In a July response to a recent series of public protests decrying violence against women, Argentine President Mauricio Macri introduced a national plan to end the country’s high rates of gender violence. In addition to funding battered women’s shelters and telephone hotlines, Argentina will introduce gender violence awareness in school curricula. As Macri stated, ending violence against women goes beyond increasing services. To effectively combat gender violence, Argentines must change the patriarchal culture that normalizes gender hierarchy. In Macri’s words, “We all need to commit ourselves. This is not only the job of government, it is for society too.”
Despite Macri’s expressed pledge to combat violence against women, he is against decriminalizing abortion (currently legal in Argentina only to save the life of the woman, to preserve her health, and in cases of rape or incest).1 In this line, it seems that he excludes sexual violence from his definition of gender violence, and he disregards rape victims’ needs for comprehensive, confidential sexual and reproductive healthcare.
The need to end violence against women in Latin America was also recently made visible in Peru when, on August 13, 50,000 women marched in the streets of Lima to protest gender violence. Yet, at the same time, a recent judicial ruling cleared jailed former President Alberto Fujimori from criminal responsibility when he forcibly sterilized thousands of Peruvian women in the 1990s during a family planning campaign.
Herein lies one contradiction inherent in many Latin American governments’ responses to gender violence. All have ratified the United Nation’s (UN) 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Many have passed (if not yet implemented) plans, programs, and laws to address the problem. Feminist activists and large protests have begun to make visible the high and sustained levels of violence women experience across the region. Yet for the most part, Latin American countries continue to criminalize abortion in the cases of rape, which of course, is part of gender violence.
Moreover, the public, the government, and the Catholic Church engage in victim-blaming language when discussing sexual and physical violence against women. The Cardinal of Lima, Peru recently said that “Statistics tell us that young girls have abortions, but it is not due to girls being abused, but many times … because the woman is standing provocatively as in a display window.” Sounds very similar to how internet trolls responded to the 2015 brutal murders of two female Argentine tourists in Ecuador: “What’d she expect? She shouldn’t have been traveling alone.” This rhetoric — perpetuated by men and women alike (as bell hooks reminds us, “Patriarchy knows no gender”) — only serves to reinforce insidious gender hierarchies that privilege male power and female subordination. These cultural sentiments are the foundation for the staggering statistics of violence against women.
Recent feminist activism to end gender violence — including sexual assault and rape — builds on a long history of Latin American women standing at the forefront of equal rights. When the United Nations first formed in 1945, the Brazilian feminist activist and scientist Bertha Lutz was one of only four women who signed the UN’s charter, whose preamble included “equal rights of men and women.” Lutz also proposed that the UN create a committee to study women, which eventually became the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).2 At the UN’s first ever International Women’s Year in Mexico City in 1975, CSW drafted CEDAW and worked tirelessly to pressure nation-states to sign and ratify the document, which states that “the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields.”
The feminist organizing and protests in Peru, Brazil, and Mexico City, to name a few, demonstrate that while Latin American member states have ratified CEDAW, major obstacles remain to ensure equality between men and women and the end of gender violence. Among these remain expanded abortion rights and comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Yet these feminists also show that women (and men) continue to fight for their equal rights.
But activists have a hard battle ahead of them, particularly in the realm of abortion rights and the high murder rates of women, the latter which marks the daily lives of women across the hemisphere. The UN defines femicide (also known as feminicide) as “a crime involving the violent and deliberate killing of women.” The term began to gain traction in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, when the brutal murders of young women — many of them employed in the border factories, or maquilladoras, that proliferated after Bill Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — began to attract international headlines. Authorities searched for the serial killer responsible for raping, torturing, and murdering these women. Of course, this search for one “abnormal” perpetrator took attention away from the larger structural inequalities that actually allowed for these murders to take place — neoliberalism run amok, the rise and proliferation of the Mexican drug cartels, and entrenched patriarchal power relations. Lest we think this problem has disappeared in the ten years that have passed since J. Lo starred in the film version of the events, the three countries with the highest femicide rates in the world — El Salvador, Jamaica, and Guatemala — are all in Latin America.3
Yet physical violence and sexual rights remain entwined. Along with its astonishing femicide rate, El Salvador is also known for its complete criminalization of abortion. It arrests and imprisons women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths. It is not just individuals who perpetrate gendered violence, but also the very state governments that have ratified CEDAW.
In our current political cycle, when the Republican nominee for President of the United States flippantly states that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” and gets caught on tape discussing sexually assaulting women, we also need to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the idea that the only problem the Western Hemisphere has in regards to violence against women exists south of the Rio Grande. Remember, the US has yet to ratify CEDAW. The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence 2010 Survey found that nearly 33 percent of women have experienced intimate partner physical violence.4 This is a global problem. And it requires global responses.
- The Penal Code does not differentiate between physical and mental health, although a recent report by the Ministry of Health includes mental health in their definition. There is also debate whether abortion is legal in cases of all rape or incest or only if the rape or incest of a mentally disabled woman. A March 2012 Supreme Court ruling decided that abortion was legal in all cases of rape. The text reads “If the pregnancy results from rape or from a sexual assault against an idiot or demented woman.” Return to text.
- Katherine M. Marino, “Transnational Pan-American Feminism: The Friendship of Bertha Lutz and Mary Wihelmine Williams, 1926-1944,” Journal of Women’s History 26.2 (2014): 63–87. Return to text.
- Matthias Nowak, “Femicide: A Global Problem,” Small Arms Survey Research Notes: Armed Violence 14 (February 2012): 1-4. Return to text.
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report (Atlanta: Center for Disease Control, 2011). Return to text.