Human Rights Latin America Social Issues Women

Machismo Culture and Gender-Based Violence in Latin America are Connected Phenomena

While too abstract to be an explicitly codified principle, the concept of machismo is present on a social, economic, and political level.

Men, patriarchy, and gender-based violence. The American public has witnessed an unprecedented push to reverse issues caused by a sustained patriarchal system. But what about those who live in a region where gendered issues remain relatively unaddressed? What about individuals whose home countries perpetuate such a degree of patriarchy that gender-based violence occurs at a disproportionately high rate? What if, in these particular regions, rights for women were hidden behind a dominant cultural force called machismo?

Machismo culture is defined as a sense of masculine pride, an exaggerated form of manliness that theoretically provides men entitlement in many spheres of life. The concept, derived from the Spanish word macho, reflects the deep-seated belief in many Latin American communities that men should display both practical and symbolic dominance relative to women. In daily life, machismo is pervasive in employment, public office, and the family, establishing explicit gendered boundaries and permeating through day-to-day interactions between men and women in Latin America. While too abstract to be an explicitly codified principle, the concept of machismo is present on a social, economic, and political level.

Scholars have begun to draw connections between this cultural framework and domestic violence in Latin America. In an article published in Crime and Justice International, scholar Robert Hasner traces the histories of Nicaragua, Chile, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, uncovering widespread patriarchal beliefs that create the sociological conditions for domestic violence to manifest. While machismo does promote the positive value of family responsibility by denoting the importance of both providing and caregiving in familial settings, its emphasis on men as arbiters of authority creates toxic relational environments for women. In many of the subcultures Hasner studied, men believed that women were capable of enduring any and all suffering inflicted on them—a factor which significantly increases the likelihood of domestic violence. In light of his findings, Hasner argues that further awareness of these connections is of the utmost importance. 

Women living in Latin American households encounter machismo culture on a daily basis. They are frequently expected to conform to the complementary social behavior of marianismo, or the idea that women should serve as pure, spiritual beings who are submissive to their husbands. In Latin American society, a good wife never argues with her husband, and is consistently tolerant of his words and actions—whatever the cost may be. 

In light of COVID-19-related lockdowns, rates of gender-based violence have grown rapidly. In 2020 alone, violence against women in many Latin American countries has increased by figures of 30 to 50 percent. Social distancing, school closures, and office lockdowns have left women and girls dependent, isolated, and vulnerable. Dubbed a “pandemic within a pandemic,” the issue of gender-based violence leaves countless women throughout the region at risk.

The connections between machismo and domestic violence are particularly pervasive in Mexico, a country that sees a dramatic juxtaposition between a progressive, pro-women constitution and a rapid, deadly increase in gender-based violence.

Dating from the era of European colonization, machismo in Mexico has predominantly allowed men to take the lead in most areas of life while relegating women to the domestic sphere. Today, statistics reveal an overwhelming amount of instances of gender-based violence—instances which have likely been present since before such data was recorded. But women in Mexico who would like to take action against their aggressors face a double-edged sword: they must go to the very people who perpetrate violence against them: the State Police. Despite living under a government that boasts some of the most comprehensive gender equality legislation in the world, Mexican women frequently feel unsafe among their own country’s police force and subsequently refrain from reporting harassment. While in most of Latin America, one-third of women have been subject to gender-based violence, this figure jumps to two-thirds in Mexico—a figure that has been shown to have jarring connections to the state’s machismo culture.

Alarmingly, the aforementioned case study also serves as evidence of Latin America’s broader “femicide problem,” referring to the widespread murder of women and girls. Across the region, femicide is the climax of the lengthy narrative of Latin American gender discrimination, originating with machismo-oriented cultural narratives. Despite widespread awareness of these regional inequalities on an international level, the concept of femicide in Latin America itself remains relatively unaddressed, and even undefined. Of the 33 countries in the region, only 18 have criminalized femicide—and much of this legislation is accompanied by stipulations about marriage status. Although minimal progress has been championed by businesses and left-wing politicians in some states, with Panama’s Gender Equality Initiative being a primary example of promoting women involvement in the labor market, Latin America is far from achieving overall success. Femicide must be explicitly defined on a region-wide level, and solutions must be formulated that take into account the systemic presence of machismo in Latin American government structures. 

However, the impact of legislative change has often been negligible at best. Too often, criminal justice systems fail to fairly prosecute cases surrounding violence against women, refraining from implicating male perpetrators. Instances of femicide are often closed without thorough investigation and ruled as suicides or accidental deaths even when signs of struggle or sexual harassment are present. 

While the legislative system must enact progressive change, so must Latin American criminal justice proceedings. Ultimately, the region’s legislative approach must be two-pronged: enact better gender equality legislation, and rebuild enforcement systems to keep passed legislation afloat. 

On a worldwide scale, international organizations have become increasingly committed to ending gender-based violence, and have also developed a number of strategies with the potential to reach Latin America. The United Nations has identified gender equality as one of its seven Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and has created the Spotlight Initiative to combat all forms of violence against women and girls. In 2019, the World Bank pledged $300 million towards combating gender-based violence, and identifies gender equality as one of its top priorities. However, the most meaningful progress will come from policy specifically targeted to the region.

Education must be a priority in addressing gender-based violence in Latin America—particularly because the pervasiveness of machismo culture prevents many women from rejecting the patriarchy. In a 2017 report directly targeted at improving gender-based disparities in Latin America, UN Women urged the implementation of media campaigns targeted at educating women and girls about healthcare resources, reporting, and consent. A primary example of media being used as a learning tool is present in Honduras; there, a public-private partnership facilitates training about addressing violence against women for government officials and other social actors. Especially in today’s digital age, the prevalence of social media could be used as a powerful tool to facilitate women’s empowerment. 

Given the collective power of the Latin American public, private, and nonprofit sectors, important partnerships must be enacted to eliminate violence against women throughout the region. While many nonprofit organizations, such as Pro Mujer and TEDIC, are already working to combat gender-based violence, both the enforcement power of the public sector and financial prowess of the private sector could further empower these groups to achieve bold and radical goals for women’s equality. Additionally, local partnerships could promote regional and national independence through more tailored and informed policy, which, following centuries of imperialism, is all the more important in our world’s formulation of goals for previously colonized countries. By creating such connections, Latin America can independently facilitate its own cultural healing, with little reliance on any former colonizer.

On a practical level, policy initiatives to combat violence against women must provide survivors with the resources they need to heal. Safe spaces for women, tucked away from the dominating force of machismo, have the potential to be powerful in facilitating empowerment. Some countries, such as Brazil and Chile have implemented comprehensive care centers that cater specifically to women in need of support, providing one-stop services for victims and survivors, but such a concept must also be facilitated on a wider scale across the Latin American region. National-level helplines, too, could be created, to be widely publicized and available 24/7. Ultimately, healthcare resources for women should be developed with the prevalence of gender-based violence in mind, and widely spread at every level of society. 

A bold, perhaps challenging policy recommendation involves redress, and the championing of justice for women who have been hurt by gender-based violence. Systems should be implemented to provide not only economic empowerment for survivors, but also other forms of compensation for the hardships that they have endured. On an infrastructural level, these women should be provided access to housing and medical supplies, especially in the case of an emergency. In addition, it is especially important to consider those outside of direct victims who have been impacted by gender-based harm—particularly, the children who have been orphaned as a result of domestic violence. The state of Uruguay recently implemented such a program, which provides a special family allowance administered by the Social Security Bank. Other redress-related resources to be provided could take the form of social work and legal support. 

Although not directly rooted in policy, a cultural unlearning of machismo structures is necessary to aid in the prevention of domestic violence. For advocates, solving the problem begins with initiating dialogue on the problematic nature of machismo and encouraging men to develop emotional wellness. Additionally, Latin America must develop a more comprehensive awareness of the pervasive nature of violence against women and equip all genders to combat this form of discrimination. Such a shift can be facilitated by NGO intervention—and, already, regional groups are beginning to address and redefine Latin America’s sense of hegemonic masculinity. In 2019, the European Union in the state of Colombia founded The National School for the Unlearning of Machismo, whose video-based programs depict machismo in a practical, real-world sense. Guided by a complex psychological model, the organization Gendes leads group sessions that teach men nonviolent tactics for dealing with conflict and emotion in the home.

Evidently, women across Latin America endure pervasive gender-based violence rooted in the cultural dominance of machismo, and instances of this sort of oppression are on the rise. We must recognize the immediacy of this issue and take steps that encourage the swift elimination of violence against women. 

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By Alyssa Fong

Alyssa Fong is a third-year undergraduate at UCLA pursuing a triple major in political science, sociology, and gender studies.

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