Protecting women against gender-based violence is a human rights issue often overlooked globally. In Latin America, the laws exist to protect women, but those laws are often not uniformly implemented, and there is often a lack of political will to fully comply with the law and international obligations.
All Latin American states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Fourteen have ratified the Convention’s Optional Protocol recognizing the competence of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to monitor states’ compliance and to receive and consider complaints from individuals within its jurisdiction. Those same 14 follow the inter-American human rights system that includes the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (the Belém do Pará Convention), which affirms that violence against women constitutes a violation of their human rights and fundamental freedom. But international commitments have not always translated into the effective application of the spirit of the law or the law itself to effectively stop violence against women.
According to A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths, a report published in 2016 by the Small Arms Survey, “among 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, 14 are from Latin America and the Caribbean.” There are numerous categories of femicide: intimate femicide; non-intimate femicide; honor killings; sexual-orientation-hate crimes; murder of aboriginal women and girls; dowry-related femicide; organized crime femicide; and targeted killings of women in armed conflict, among others.
Around the world, as in Latin America, the rate of femicide is stubbornly high. Dowry deaths are responsible for the murders of thousands of women every year, especially in South Asia. Between 2012 and 2015 there were an estimated 24,771 dowry deaths in India. In Jordan, there are 15–20 reported “honor” killings every year. In Mexico, 2,318 women have been murdered over nine years, according to the watchdog group National Citizen Femicide Observatory (OCNF).
The Global Burden of Armed Violence 2014 database shows that between 2007 and 2012, on average, 60,000 women were killed violently around the world. Globally, El Salvador and Honduras stand out with rates of more than 10 female homicides per 100,000 women. The level of violence affecting women in El Salvador and Honduras exceeds the combined rate of male and female homicides in some of the 40 countries with the highest murder rates in the world, such as Ecuador, Nicaragua and Tanzania.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), on average 12 women are murdered a day across the region. However due to data limitations, the ECLAC numbers do not include Brazil, a country with one of the worst records of gender-based violence.
In 2014, UN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the Latin American Model Protocol for the investigation of gender-related killings of women. UN Women’s goal was to support the countries that adopted the protocol to develop specialized legislation on femicide—specifically to properly investigate and punish all forms of violence against women.
In 2008, nine countries in Latin America had special legislation on femicide. By 2015, 16 countries in Latin America had modified their laws to include a specific type of crime referring to the murder of women. In Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru femicide is codified as a crime, carrying with it varying prison sentences; in Argentina and Venezuela the crime is considered aggravated homicide, and the Dominican Republican still has no specific criminal category for gender-based violence.
Much of the data that is collected on homicides is not disaggregated by sex, which results in many murders of women not accounted for, especially in armed conflict and in poverty-stricken areas. Nevertheless, there have been recent improvements in the collection and availability of data on femicide. Since 1995 more than 100 countries have conducted at least one survey addressing the issue.
The UN Women Model Protocol is a tool to assist police, courts, officials in the justice departments and forensic doctors to properly investigate femicide. Historically, in Latin America and around the world, hate crimes against women and their investigations and prosecutions have not followed specific protocols. Activists have argued that the lack of consistent, internationally prescribed definitions, standards and procedures have contributed to the persistence of high femicide rates.
Mischaracterization of femicide also abounds. In countries like Chile or Nicaragua, the murders of women—which are considered femicides in places like Colombia—are not defined similarly if, for example, the victim has no relationship to the perpetrator. Mexico has also been vague on what the law defines as femicide. For example, the state of Chihuahua does not count the killing of women through extreme violence differently than other murders. Also, to be counted as a femicide in the state of Mexico the victim must show signs of sexual assault or mutilation or have experienced a history of abuse.
Countries suffering from narcotics trafficking and high rates of crime, such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, also suffer from impunity and often a culture of machismo. For example, in Mexico, the Femicide Observatory, a coalition of 43 groups that document crimes affecting women, found that only 16 percent of female homicides in 2012 and 2013 were classified as femicides—and just 1.6 percent resulted in convictions. The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) in El Salvador found that in 12 percent of the cases of violence against women reported, the perpetrators were usually the judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and police officers in the communities in question.
Although the El Salvadoran Congress passed a set of framework laws in 2010 to counter violence against women, progress has been slow. One law, known as the Comprehensive Special Law for a Life without Violence for Women and spearheaded by advocacy groups, helped to institute 11 local gender units to provide attention to victims of violence. Although the efforts have brought success in pinpointing high-risk areas, codes of silence in communities and intimidation are endemic.
But there have been advances. To improve its tracking of femicides, the Public Ministry of Peru has developed a femicide registry that records women’s deaths in case of intimate femicide, non-intimate femicide and femicide not based on relationships. It is seen as a best-practice model for improved research processes and evidence for better decision-making as femicide now is part of the country’s criminal code.
Laws and practices to convict perpetrators of femicide are still extremely weak in Latin America and the patriarchal system of inequality and social exclusion remains high in areas of high concentration of poverty and in conflict zones. Although countries have enacted laws to address violence against women and proper criminal procedures for the murder of women, implementation is still spotty, with few international organizations vested with the resources and authority to properly oversee the effort.
Organizations like UN Women support country and multi-country offices with direct programming or commit to support governments and civil society through partnerships, while NGOs like CLADEM (Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights) advocate and monitor compliance with international agreements such as the Programme of Action for the empowerment of women that was adopted at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development and the treaty ratified by the 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries following the Belém do Pará Convention, both in 1994.