People and Community

Gender-based violence in Latin America a prevalent problem

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the danger of women being mistreated throughout the region, according to University of Miami experts.
A young woman holds up a sign reading in Spanish, "We aren't all here, Karen is missing," as feminists and crime victims of violence who have been occupying the offices of the governmental Human Rights Commission celebrate an "anti-grito," a day ahead of the traditional "Grito de Dolores," Mexico's annual shout of independence, in Mexico City, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The activists, who are demanding justice for victims of femicide, sexual assault, forced disappearances, and other violent crimes, say they will turn the offices into a refuge for victims.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

People condemn violence against women and children during a protest in Mexico City on Sept. 14, 2020. Photo: The Associated Press

The body of 29-year-old Angie Noemi Gonzalez, a nurse in Puerto Rico, was found on a rural highway in the municipality of Cuamo. She had been thrown off a cliff by her husband, who later confessed.

Her death prompted the governor of the island, Pedro Pierluisi, to declare a state of emergency over gender-based violence in late January. 

Femicides, the intentional killing of women or girls, has been on the rise. The Observatory for Gender Equity said that there were at least 60 femicides last year in Puerto Rico, which has a total population of a little more than 3 million.

But the problem is not only in Puerto Rico. About one in three women worldwide will suffer physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization. 

Latin America has the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, according to the Wilson Center. In many cases these crimes have often been carried out with complete impunity. 

Thousands of women have marched through Mexico City streets demanding an end to femicides, while President Andres Manuel Lopez Obregon has denied that there is a problem.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the risk of gender-based violence since enforced lockdowns have trapped many women with their abusers and shelters have reduced capacity.

The issue has prompted a new Lancet Commission to look into the troubling topics of gender-based violence and maltreatment of women and young people worldwide, with a strong focus on Latin America and planned in-depth case studies to be undertaken in Brazil and Mexico. 

“We need to recognize that violence against women and children is a parallel pandemic,” said Felicia Marie Knaul, director of the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, who co-leads the commission with Dr. Flavia Bustreo, chair of the Governance and Nomination Committee for the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health. “This is a huge global, public health issue. It has not been treated as such and it needs to be.”

The commission—made up of leaders in law, medicine, economics, health systems, children’s rights and public policy, including Caroline Bettinger-López and Mary Anne Franks from the University of Miami School of Law—will find the best ways to get accurate data on the risk factors and burden of violence against women and children.

It will also look at the “cost of inaction,” the toll of having one in three women severely challenged or unable to achieve their full potential because their lives were disrupted by trauma, said Knaul, and it also will evaluate the lifelong effects on the mental health of survivors.

Knaul likens the violence to a bomb being put in the head and then detonated.  “Recovery requires a lifetime of struggle and multi-layered support and accompaniment,” she explained.

The commission hopes to provide data, interventions, and tools that will help local governments, organizations, health providers, and educators implement measures to curb violence. One major intervention to combat gender-based violence is through education, beginning in the early years, stated Knaul. Even if all perpetrators of violence could be brought to justice, there would be no way to incarcerate them all, she pointed out.

“We have to prevent this from happening to women and children in the future,” said Knaul. “That’s also why community involvement and initiatives are key. We have to change what is often considered ‘acceptable’ and stop condoning violence.”

Sexual education classes and courses about consent and touching need to be instituted, according to Bettinger-López, professor of law and director of the Human Rights Clinic. Also, taking a look at how society treats different genders as children are raised needs to be addressed, she noted.  

The culture of “boys will be boys” and thus males being expected to be more aggressive has to be erased from child rearing, she said. Bettinger-López sees the issue of gender-based violence as one that falls under the human rights category.

“The United Nations and other human rights bodies have repeatedly affirmed that violence against women is a form of discrimination against women, because it is rooted in stereotypes about women’s inferiority and structures that support men’s power and control over women,” she said.

She mentioned the Belém do Pará Convention, adopted by the Organization of American States, which cites the obligation of all the countries that ratified the convention to prevent violence and to respond when it is aware that someone is at risk and could be harmed. The convention also calls for countries to take very comprehensive measures to change the culture.

But prosecution of offenders is tricky. Victims of violence often do not report the crimes to authorities because they fear being stigmatized or dread additional retaliation.

“Or they justifiably fear the process itself—fraught with shame, exposure, and lack of trust in the testimony of children and women,” said Knaul. “It´s crucial to create safe, compassionate spaces for survivors to share what has happened to them.” She cites Kristi House in Miami, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to healing and eradicating child sexual abuse, as an example. 

Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, an emergency measure has called for the founding of a committee tasked with providing education, support, and rescue around gender violence.

The governor also ordered the development of a mobile app through which victims of gender violence can request emergency help without arousing suspicion from their aggressors. A compliance officer is tasked with overseeing and ensuring the order's implementation.

All these are great steps toward combating the problem, and they emanate from the leadership Puerto Rico’s government has shown, Knaul indicated. 

“Puerto Rico’s initiative is exemplary because its leaders said publicly: ‘We are going to treat this as the emergency and pandemic it is, name it, and stand up to it,’ ” she said.