In November-December 2018 Christian Aid promoted a Month of Awareness of Gender Based Violence, working with its partners in the region, around the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) and International Human Rights Day (10 December).
The Latin American and Caribbean region has the highest rates of violence against women, girls and LGBTI population in the world. Not coincidently, it is also the most unequal region with different layers of intersecting inequalities. In Central America, 2 out of 3 women who die violent deaths are killed because they are women, and in half of all cases the assassin is the partner or former partner (UNDP 2017). In Bolivia, more than 50% of women report having experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner (CA 2017).
El Salvador: where women’s bodies were weapons of war
Despite the passage of the Peace Accords over 25 years ago, social conflict remains: actors may have changed, but not the culture of violence, which is aggravated against women, especially young girls. Between January and August 2018, 274 women have been murdered because of the inequalities which deny women their rights thorough various mechanisms of control. It was not until 1950 that women were declared equal by law, while men have enjoyed that status for 190 years now. As a result, women are still struggling for equal political representation and economic estate, and against a culture of rape against their bodies and autonomy.
A milestone in the struggle for women´s rights in the country was the approval of the Special Comprehensive Law of Violence Against Women in 2010, although its measures are not fully implemented yet. In recent years thanks to the advocacy work of Christian Aid partner Association of Women for Peace (ORMUSA), 3 specialized courts have been established to deal with cases of GBV and 33 Women´s Units have been opened at police stations around the country. Advocacy efforts have also allowed for the design of protocols to identify femicides, the Prosecutor´s Office has secured more dedicated funds and at least 40 prosecutors have been trained on national and international legal rights for women.
ORMUSA has contributed to the development of a national system of data and statistics of violence against women. At the institutional level, our partner is supporting the Ministry of Justice and Security in drafting and implementing an internal Policy for Equality of Women, extending across its three divisions: penal justice, migration and the penitentiary. An expected impact of this work would be better addressing the cases of women convicted for abortion.
Gender-based violence is a structural problem and a matter of power imbalances. In Latin America and the Caribbean, violence has its root in the colonisation process and the patriarchal and racist system that developed from it.
Dominican Republic: Haitian women deprived of citizen’s rights
Christian Aid partner MUDHA (Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women) promotes the integration and participation of these women and Haitian citizens in the social processes that take place in their respective communities, to counteract sexism, racism and anti-Haitianism. Likewise, to defend and safeguard the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and human rights of the Dominican population of Haitian descent.
MUDHA Co-ordinator Jenny Carolina Moron said: ‘Injustice is a form of violence, even if it is carried out by the Civil Offices, Courts and Hospitals: it denies the right of women to obtain identity documents so that their children can have a birth certificate, just because they have some kind of Haitian descent.’ Ruling 168-13 of the Dominican Constitutional Court collects in its 147 pages a history of discrimination, racism and xenophobia towards a group of people who only came to work and produce, making fortunes for the wealthy people of the country. This highlights the fact that the Dominican State does not consider these people, among them, mothers, to be truly Dominicans. It left them in a non-regular situation from 1929 to 2017. Women in several categories of Haitian descent have been debarred from registering their children’s birth, studying at the university or legally marrying.
States have been unable or unwilling to tackle GBV and the first official initiatives in the region were taken only in the 1990s (UNDP 2017:15). Progress has not been linear, advances in institutional and public policies are all too often followed by social, political and economic setbacks which reinstate and reinforce inequality and consequent increases in violence.
Brazil: women human rights defenders in the Amazon
Far from the urban centres and from media and public opinion attention, women in Brazil who fight for their rights are tackling violence with the support of Christian Aid and the Movement of People Affected by Dams
Nilce de Souza Magalhães, popularly known as Nicinha, was recognized for her struggle defending the rights of families affected by the mega dam of Jirau, in the state of Rondônia, in the Amazon. A very active community leader, Nicinha was herself affected by the construction of the mega dam, being displaced to another region with part of her community, where they did not have access to running water or electricity. As she started to participate in activities promoted by the Movement of People affected by Dams in the region, she became a powerful voice of denounce of the harmful effects of the dams in the lives of the fisher folk, leading several mobilizations. On 7 January 2016 Nicinha went missing from her home; it was only six months later that her body was found, and the perpetrators of her assassination identified. Local men from the region confessed their participation, were tried and convicted in 2017. To this day, Nicinha’s colleagues and MAB activists in the region criticize the trial process, that tried to dismiss the crime as a regular dispute among neighbours and ignored Nicinha’s role in the community and her strong political voice against powerful interests.
The story of Nicinha is representative of the many ways that women who take on defending their rights and those of their communities publicly are met with extreme violence, and have their work as activists dismissed, minimized or made invisible. Brazil is a dangerous country for human rights defenders (HRDs). According to Global Witness, 57 HRDs were killed in 2017, the largest number of murders of those who exposed or opposed environmental destruction or land grabbing.
Brazil also holds the shameful figure of the fifth highest rate of female homicide in the world. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, the female homicide rate has grown by 21% and is now 2.4 times higher than the global average. In this context, the state of Rondonia, where Nicinha lived, leads the figures of femicide of white women in the northern region, with rates above 5 in every 100,000 in 2015.
A partnership between Christian Aid and the Movement of People affected by Dams aims to increase awareness of women in the Amazon struggling for rights of the structures that put them at risk and collectively develop tools to increase their safety and protection. This work draws on the extensive experience from Christian Aid Ireland working on from violence to peace, on the Brazil programme’s own expertise with GBV and its long-standing partnership with MAB specifically supporting women affected by dams.
Social and economic inequalities are at the root of gender-based violence – economic gaps and the lack of access to land, social services and equal conditions in the labour market increase the vulnerability of women and LGBTI population. Financial dependency is one of the main causes of women continuing to suffer domestic violence.
Colombia: LGBTI people are victims of gender-based violence
Latin America and the Caribbean has some progressive views on LGBTI rights as shown by the advisory opinion of the Inter-American Human Rights Court in early 2018. However, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people still face high levels of discrimination and violence. The same Inter-American Court reported that this type of violence has increased in LAC in the past 10 years and between 2013 and 2014 there are reports of 770 cases, 594 of which were homicides. According to the UN, ‘This cruel treatment includes killings, violent attacks, torture, arbitrary detention, forced marriage, denial of rights to assembly and expression, medical violence and discrimination in accessing health care. LBTI people also face discrimination in education, employment, and housing.’
Fundación Arcoiris, a small grass-root organization in Tumaco, Colombia, a small town in the southwest of the country with mostly afro descendant population, that have suffered the violence of the armed conflict and still struggle to overcome inequalities, has prepared a video to show their work, the challenges they face and their successes, but mostly to share the messages of the LGBTI people in Tumaco.
According to Christian Aid’s report Scandal of Inequalities 2, women in the region earn 22% less than men for similar jobs – in the Dominican Republic, 71% of women earn less than their partners. Social norms relating women to the domestic space, and the unequal burden of caring for children and elderly relatives, increase discrimination and widen economic gaps. The LGBTI population also suffers discrimination and faces LGBT-phobic structures which hinder the access to jobs and services and increase exclusion, humiliation and violence. Unequal access to the judicial system contributes to the reproduction of violence and injustice based on identity.
Guatemala: make government spending gender-sensitive
‘Analysis of fiscal policy can’t be neutral. In the case of VAT, for example, increases in this tax influence poverty, and this has a greater effect on women, given that the majority of households living in poverty in Guatemala are run by women’. So explained Ana Cevallos from our partner organisation Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI, the Central American Fiscal Studies Institute).
Despite the fact the Guatemala has one of the highest GDPs in Central America, it is also one of the countries with the highest levels of inequality in all of Latin America. Factors which contribute to social exclusion, such as unequal relations according to gender, class and ethnicity, mean that some groups face multiple disadvantages.
The roots of this inequality include the differential participation of women in the labour market (including increased indices of un- or underemployment, and of participation in the informal sector, leading to a lack of guarantees with regards to labour rights). For every dollar earned by Guatemalan men, women receive just 56 cents.
Christian Aid is a Christian organisation working in Latin America and the Caribbean in partnership with local and regional organisations, alliances and networks to tackle the root causes of inequalities. The diversity of projects developed address GBV in its multiple causes and are examples of how violence is related to intersecting inequalities. Working in different countries in the region, Christian Aid empowers social movements and faith-based organisations to face power imbalanced situations that somehow at different levels is linked to gender based violence.
Bolivia: Gender Based Violence, Exclusion and Discrimination within the churches
Christian Aid´s partner, ISEAT, has published a book entitled The experience of being a woman in Churches of La Paz and El Alto which exposes how and why male dominated power structures propagate a culture and practices which protect and cover up systemic violence and abuse against women.
This study draws on interviews and participatory reflection process undertaken with 27 brave women from 3 different faith based communities (Methodist, Catholic and Ecumenical). They found that all too often the male priests and pastors interpret and disseminate the bible stories in a way which reinforces negative stereotypes and discrimination against women, justifying their submissive and inferior position within the church community and in society as a whole.
Three types of violence were identified: physical, psychological and symbolic.
Physical violence – a woman does not own her own body:
- Women are not allowed to plan the family: they must have the sons and daughters that God wants, not the ones they freely decide.
- Women cannot exercise sexuality outside the limits imposed by religion (not to practise it before marriage and to exercise it within the framework of heterosexuality).
Psychological violence – Systematic actions of devaluing, intimidating and controlling the behaviour and decisions of women. Specifically:
- Consider them inferior by nature
- Require submission to the husband
- Not value their testimony on equal terms
- Not recognize their authority (capacity of leadership)
Symbolic Violence – the messages, symbols and impositions of the religious beliefs that transmit, reproduce and consolidate relationships of domination, exclusion, inequality and discrimination, naturalizing the subordination of women and restriction to private spaces with very marked role as wives, mothers and housewives.
There was considerable social progress in the region during the first decade of this century, in areas such as health, education, women, rights of Afro communities and indigenous people – hopes raised by a wave of progressive governments in various countries. Several countries passed specific laws to tackle GBV – such as the yet-to-be-implemented 2013 law to protect victims and guarantee access to justice in Colombia and Brazil’s Maria da Penha law against domestic violence.
However, such measures were not enough to decrease deeply entrenched inequalities, merely alleviating them for a short period of time. More recently, the rise of far-right wing governments aiming at social and political conservatism and associated with economic liberalisation and religious fundamentalism, threatens to revoke the recently won policies of inclusion and deepen social and economic divides. It is now very probable that violence against women, LGBTI, Afro and indigenous populations will increase.
Civil society organisations have always played an important role in the guarantee of rights and pressing institutions to enforce policies against all kinds of violence. Where governments abandon the focus on reducing social inequalities there is a need for more, stronger civil society organisations to resist to these setbacks. Gender based violence is a structural problem that must be tackled at different levels with actions that address its diverse roots and varied inequalities.
UNDP, 2017. United Nations Development Programme, Regional Center for Latin America and the Caribbean, ‘From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean’, Panama, 2017.
CA, 2017. Christian Aid. ‘The Scandal of Inequality 2’, < https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-08/scandal-inequality-2-multiple-faces-inequality-latin-america-caribbean-march-2017_2.pdf>,London: 2017
 In the 2018 legislative and municipal elections, only 31% of elected parliamentarians are women and 10% of mayors