Melissa Gilbert on the importance of International Women’s Day
Saturday, March 8th marks the 103rd celebration of International Women’s Day. For women—and men—around the world this is a day to celebrate the progress towards gender equality.
In Latin America, International Women’s Day should bring reflections on both triumphs and failures in this arena. One major sign of progress that we can celebrate is the increase of women elected and appointed to key political positions, from Chile to Brazil.
The day is also an opportunity to highlight issues that inhibit women from reaching their own potential as well as the potential of their countries. Ranking high among these is gender-based violence (GBV), which is unfortunately prevalent throughout Latin America – stunting development and democracy in the region.
Gender-based violence has far reaching consequences, incurring economic costs and stymieing political development
The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that 69 percent of women have been abused physically by their partner and 47 percent have been a victim of at least one act of sexual violence in their lifetimes.
Women that have suffered abused, including sexual violence or isolation, are often unable to work or lose wages due to the psychological and physical impacts. Many of those who have suffered from GBV also have difficulty caring for themselves and their children. This means increased healthcare and education costs, which limit the economy’s potential.
By marginalizing swathes of the population from public life and political institutions, GBV also limits democracy building, good governance and the promotion and defense of human rights. At institutional level, violence reduces citizens’ confidence in government authorities and institutions.
And at the local and state level, violence against women keeps women from participating in the political process. Without their participation, legislation fails to take into account the views and rights of women, further alienating them from politics. The state loses further legitimacy when it fails at one of its fundamental duties: protecting the life and safety of all of its citizens.
Latin America’s high levels of impunity keep both men and women from reporting domestic violence abuses.
A recent study by the American Journal of Epidemiology found that just 40 percent of women worldwide experiencing GBV disclose their abuse to someone. But in Latin America and the Caribbean the situation is even worse: only 14 percent have reported their abuse to a formal source, thus both highlighting and perpetuating the lack of trust in the government and law enforcement mechanisms.
When GBV is discussed, we often think of the brutal femicides in Mexico and Guatemala, but we shouldn’t forget the role of domestic sexual abuse taking place behind closed doors, further complicating reporting.
South America has some of the highest levels of domestic sexual violence in the world. Bolivia has the highest rates of domestic violence in South America, according to UN Women data collected in 2011. Bolivia alone had more than 442,000 reports of gender-based violence between 2007 and 2011 and only 96 have been prosecuted, according to the Centro de Informacion y Desarollo de la Mujer.
In Colombia, women are victims of 95 percent of all cases of spousal violence, and half of these women are between 15 to 24 years old. Even more disturbing is the way gender based violence is carried out: Acid attacks are the new “rage” in domestic violence in Colombia.
Gender-based violence goes beyond abuse – according to a recent UNDP report on citizen security, two out of three women murdered in Central America are killed for gender-related reasons. More 13 of the 25 countries with very high femicide rates are in the LAC region and that number is increasing.
Guatemala is experiencing an epidemic of gender based violence and femicide that particularly affects young girls and older women. The country ranks third in the world for the murder of women, with two women killed on average every day. In Mexico, cases of femicide have seen a steady increase since the year 2007, which had recorded the lowest number of femicides since 1985, but by 2009 the number had already exceeded those recorded on 1985 by about 25 percent.
While the details are grim, the light at the end of the tunnel continues to shine brighter.
Within Latin America, governments are increasingly recognizing the negative social and economic effects of gender-based violence and are taking steps to address the problem.
For example, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará) affirms that every woman “has the right to be free from violence in the public and private spheres,” and has been ratified by 32 governments in the Americas.
The government of Costa Rica, for instance, has implemented a National Plan of Action regarding violence against women. In 2009, Guatemala hosted the Latin America launch of the UN campaign “Unite to End Violence Against Women,” with satellite activities in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Even in Bolivia, efforts are being made with the recent introduction of a “Law to Protect Women” in Congress.
At the same time, while governments have recognized gender-based violence is an issue, solutions to the problems are not simple. Many laws are not enforced, allowing abusers to live with impunity and leaving the victims to live in fear. Gender based violence – physical, cultural, and political – is deeply embedded in many societal structures.
On International Women’s Day, like all other days, it is important to recognize that change will take the concerted, continued efforts of women, men, governments, and the broader international community.
Melissa Gilbert focuses primarily on gender issues, having previously worked with Freedom House on human rights in Latin America. You can find her on Twitter at @melmichelle14.
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