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By Aparna Mehrotra and Rini Banerjee

1998 offers unparalleled opportunities to refocus attention on the issue of violence against women. The year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and women’s rights are human rights; this idea, while obvious today, was in fact slow in the coming. The international framework that embodied the change grew out of a powerful women’s movement, gradually becoming formalized in the form of increasingly validated international legislation and corresponding national development perspectives, policies and programmes. Furthermore, the 1990 UNDP Human Development Report states, "development is about enlarging choices." When development is examined in this perspective of human development, violence emerges as one of the most disturbing and prevalent obstacles to exercise ones choices, chipping away at the process of self-affirmation needed to make independent decisions affecting women’s lives. It emerges as a serious violation of human rights that abrogates the women’s right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well being. Moreover, violence, is not only a manifestation of unequal, disempowering, and unjust power relations but is also a costly economic phenomenon resulting in significant losses of productive potential. Fully cognizant of this morally unacceptable reality, the UN System has joined together, in this special year for Human Rights, in an inter-agency campaign on violence against women and girls. The UN Campaign focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean.

UN Campaign on Violence Against WomenTop of Page

A series of events will take place in 1998 that provides a unique opportunity for the UN system to further their commitment to women’s human rights. First, 1998 will mark the fifth anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), that historically, recognized that women’s rights are human rights. Mid-year, the UN Commission on Human Rights will review the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Second, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (March 1998) will devote part of its session reviewing government commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women to end violence against women. Finally, on 10 December 1998 it will be half a century since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) went into force. A time to renew our commitment to the principles enshrined in the UDHR, which acknowledges a common standard for the protection and promotion of human rights for all people.

To reaffirm the UN’s commitment to the global women’s movement, and agreements produced by UN Conferences and treaties, several UN Agencies, namely UNIFEM and UNDP (co-coordinators), UNICEF, UNFPA, UNAIDS, UNHCR, OHRCHR and ECLAC have jointly initiated the 1998 UN Inter-Agency Campaign on Violence against Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each Agency is committed in this campaign to raise public awareness that violence against women is an endemic and unacceptable problem. Moreover, this inter-agency alliance will create collaborative strategies for promoting and protecting the human rights of women with particular focus on violence issues.

The inter-agency campaign will draw on the network of representatives and staff members of each supporting agency and the UN Information Centres as well as national civic organizations throughout the region for advocacy, capacity building, media communication, distribution of materials, and arrangement of events. Some activities for the campaign will include facilitating awareness and training workshops for judges and police, providing seed money for shelters, assist in drafting and passage of national legislation in line with the Committee to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), support civil society organizations for data collection and preparation of needs assessment, mobilize the media to report on the issue, organize concerts and contests, and develop radio spots and public service announcements for television, and a documentary on violence against women and girls. This multi-media and public education campaign will have sustained activities running throughout the year and culminating on 10 December 1998, Human Rights Day.

Revealing Gender ViolenceTop of Page

Latin America and the Caribbean register a striking trend of increasing incidences of violence against women and girls. Studies on violence against women and girls indicate high incidences of violence within families, and in some countries it is cited as the leading cause of hospitalization of women. Anywhere from 25 percent to more than 50 percent of Latin American and the Caribbean women - depending on the country the live - are victims of some kind of domestic violence. In fact, violence constitutes the most disempowering form of victimization that women are subject to in their entire lives. This phenomenon has powerful implications for women and for society, generating problems that often start as early as birth and continue throughout their life cycle. The following table below illustrates this gender violence continuum:

Gender Violence Throughout the Life Cycle


Type of Violence Present


Battering during pregnancy (emotional and physical effects on the woman; effects on birth); coerced pregnancy; deprivation of food and liquids; sex-selective abortion.


Female infanticide; emotional and physical abuse; differential access to food and medical care for girl infants.


Child marriage; genital mutilation; sexual abuse by family members and strangers; differential access to food and medical care; child prostitution.


Rape and marital rape; sexual assault; forced prostitution; trafficking in women; courtship violence; economically coerced sex; sexual abuse in the workplace;

Reproductive Age:

Abuse of women by intimate partners; marital rape; dowry abuse and murders; partner homicide; psychological abuse; sexual abuse in the workplace; sexual harassment; rape; abuse of women with disabilities; legal discrimination.


Abuse and exploitation of widows.

Source: Adapted from Heise, Lori; Pitanguay, Jaqueline; Germain, Adrienne, Violence Against Women. The Hidden Health Burden, Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1994  (by Lola Salas)

Another associated problem with violence is that it is most often transmitted intergenerationally, through children who have either been witness to or subjects of abuse. Such children tend to reproduce violence having accepted it as a viable means of resolving conflict and exerting influence. Like their parents, they grow to be both abusers and victims, perpetuating the cycle of violence over and over through generations. Gender violence is a serious and disturbing issue that negatively affects the present and future generations.

Legal NormsTop of Page

In many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the legal standards and implementation of justice continue to remain discriminatory between women and men, especially with respect to both family related issues such as marriage, divorce, property rights, violence, and labor issues such as differential salary scale, unequal work conditions, and hiring and firing practices.

In Guatemala, for example, Article 114 of the Civil Code grants a women’s husband the right to prohibit her from working outside the home, which drastically limits her ability to gain financial independence that a women needs to escape an abusive relationship. Likewise, until a 1989 legal reform, a husband in Ecuador had the right to force his wife to live with him no matter how abusive he may have been. The problem of domestic violence has just been acknowledged; not only are the figures staggering, but also so are the ways that law and society react to it. In 12 Latin American countries, a rapist can be exonerated if he offers to marry the victim and she accepts. In others, the rapist can be exonerated even if she refuses his offer to marriage. The family of the victim frequently pressures her to marry the rapist, which they believe restores the family’s honour. In many countries 70 – 80 per cent of all crimes reported to the police involve women battered by their partners. Data from Latin America and the Caribbean, confirm that as many as six out of ten women have suffered physical or psychological abuse by their intimate partner. As regards to labor, it is common practice in many countries to fire pregnant women, deny maternity leave or pay differential salary scales.

Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean agreed to adopt and implement national legislation to end violence against women and to work actively to ratify all international agreements that relate to violence against women. In particular, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the Convention of Belem do Paro, a legally binding international instrument that recognizes all gender-based violence as an abuse of human rights. Governments agreed that there should be shelters, legal aid and other services for girls and women at risk, and counselling and rehabilitation for perpetrators. Governments also pledged to adopt appropriate measures in the field of education to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women. However, while adoptions of agreements and pledges are important first steps, translating them into concrete actions has become the more challenging objective.

Economic CostsTop of Page

The cost of violence is not only psychological and social, violence costs the region’s economies many millions of dollars in health care, legal costs, and lost productivity. According to a World Bank study, one work day in every five lost by women for health reasons is the result of problems associated with violence, specifically domestic violence. In Canada, a study concluded that domestic violence costs the country $1.6 billion per year. There are studies under way in the Latin America and the Caribbean region of the economic impact of domestic violence. Recently, an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study concluded that domestic violence is costing 2 and 1.6 percent of the GDP in 1996 in Chile and in Nicaragua respectively. Clearly, there is a direct impact on earning capacity. Also in Nicaragua, 41 percent of nonwage earning women are victims of serious physical violence. Other statistics from Nicaragua state that 63.1 percent of the children of female victims have had to repeat a school year, and leave school an average of four years earlier than do other children. Children who are witnesses of abuse or are victims tend to imitate that behaviour, and perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Finally, the IDB study concluded that the level of social violence is a key factor in a country’s ability to attain sustained human and economic development. Sustainable human development will be directly and negatively affected in this region until the cycle of violence is broken.


"My husband was very angry with me because I had only given birth to three girls. Five months after the last birth, he beat me violently and told me that he was going to kill me. He threw me on the ground and kicked me for having had another girl and said he was going to give her away. I thought, what will become of my girl?" (Rural women from Veracruz)

"One day, when I was out with my younger brothers, a soldier grabbed me and pushed me into a taxi and kidnapped me. There was another soldier behind him. I defended myself, but I couldn’t escape. Then the inevitable happened, and I felt that everything I had planned for my life was ruined. After that I got sick, and it lasted about two weeks. The doctor said I had bilious fever and later hepatitis. I wanted to kill him. My in-laws and my parents decided I should marry him." (Urban women from Jalisco)

"It’s been four and half years now since I’ve broken my silence – I decided to leave home, which is legally called abandonment, but I call it survival. Since then, I’ve started working on a process of self-reconstruction. Reconstruction because it’s meant reclaiming my entire self, taking all of the pieces and re-making myself after almost 13 years of living with the horror of violence." (Marcela, 37 from Costa Rica).

Source: Latin America and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, The Right to Live Without Violence: Women’s Proposal and Actions, Chile, 1996.

Our Right: A Life Free of ViolenceTop of Page

Violence can be positioned as an issue that touches the lives of more than just abused women and batterers, a problem that tears families and communities apart, fills courtrooms, hospitals and morgues. In order to galvanize people in the Latin American and the Caribbean region to take action on this issue, violence against women and girls must be stressed as an issue that individuals and communities alike must help address. People at all social levels must realize that they have a role to play in helping women and their children. Violence is a human rights issue, which affects the family and society at large. It is one of the problems that countries in all continents must address in their governance and democratization efforts. There can be no development without education and social justice for all. The Latin America and the Caribbean Region (LAC) is on the threshold of being able to affect massive social change on the issue of violence against women and girls since public awareness has been raised significantly over the years.

The 1998 UN Campaign on Violence Against Women and Girls, working with a wide range of partners, will seek to provide substantial efforts in eliminating the scourge of violence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The campaign will provide women, police, ministers, to name a few stakeholders and the public, useful tools in understanding legislative and policy changes at national and international levels in the context of violence. But, importantly, this campaign will strive to create spaces and support women organizations to understand and discuss the fundamental principles of human rights; that grants each and every person the right to a life free of violence. We should not forget the Campaign slogan "A Life Free of Violence: This is our right."

Top of Page

UNDP Against Violence Home Page

For more information, please contact Aparna Mehrotra, Focal Point for Women, Tel: (212)963-6828 Fax: (212) 963-9545, e-mail: mehrotra@un.org

Management and direction: Aparna Mehrotra
Website  design
: Lola Salas
Writing, editing& proofing: Aparna Mehrotra, Dana Burde, Rini Banerjee and Tanaz Pardiwala
Graphic: Joan Miró
(detail) from folder by Isis International