Latin America’s anti-femicide crusades need help

Women rose up against gender-based violence in 2015, but have struggled since the pandemic – the legislation they inspired needs enforcing, writes Natalia Gherardi.

The World Today Published 3 February 2023 Updated 26 October 2023 3 minute READ

Natalia Gherardi

Executive Director, Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género

In 2015, news of the violent murder of young women by their partners in different parts of Argentina ignited the public. It felt like a war on women.

Marcela Ojeda, a radio journalist covering the events, tweeted in May that year: ‘Actresses, politicians, business women, social leaders … women in general … aren’t we going to do something? We are getting killed!’

A pre-existing network of women journalists responded rapidly. Large demonstrations in Buenos Aires on June 3, 2015, spread to towns and cities throughout the country. The movement became known as Ni Una Menos – ‘not one woman less’ – and shone a spotlight on femicide, highlighting that laws to protect women existed but were poorly implemented with no public accountability.

The rise of the anti-femicide movement

The protests caused an unprecedented reaction: a national action plan to address gender-based violence was finally drafted; the Supreme Court started to gather statistics on femicides, a prosecution unit specializing in gender-based violence was created; and presidential candidates in the upcoming election finally acknowledged voters did care about gender-sensitive issues.

Despite these welcome legal gains, little progress has been made in keeping Argentinian women safe from violence and murder at the hands of partners or family members. Between 2015 and 2019, Argentine feminists emerged as one of the most relevant political actors, and gender equality appeared to be at the top of public agenda – in politics, the workplace and universities. 

At the same time, Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Abortion, which adopted the green scarf as its symbol, successfully brought the issue to the National Congress and sparked the ‘green wave’ movement throughout Latin America. An Argentine law legalizing abortion was finally passed in December 2020.

Such success encouraged a regional feminist movement to share strategies to encourage progress towards more egalitarian societies. In the past two decades, nearly 20 Latin American countries have passed laws on femicide, imposing the strongest punishments.

In addition, national laws have been passed banishing gender-stereotyping in judicial proceedings while implementing international human rights standards in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of these crimes. Budgeting to support these initiatives increased in some countries, alongside training on legal and gender equality issues.

Despite this, femicide rates remain unacceptably high throughout Latin America. A region that has initiated laws against gender-based violence – the 1994 Belem do Pará Convention on Violence Against Women in the Americas, for example – is still the second most dangerous  for women and girls. The Americas have the second highest rate of intimate partner/family-related killings per 100,000 female population at 1.4, just behind Africa at 2.5.

The law is not enough

Legal approaches and the drafting of protocols to guide criminal procedures do not seem to be enough. A recent study conducted in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia shows that effective implementation of the law and correct investigation of femicides is largely dependent on a strong commitment from family members, help from civil society organizations and an active media coverage to promote public accountability.

Olga del Rosario Díaz, a survivor of an attempted femicide, told a group of 40 Argentine judges: ‘No woman should go through what I had to endure.’ After being stabbed by her husband she won support from Cedaw, the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to seek reparations from the state.

The government made a commitment to take specific measures to address the barriers to justice and the lack of coordination in the judiciary that had allowed Díaz’s numerous complaints filed over 15 years, during which she endured continual violence at the hands of her husband, to go unattended.

Women spend more than twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic and care work in Latin America and the Caribbean

Why is it that legislation is so ineffective at tackling gender-based violence in the region? Latin America and the Caribbean are marked by inequality, with a pervasive male-chauvinist culture that is not challenged by legislation.

Women spend more than twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic and care work. This traditional distribution of gender roles reinforces gender stereotyping.  As a result, women have less time and fewer opportunities to get an education, participate in the labour market, politics or trade unions, or pursue their own ambitions on equal footing.

The lack of public policies promoting more equitable gender roles and a fairer distribution of care work results in barriers to women’s autonomy, in all spheres of their lives. Large numbers of women simply do not have the capacity to make the decisions that affect their lives freely. This situation worsened during the pandemic.

The process of recovery is slow and uneven. While both men and women faced job losses in 2021, one out of two women was still excluded from the job market while only one in four men was unemployed.

Limited job opportunities make escaping violent relationships harder

Inequalities at home and in the labour market affect women’s present living conditions but their future wellbeing as well. Limited job opportunities affect future pensions, while women live longer than men. Limiting access to better living conditions in turn makes escaping violent relationships harder. No wonder that out of 231 femicides in Argentina in 2021, 32 victims were aged over 60.

How central is all this to the current public agenda? Women’s organizations and feminist think tanks in Latin America are few and seldom counted among the most influential. In a context of extended political crises and financial challenges in many countries, the agenda for gender equality ceases to be a priority.

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Recent events have shown, however, that women’s rights and gender equality are key not only to women’s living conditions, but to democracy as a whole. Institutional crises are fed by the weakening of public institutions and the rejection of public policies destined to address these inequalities. These are the threats we currently face.

The gender data gap

Unfortunately, recent developments in the region show regression is not only a threat but a possibility. Anti-gender movements are fuelled by the apparent inability of gender policies to produce results. Accountability, data recollection and transparency are absent not only for women’s rights but in all levels of public policy implementation.

While the gap between laws on the statute book and laws in practice in Latin America is not exclusive to gender-based violence, inefficient implementation in this area puts women’s lives at risk.