life. In its Western form, modernity has become a project of autonomy, socio-political democratization, and economic integration. Such a vision of modernization has since conjured conflicting aims as to how to re-root individuals and their relationships with new and existing social structures and institutions.

In Latin America, even as modernity rose in the 20th century, the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the democratic experience has held affinity towards the conservative cause. Although Catholicism has declined in the region, its ideological roots and political posture that supports conservative values remain deeply entrenched. On the other side of the aisle, parts of the Latin American societies have sought a more auspicious political agenda. Over the past two decades, Latin American countries have experienced a pendulum effect swinging between conservatism and an arguably unsuccessful “pink tide” of sorts, the latter which has promised a revolutionary turn toward left-leaning democracies, most times instead installing administrations plagued by corruption and dim economic performances.

The push-pull nature of politics in Latin America has also fueled the chasm between the legitimization of women’s rights and the perpetuation of machismo culture. Threatening the ideals of the latter, in December 2020, Argentinian senators backed an abortion bill, 38 votes in favor and 29 against, indicative of two ideologically severing sides in Latin American. The historic vote is gratifying towards the culmination of centuries of female oppression and decades of the fight for women’s rights and perhaps setting in motion the most liberal abortion laws in all of Latin America. 

Violence against women is inherently linked to women’s reproductive and sexual health, as unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion more frequently occur to victims of violence. Ongoing stigma against abortion is a facet of the Catholic Church’s traditional outlook rooted in Latin American culture that subordinates women in the public realm.  Latin American motherhood is often seen as an idealized, natural, and celebratory matter in culture; however, this does not dissuade from the fact that murder by an intimate partner is the leading cause of death in pregnant and postpartum women. Further effects of unintended pregnancies is the “tethering” of women to violent men, both economically and domestically. 

The vehement conversation about abortion epitomizes the country’s transfiguring church-state relationship, tugging at the nation’s sense of identity. Latin America’s conservative core is transforming nevertheless, but resistance is inevitable. As a result of  post Cold War unipolarity, the ushering of a new multipolar world order led by countries such as China, the U.S., and Russia has provoked profound shifts in the global context. The Catholic Church in Latin America catalyzed a new geopolitical vision to not isolate regions, but rather protect the “common good.” The Catholic tradition is interwoven with Latin American cultures, national identities and ideologies, whether the religion is practiced or not. 

While women’s movements such as #NiUnaMenos have raised awareness of worsening gender violence, it has also urged the idea that women are not an agenda target, but rather the aim is to politically-enable women to make decisions over their own lives. The two year pushback on the Argentinean bill is paradigmatic for the institutional restrictions on abortion; as a result of the parameters to legally have an abortion being so narrow, violence against women increases.

Photo by Gender Equality Observatory
for Latin America and the Caribbean

In Mexico for instance, ten women are killed every day on the basis of gender. Fewer than five percent of these murders are solved, and the justice system hardly brings power to these charges. The issue is so prevalent that Mexico legally distinguished femicide in 2012 along with 12 other Latin American countries. Interestingly enough, few countries outside of Latin America utilize the word femicide, and none in Europe use this term in a legal capacity. One may wonder why these crimes should be segregated from aggregate homicides.

In Mexico, it is required for the crime to involve sexual abuse or a relationship between the victim and perpetrator to count as femicide. In 2019, the country witnessed a number of 1.5 femicide victims per 100,000 women, and the leading type of homicide perpetrator in Argentina was the victim’s partner. 

The legal compound between reporting and prosecuting, allowing for investigations to be made with a gender-based lens, may also take into account the negative effects of patriarchy which dichotomously continue to oppress and harm women. For instance, in Panama, the minimum prison sentence for aggravated homicide is 20 years, whereas it is 25 years for femicide. The long term solution to this form of violence is a commitment towards an education following the concept of equal rights and raising awareness around gender-based violence. However, no amount of legal protection against violence towards women can demolish the widespread acquired and internalized cultural belief in Latin America that men hold power in society. 

The plentiful forms of violence against women perpetuate obstacles for the attainment of freedom and self-development. The lack of punishment and responsibility from regional, state, and judicial systems that often discriminate, question credibility, or underestimate women’s reports of violence, fuels continuing criminal behavior. Separate from femicide, Latin America’s undeterrent criminal justice system makes its citizens; perception of safety to be the lowest in the world. In the case of femicide, prejudice held by lawmakers and judicial authorities restricts the necessary security conditions required for women and girls to feel safe in their communities.

The need for legislative and prosecutable action from governments is emblematic of the extent to which the federal government affects the quality of everyday life. Machismo and its societal culmination has its own name and place internationally. Strides to halt gender-based harassment and violence in society are yet to be achieved globally.  

If democratic participation is distinguished by every day action and intervention of public life, then existing structures of government must invite citizens to form public opinion, share such in public discourse, and be able to question public leadership and existing legislation without fear of scrutiny. Though Catholicism is no longer exclusively the main social actor in Latin America, budding heads with secularism and other Pentecostal churches, this does not omit the influence of religion in general as a determinant of politics. Nor is religion static, as it too can empower women through its multifaceted symbols open to a range of interpretation allowing for the combat of social subordination. The branching values and morals of religion are still relevant and present in Latin America which has a brooding history of colonialist and imperialist influences who deployed religion as an instrument of assimilation. 

Debates on gender prejudice, the stringency of reproductive regulations, and sexual politics should not be hushed or avoided. Democratic practice is dependent on allowing discourse and opinions to flourish, especially when communication is enabled to allow for a plurality of thoughts and beliefs. Social and political resonance can transform structures of power and the role of government as a gatekeeper of freedom, self-regulation, and will-power.

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By Vanessa Mendivil

Vanessa Mendivil is a second year Political Science student at UCLA, as well as a staff writer for the Journal on World Affairs.

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