International Day Against Violence
At some moment in their lives, over half of all Latin American women have been the object of violent acts in their homes. Another 33% have been victims of sexual abuse between the ages of 16 and 49, and at least 45% have been threatened, insulted or had their personal possessions destroyed.
The United Nations views violence against women as an obstacle to development due to its effects on the regionÕs economy. Gender-based violence also has social and cultural repercussions. According to the United Nations concept of human development, violence against women affects their safety and well-being, as well as their possibilities of education and personal development.
This year's celebration of November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women, takes place within the context of the United Nations campaign for womens and girls human rights, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sixteen years ago, the Latin American and Caribbean womens movement established this date to denounce the various forms of violence used against women and to commemorate the efforts of three social activists from the Dominican Republic, Patria, Minerva and Mara Teresa Miraval, who were killed November 25, 1960 under the dictatorship of Leonidas Trujillo.
It is important to note that, since the 1970s, the United Nations world conferences created the conditions which gave visibility to the phenomenon of gender-based violence and fomented a critical awareness of this issue within the international community.
According to Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the term Violence against women includes Any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary depravations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life (Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Article 1, resolution issued by the General Assembly of the United Nations, December 1993)
One of the most traumatic expressions of gender-based violence is personal violation, rape as well as sexual harassment. In particular, rape has been defined as an invasion of the most intimate and private areas of a womans body and of her personality and, therefore, as a crime against the dignity of a human being. Many survivors of rape have explained that they felt destroyed by this violation.
In her 1996 report on Violence Against Women in the Community, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy stresses that, just like survivors of other traumatic experiences, such as war or torture, "the victims of violence often suffer a form of post-traumatic depression called rape trauma syndrome, which is common in people that have been confronted with situations of overwhelming fear, terror and defenselessness".
In the past few years, the number of rape cases have increased in almost all countries in the Americas. In Mexico, according to the Public defenders Office in Mexico City, an average of 82 rapes are committed each day, and most are not reported to the police. The womens Crisis Center in Jamaica reported 17 cases of rape in 1985; in 1996 this figure had jumped to 186. Of the total 1,279 cases of rape and sexual abuse registered in Jamaica during 1993, 38% of the victims were between 18 and 25 years old, while 44% were girls under 16 years of age.
When we address violence against women, we must confront a wide variety of facts and situations linked to womens status in the world today. The lack of economic, social, cultural and political rights confirms womens position as dependent and vulnerable second-class citizens.
This situation is most clear in the case of domestic violence, which Dominican psychologist Dinnys Luciano defines as The expression of a repressive sexual politics that uses multiple mechanism in the so-called public sphere as well as in the private to control womens lives, bodies and sexuality, as well as their ability to feel, think and love
The conceptualization of violence against women and girls as a violation of human rights was one of the achievements of the womens movement during the 2nd World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. In March of the following year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights set forth a resolution that integrated womens rights within the mechanisms assuring human rights. In answer to the request of womens organizations at the Vienna conference, this Commission also named a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. The Special Rapporteur's mission is to receive and investigate information on situations of gender-based violence throughout the world.
The recognition of gender-based violence as a violation of human rights was the result of decades of diverse actions and mobilizations. The Decade of Women, proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975, provided the perfect context. In 1980, during the 2nd International Conference on the United Nations Decade of Women, held in Copenhagen, participants first brought forth the importance of bringing to light an issue considered a private affair.
One of the conferences resolutions, entitled Abused Women and Violence in the family urged recognition of the fact that the abuse of family members Constitutes a problem with serious social consequences that is perpetuated from one generation to the next (Hanna Binstock 1997)
In 1982, the United Nations Economic and Social Council met in Geneva and agreed that abuse of women and girls, violence in the family and rape are an affront to the dignity of the human being. Later, at the 3rd International Conference on the End of the United Nations Decade of Women (Nairobi, 1985), violence against women in the family was stressed, for the first time, as an important obstacle to peace. The declaration from this conference called upon all governments to Create public awareness on violence against women as a social phenomenon (Binstock 1997)
Other measures taken by the United Nations system include: the 1986 resolution of the Economic and Social Council that declared violence in the family a serious violation of womens rights; the 1991 Declaration of the Commission on the Status of Women on the need to form a group of experts to develop an international instrument to confront this situation; the 1992 Recommendation of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women that governments eliminate violence against women because this phenomenon is a form of gender-based discrimination.
In 1995, the UN General Assembly urged all member States to strengthen national legislation, as well as penal, civil, labor and administrative sanctions, to punish violence against women in the private as well as the public sphere. The General Assembly also proclaimed that all forms of sexual violence and trafficking of women are violations of womens and girls human rights. This was the first time a resolution on girls was approved. (Binstock 1997)
This means that all UN member States should prosecute, in criminal and civil law, all these expression of violence, just as they would prosecute any other crime. In this effort, they must pass legislative reforms that support women victims of violence, defining abuse as a crime in the penal code.
On the other hand, one of the strategic objectives of the Platform of Action approved at the 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) emphasizes the priorities of carrying out studies on the cause of gender-based violence and searching for methodologies with which to create prevention programs.
Violence within the home has earned the special attention of womens organizations as well as government organizations and development agencies. This kind of violence not only affects women, but the family itself, especially children. While both girls and boys may be targets of abuse, federal legislators in Mexico recently revealed that 90% of the minors who are victims of beatings and sexual abuse are girls, who also receive less and poorer food than boys and other family members. (Fempress 1998)
According to another study, carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Nicaragua in 1997, the daughters of battered women are three times more likely to require medical care. These statistics also revealed that 63% of the children who are exposed to domestic violence will have to repeat at least one grade in school. On average, these children leave school at age nine.
Another little-acknowledged aspect of domestic violence is the relationship between economic dependence and physical violence. The same study by the IDB found that 41% of the non-wage-earning women were beaten by their husbands or live-in partners, while only 10% of the wage-earning women were victims of such abuse. Clearly, the asymmetrical power relations between men and women affect this situation, determining womens subordinate and vulnerable position independent of their socio-economic situation.
Since 1982, various campaigns and mobilizations undertaken by womens groups, social organizations, NGOs and government organizations throughout the region have called attention to gender-based violence. These actions have had significant consequences in terms of legal reform as well as by raising the level of public awareness and understanding of this serious situation.
One of the outstanding organizations involved in this effort is the Red Feminista Latinoamericana y del Caribe contra la Violencia Domestic y Sexual (Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence), which links groups, NGOs and individuals who are committed to working against gender-based violence. In this effort, the Network carries out training programs and research projects on the prevention of gender-based violence. Isis Internacional, based in Santiago, Chile, is responsible for the networks executive coordination
Very importantly, Latin America and the Caribbean was the first region to consolidate a legal instrument on gender-based violence, the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Violence Against Women approved in Belm do Par in 1994 by the Organization of American States (OAS), and signed and ratified by 23 member countries.
Another determining factor in this struggle are the various initiatives undertaken by womens networks and NGOs throughout the region in the form of special campaigns and programs, including: centers offering medical, legal and psychological care; safe houses; and training programs, including courses and seminars directed at the police forces.
Governments, in turn, have facilitated the creation of womens Police Stations and have passed special legislation. Following the approval of the Belm do Par Convention, laws against domestic violence have been established in Argentina, Chile, Panama, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Venezuela.
These legislative gains are very significant, however, as anti-violence activist point out, changing the mentalities that still perceive violence against women as natural demands on-going campaigns at all levels.
And the United Nations campaign for the human rights of women and girls does just this as it seeks to promote these rights and raise awareness in all sectors of society on the economic, social and cultural costs of gender-based violence.
In 1996, the Uruguayan Centro de Atención Integral a Adolescentes, El Faro (El Faro Adolescents Comprehensive Care Center) reported that, of a total of 250 cases, 95% were seen for sexual and physical domestic violence. (UNFPA)
According to the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal de Medelln (National Forensics Institute of Medellin) in Antioqua, Colombia, in one out of ten cases of sexual abuse the victim is a girl under four years old. (UNFPA)
In Bolivia, domestic violence mostly affects women between 17 and 36 years of age, while sexual violence affects mainly adolescents. (UNICEF)
In Belem do Parao, Brazil, for 30 dollars, foreign sailors can have sex with girls whose ages range from 9 to 14. One such sailor said that Belem is the sexual paradise of the world... You can get a girl of any age you want and whenever you want (Violence Against Girls and Adolescent Women: Regional Campaign for womens Human Rights and Against Violence, UNIFEM, 1998)
The Commisarías de la Mujer y la Familia (Police Station for Women and the Family) in Guayaquil, Ecuador, reported 6,153 cases of domestic violence between October 1996 and April 1997. Of this total, 92,72% were battered women. (Fundación María Guare, Informe Estadstico N¼9, 1997)
According to studies carried out by the IDB in various countries of the region, violence against women in the home is responsible for a decreased quality of life, an increase in mortality rates and decreased labor stability. (Inter Press Service 1997)