Violence against women in Latin America: Is it getting worse?

CSM, by Sara Miller Llana and Cybilla Brodzinsky

Across Latin America, women are confronting a rise in brutal attacks – as advocates struggle to sustain the progress that’s been made in curbing violence against women.

Like the majority of women in Colombia, Viviana Hernandez won’t leave her house without makeup. She applies a thick layer of foundation and outlines her slightly deformed lips with red liner. She draws in her eyebrows – she lost her natural ones – and hides the few lashes she has left and her disfigured eyes behind the large dark sunglasses that she’s worn day and night since an attacker threw acid on her face five years ago.

Ms. Hernandez has no doubt it was her estranged partner who ordered the attack. Once she came out of intensive care at the hospital, she remembers him calling her cellphone, telling her that no one else would want her now but him.

Hernandez’s is but one face of violence against women in Latin America, a worrying trend in a region that has seen enormous advances for women over the past decade. Forty percent of the region is now led by women: There are female heads of state in Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Women have reached equal access to education and have increasingly joined the workforce. Awareness has also grown around the issues of violence against women through a spate of legislation aimed at protecting them.

But this progress stands in sharp contrast to gender-based violence that has long plagued the region, and is now manifesting itself in new and dangerous ways.

In some countries violence against women is far worse today, from a spike in femicides – the gender-based killing of women – in places like El Salvador and Honduras, where the drug war has become deadlier, to the disturbing trend of acid attacks against women in Colombia. In light of the Nov. 25 United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, this uptick leaves many questioning what can be done.

Why target women?

Last April Nadine Gasman, the head of UNiTE to End Violence against Women for Latin America and the Caribbean, a UN initiative that fights impunity and works to change cultural attitudes, attended a meeting with police, prosecutors, and justice ministries across the region to talk about violence against women.

“What was clear is that there is an increased number of [acts of] exacerbated cruelty,” Ms. Gasman says. “We don’t understand why.”

Violence against women is linked to a number of factors, including hard economic times and communities where violent crime is endemic. But Gasman, like many observers, says that part of the spike in several countries could be attributed to different paces of change in society: Women are reporting crime more, but justice systems are not responding, making them even more vulnerable.

“Women are asking for rights, and men get very violent; and because the system is so cumbersome and does not provide responses quickly enough, violence gets worse and worse,” Gasman says.

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