Last month, hundreds of thousands of Argentines mobilized online and on the streets to demand an end to gender-based violence. The hashtag used by activists, #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) signaled frustration over recent cases of femicide (a term for the intentional murder of a woman or girl because of her gender), and what many saw as the lackluster response from policymakers and law enforcement to address the problem.
Activists called for politicians to commit to a five-point plan that includes protection for victims of violence, a registry of victims of violence, and comprehensive sexuality education to challenge harmful gender norms. Pamela Martin Garcia, a feminist activist who works at the Foundation for the Health of Adolescents and is a former participant of IWHC’s Advocacy in Practice workshop, was active in coordinating the protests in Buenos Aires.
“For decades, the women’s movement has fought against gender-based violence, but their visibility has increased in recent years,” Martin Garica told me. “These protests gathered people from the entire political, social, educational, and cultural spectrum. It is this critical, diverse mass that will finally force the government to address the problem of gender-based violence.”
There were an estimated 277 femicides in Argentina last year, according to media reports. It is not only the sheer number of cases, however, that has ignited protests: the brutality with which some women and girls have been killed has also drawn outrage. “This cruelty, such as instances where women’s corpses were burned, is what compelled Congress to include femicides as aggravated homicides in the Criminal Code,” says Martin Garcia. The latest, the murder of a 14-year old pregnant girl by her boyfriend, further reinforced the need to address the problem.
Argentina is hardly alone in the region when it comes to femicide. More than half of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates are in the Americas. In Guatemala, for example, unofficial estimates put the number at over 700 femicides per year. Colombia, in recent years, has seen a wave of acid attacks on women, and in Mexico, it is estimated six women are killed per day, a situation that the UN has called “pandemic.”
It is difficult to know if the rate of violence against women is actually increasing or if reporting has increased. Even now, many countries like Argentina don’t have official statistics or don’t keep homicide data that distinguishes the gender of the victim or the motive of the crime.
What we do know, however, are some of the factors associated with this violence and how governments and civil society can combat it.
Risk factors include women’s limited economic independence, witnessing or experiencing abuse as a child, and men’s absolute control over decision-making and assets. Social norms also play a critical role. In societies where social norms support a subordinate role for women and the domination of men over women, violence against women is higher. There is no question that harmful gender norms permeate across the region: Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, a major violation of women’s bodily integrity and dignity.
In the face of growing pressure, lawmakers are taking steps to address the epidemic of femicide. Fifteen countries in Latin American now have some form of progressive legislation aimed at protecting women from violence. In March, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, approved legislation that imposes harsher penalties for those who harm or kill women and girls.
Such laws are important, but they are not enough. In the case of Argentina, Martin Garcia acknowledges that the country has an extensive and progressive legal framework, but there is a lack of political will to implement and enforce the laws. Similarly, in Honduras, less than two percent of femicides were investigated. And far too often, law enforcement—the people charged with protecting women and girls—end up inflicting their own abuses by conducting negligent investigations or engaging in victim-blaming.
To effectively combat gender-based violence in the short term, it is important to sensitize and train police, health workers, social workers, and other professionals to recognize the problem and respond appropriately. But even more critical—and vastly more difficult—is addressing the deeply engrained patriarchy and machismo that pervades Latin American cultures. That requires a more sustained, long-term effort and commitment.
A good place to start, like the activists in Argentina recognized in their five-point plan, is implementing comprehensive sexuality programs that teach boys and girls to challenge and transform harmful gender norms, before they become too deeply engrained.