Femicide in Guatemala: The Double Burden of COVID-19

By Megan DeTura, Skevi Kambitis, and Valery Valdez Pinto*

Stop Femicide in Guatemala Banner/ Karen Eliot/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Women in Guatemala are facing a double threat of contagion and violence: the global COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in gender violence. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines have forced victims and perpetrators of domestic violence into close quarters, exacerbating the risk of attacks. While epidemiologists work to highlight the importance of public health data documenting waves of COVID infections, an already high level of femicides has yet to receive such attention. The Guatemalan government has not provided data documenting an increase in domestic violence reports, but women’s groups and NGOs report an increase in anecdotal accounts of attacks.

  • As early as last June, international organizations warned that, although stay-at-home orders offer an effective means of preventing disease transmission, they entail inherent risks for women, children, and the elderly. UN agencies and human rights organizations believe a surge in domestic violence is occurring and is not being reported due to the pressure on women to stay silent. With women’s shelters, community centers, and other “safe spaces” shut down due to COVID, indigenous and other women in Guatemala have few or no options to flee. NGOs are facing various programmatic obstacles as they attempt to restructure their work in Guatemala while observing public health precautions.
  • Femicide in Guatemala is a consequence of deep-rooted, historic factors. Legacies of a patriarchal and conservative culture have long diminished women’s rights, as men used gender-violence for submission and control. This practice was exacerbated during the country’s 36-year civil war, when violence against women was a weapon of intimidation and terror. Peace Accords signed in 1996 were supposed to end it and bring perpetrators to justice, but serious flaws in implementation have prevented women and indigenous groups from fully benefiting. Continuing violence in and outside the home and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, and class have prolonged persistent socio-economic inequality for women, especially those of indigenous descent.

Legislation has failed to stem the violence against women. In addition to a 1996 Law Against Intrafamilial Violence, the Guatemalan Congress in 2008 passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, explicitly recognizing femicide as a criminal offense. And with the passage of the Immediate Search for Missing Women Act in 2016, the state enhanced its domestic infrastructure to combat femicide, creating a DNA database and registries of missing women and perpetrators – efforts spearheaded by a National Search Coordinator.

  • The impact on the ground, however, has been marred by limited access to justice and high levels of impunity. The country’s 29 specialized courts for crimes of femicide are located in just 11 of 22 departments, with many staffed entirely by men. Women residing in rural areas face transportation burdens that limit access and present jurisdictional challenges. When a case is filed by the Public Prosecutor’s office, the possibility of conviction remains uncertain, as less than one third of femicide cases filed from 2014 through 2017 have resulted in convictions. Even perpetrators found guilty are now afforded greater leniency because a 2018 decision by the Constitutional Court gutted the once mandatory 25- to 50-year prison sentence.

While Guatemala is among the worst, it is not alone in its failure to take effective action against femicide and other violence against vulnerable groups. Femicide was recently highlighted in a study by the Pan American Health Organization, which also documented serious gaps in preventing violence against children and adolescents in the Americas. PAHO has also reiterated its call on public health systems in Central America to acknowledge their role in protecting women from violence during the pandemic.

  • Guatemala specifically has the means by which the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei could take action. Much of the epidemiologic infrastructure developed for COVID, for example, can be expanded to create a parallel system for the surveillance of femicide at the local, state, and national levels. NGOs already in close proximity to potential victims and their families could be strengthened to increase the prevention and punishment of violence against women and answer the Femicide Watch Call issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. Much like the response to COVID as a public health challenge, only an orchestrated, multi-level response will curtail future outbreaks of violence against women from reaching epidemic proportions.

January 19, 2021

* Megan DeTura is a graduate student in Comparative Regional Studies and a research assistant at both the National Security Archive and American University’s Accountability Research Center (ARC). Skevi Kambitis is a graduate student in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a graduate assistant at CLALS.

The Perils of Quédate en Casa: COVID-19 and Gender Violence in Latin America

By Brenda Werth*

Women performing "A Rapist in Your Path" holding up signs

A Rapist in Your Path – Brasília/ Mídia NINJA/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Stay-at-home orders during the COVID‑19 pandemic have had a devastating impact on women in Latin America and brought mass protests against gender violence to a screeching, and troubling, halt. Since the foundational march of NiUnaMenos in June 2015 in Buenos Aires, Latin American activists have revolutionized protest against gender violence in a spectacularly public way, bringing together hundreds of thousands of women and allies on the streets of major cities to denounce gender violence and demand protection of gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Since its debut last November, the flashmob Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Path), created by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, has been performed in more than 200 cities around the world, decrying the role of the state and police in perpetuating gender violence.

  • Even as the coronavirus began to spread, movements against gender violence continued to expand. In March, millions of women marched to commemorate International Women’s Day to demand an end to femicide and gender inequality. In Madrid, among the posters condemning gender violence were some declaring “The patriarchy kills more than the coronavirus.” By March 15, however, Spain was on lockdown, and by the end of the month most Latin American countries had instituted either partial or total lockdowns. Suddenly, slogans condemning gender violence and demanding gender equality were replaced by the urgent message for people to stay home: “Quédate en casa.”

The stay-at-home orders have had severe consequences for women across the globe. In Latin America, where seven out of 10 femicides take place in the home, the weeks following the institution of quarantines saw surges in the reporting of domestic violence, primarily against women, children, and LGBTQ individuals. Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased 40 percent in Argentina, 60 percent in Mexico, and over 90 percent in Colombia. Financial precarity, unemployment, and lack of access to child and eldercare all exacerbated preexisting gender inequalities, creating a “perfect storm” for domestic violence.

  • Quarantines have proven crucial and effective in countering the health threat posed by coronavirus, but they have left victims of gender violence trapped under the same roof with their abusers. One unintended effect of quarantine is the reinforcement of the perception of domestic abuse as a private, family affair, separate from the public sphere, and excluded from the jurisdiction of the state.

Government responses to the increased domestic violence in Latin America have varied tremendously, ranging from acknowledgment to denial of the crisis.

  • Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister of Women, Genders and Diversity, has issued a resolution explicitly allowing individuals to leave quarantine in order to seek assistance and protection against domestic violence. The Argentine government has also collaborated in building innovative campaigns blending awareness of both pandemics – gender violence and COVID‑19. The Barbijo Rojo (red mask) campaign refers to a code word women may employ when talking to pharmacists to let them know they are at risk of harm and unable to seek out help.
  • In comparison, denial has guided Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response. His government has failed to implement any major policy changes to address the increase in gender violence during COVID‑19, and he has maintained that 90 percent of calls to domestic violence hotlines are false. According to AMLO, Mexico does not have the same problem as other cultures with domestic violence because “the Mexican family is exceptional.” The government’s campaign to address domestic violence during quarantine, Cuenta hasta 10, asks family members to “count until ten” before expressing anger in the home. According to Lulú Barrera, the campaign lacks “gender perspective” by disregarding the structural causes of gender violence and ultimately puts women at risk by asking them to sacrifice their wellbeing to maintain peace in the home.

While the health pandemic has highlighted the dire need for movements like NiUnaMenos and messages like that of  Un violador en tu camino to continue and expand, stay-at-home orders have halted collective public mobilizations and forced women to return to the private sphere of their homes. The movements have radically transformed awareness and perceptions of gender violence over the last five years, but the current crisis, including the alarming increase in domestic violence, shows the gender-violence pandemic remains strong and could get worse. Protecting public health through stay-at-home orders should not neglect the need to protect women. Solutions must be jointly envisioned and enacted by public health experts, activists, and political leaders.

June 29, 2020

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, at American University.

Spanish Language: Unlikely Battleground for Gender Inclusion

By Juliana Martínez*

Spanish-speaking communities have become one of the most significant battlegrounds in the push for gender-inclusive language. Often associated with traditional gender norms and anti-LGBT sentiment, Spanish-speakers in general and in Latin America in particular are discussing gender in language, causing as much ire and excitement as use of they as a non-binary singular pronoun has in the United States and beyond. In the English-speaking world, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s recognition of they as “word of the year” in 2019 signaled this shift. Many young Spanish speakers are also increasingly unwilling to accept gender hierarchies in any social, political, or cultural realm as natural, innocuous, or unchangeable; and they find the gender binary limiting and exclusionary for themselves or for society more broadly.

  • In the last 15 years few regions have made larger strides in LGBT recognition than Latin America. During this period, some of the most advanced legislation and policies in the world – such as gender identity laws, same-sex marriage, adoption rights for same-sex partners, and non-discrimination statutes – have been passed in Latin America, the great majority in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.

There are two main issues at the heart of inclusive language efforts: to challenge androcentric conventions, and to expand the gender binary by incorporating gender-expansive options for speakers. In many languages, Spanish included, masculine forms constitute the linguistic and social norm. In society and grammar alike, masculinity, heterosexuality, and gender-conformance have been taken as the unmarked norm through which human experience is measured and communicated. However, just as the mere presence of a gender system in a language does not make it sexist or cis-normative, the push for inclusive language does not put the integrity of the language at risk and does not seek to dismantle its grammatical gender system.

  • As my colleague Salvador Vidal-Ortiz and I note in a recent article, substituting an e for a gender-specific o or a in a noun does not challenge the assigned gender of nouns that do not refer to specific populations. No one is suggesting that carro (the masculine noun in Spanish for “car”) should be “carre” instead. That is a caricature and, more importantly, would suggest denying speakers the right and means to name themselves by claiming that their lives are a grammatical – and also a biological, social, and legal – error or impossibility.
  • These efforts have been around for a while both in Latin America and the U.S as exemplified by the shifts in the term Latino. First came Latina/o, then the “@” in Latin@, then Latinx, and now Latine. All these forms have been (and continue to be) used as gender-neutral and expansive options to the masculine o or the feminine a. The e in particular has been getting traction and considerable (not always positive) attention. Argentina has been a trailblazer. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to attend a political rally or march in the country without hearing words like bienvenides (welcome) alongside or instead of the traditional bienvenidos or bienvenidas, or to see words like todes (instead of todas or todos) written on signs. Last year two events marked the widening spread of these shifts in the country. President Alberto Fernández made history when he used the word chiques (the gender-expansive alternative to the binary chicos or chicas) during a student rally – drawing a standing ovation; and last December Argentina made international headlines when a judge ruled in favor of including “non-binary” as the sex marker of a person’s national identification document

Despite this progress, opposition to gender-inclusive language has been fierce and is unlikely to fade quickly. La Real Academia de la Lengua (RAE), the governing body that presides over Spanish grammar, syntax, and morphology, has resisted it sternly – not surprising for an institution that has accepted only 11 women in 300 years of existence. History has shown, however, that calls for language purity and grammar correctness tend to be covers for social anxieties about upholding gender and sexual hierarchies. What upsets many speakers – particularly those used to being at the center of discourse and accustomed to holding cultural, social, economic, and political power – is not the language; it is the changing worldview that it names and advances. Inclusive language is neither a threat to the language nor a sign of its decline. Rather, it signals plasticity and health, as it illustrates its ability to adapt to shifting cultural and social norms.

February 25, 2020

* Juliana Martínez is Assistant Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University. Parts of this post were previously published, with Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, in Latinx thoughts: Latinidad with an X in Latino Studies in October 2018.

The Arrival of #MeToo in Latin America

By Brenda Werth

#NiUnaMenos

#NiUnaMenos Protest in Neuquen / Flickr/ Creative Commons

The #MeToo movement – described frequently as a moment of reckoning in the societies it touches– is arriving in Latin America, but the region’s own #NiUnaMenos movement provides a superior model for driving awareness of violence against women.  Latin America has a deep history of activism against gender violence, including decades of organizing against feminicide at the U.S.-Mexico border and most recently the mass mobilizations of #NiUnaMenos in Argentina, Peru, Brazil, and Chile.  Two major cases have breathed life into the framework of #MeToo in the past three months: Argentine actress Thelma Fardín’s open denunciation in December of actor Juan Darthés for raping her on the set of the children’s show “The Ugly Duckling” when she was 16 years old; and most recently, the mounting accusations of sexual assault and misconduct against former Costa Rican President and Nobel Laureate Oscar Árias Sánchez.  In denouncing celebrities and politicians in positions of power, #MeToo in Latin America replicates the pattern of “toppling the powerful, not the ordinary.”

While the significance of bringing down the powerful and those who historically have seemed most immune from prosecution and public scrutiny should not be underestimated, the concern that #MeToo so far has had little effect in changing attitudes of the ordinary or holding the ordinary accountable is a valid one and presents a much bigger and strategically important problem.  New York Times writer Amanda Taub writes that “the movement has had little effect on the broader problem of sexual abuse, harassment and violence by men who are neither famous nor particularly powerful.” While addressing the broader problem of sexual abuse, holding perpetrators accountable, and implementing long term systemic change are central tenets to the original mission of #MeToo as envisioned by founder Tarana Burke, there is a sense that the movement’s adaptation and subsequent viralization have narrowed the movement to focus primarily on cases of sexual abuse with potential for media spectacularity.

  • The #NiUnaMenos movement in Latin America, on the other hand, offers concrete examples of how to address the broader problem of sexual abuse and gender violence at the grassroots level through open popular assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, collective performances, and social media. University of California Professor Alyson Brysk notes the importance of the grassroots organizing against gender violence that preceded #MeToo.  #NiUnaMenos was first introduced in 2015 by Argentine journalists, activists and artists who, outraged by the murder of 14-year old Chiara Páez by her boyfriend, announced a call of action via social media to build solidarity against gender violence and feminicide.  Cecilia Palmeiro, one of the movement’s founding members, says #NiUnaMenos embraces a “feminism from below” that is intersectional, transversal, and horizontal and engages with marginalized communities, with a revolutionary lineage of activism passed down from the Mothers, Grandmothers and other human rights groups.  In joining forces with the International Women’s Strikes, #NiUnaMenos makes the crucial link between gender violence and the forms of economic inequality and exploitation that affect women worldwide.

While #MeToo “jumps to countries across Asia, Europe, and Latin America,” the lessons of movements from Latin America such as #NiUnaMenos are indeed more valuable – and worth being studied by the United States and Europe. A hemispheric exchange of ideas, methods, and practices between movements such as #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos would help establish new networks of solidarity while drawing attention to the diverse challenges and questions that inform both movements and the contexts in which they emerged. Furthermore, mutual acknowledgment of the sophistication and potential international impact of these and other movements would help to dispel the notion that Latin America is “catching up” by finally grappling with #MeToo and would contest the familiar trope of knowledge dissemination from North to South.

March 8, 2019

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, at American University.

Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Nicaragua: Shirking Obligations on Gender-based Violence

By Pamela Neumann*

 

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March against violence in Managua, November 2014. Oxfam en Nicaragua / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent actions by the Nicaraguan government directly conflict with its obligations under accords on gender-based violence, but regional mechanisms, including the OAS, have not been effective at holding Managua to account. The 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará), which Nicaragua ratified in 1995, defines violence against women as any act of physical, sexual, or psychological violence occurring in either the public or private sphere (Article I, III) and obligated state signatories to establish fair and effective legal procedures to address crimes against women (Article VII). The Convention also stipulated that States report steps taken to prevent and prohibit gender-based violence (Article X). In 2004, the OAS introduced a Follow-up Mechanism (MESECVI) to provide additional technical assistance and more closely monitor state actions.

Nicaragua has not submitted information to MESECVI since 2008, and its performance has become even more problematic in subsequent years. In 2012, the government passed a comprehensive law on gender-based violence (Law 779), which significantly advanced women’s legal rights and protections. Over the last three years, however, the law has been substantially undermined by legislative reforms and executive decrees. For example, mediation, an informal practice police historically used to resolve cases, was first eliminated and then reinstated. Mediation puts women’s lives at significant risk because there are no legal consequences for violating the non-binding agreements it produces. In addition, beginning in 2014, women seeking to file a legal complaint for gender-based violence were sent to neighborhood councils or the Ministry of the Family for counseling instead. Police units charged with handling domestic violence cases have been closed for over a year.

The OAS has been leaning hard on Nicaragua to address threats to its electoral process – forging an agreement last month allowing the OAS to send a team to observe municipal elections in November – but its performance as arbiter of signatories’ adherence to the Belém do Pará Convention has been less effective. The convention’s enforcement mechanisms are limited; the main recourse that individuals or organizations have is to submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which can forward it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). But action is inhibited by the stipulation that cases are only admissible when “remedies under domestic law have been pursued and exhausted” and because current regional agreements do not allow for any specific OAS-IACHR action to be taken on the basis of legislative action or inaction. The OAS’s existing instruments, moreover, put the burden on individual aggrieved parties to demonstrate the state’s intentional complicity in denying women due process. This requires showing evidence of state officials actively impeding one particular investigation or engaging in violent acts themselves. Numerous studies, including my own research, have shown that such behavior is in fact ubiquitous, but less than 1 percent of cases even make it to trial. Despite good intentions, the legal remedies afforded by the OAS tend to individualize and privatize the problem of gender-based violence – and the Nicaraguan government is not being held accountable for its failure to prevent or punish fundamental violations of women’s human rights.

March 30, 2017

*Pamela Neumann is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University.

NiUnaMenos Gains Momentum

By Brenda Werth* and Fulton Armstrong

marcha_ni_una_menos_1

Protesters gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the NiUnaMenos movement, which has sparked mobilizations across the country and in many other Latin American cities. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Protesters have taken to the streets in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America to raise awareness about violence against women and girls, pushing for an end to machista culture.  News media estimate that a demonstration under the banner of NiUnaMenos – “not one less woman” due to femicide – in Buenos Aires last Wednesday drew tens of thousands of supporters dressed in black, despite freezing rain.  Other banners declared “We want to live” and demanded “No more machista violence.”  The immediate issue driving the protest was the brutal attack earlier this month on a schoolgirl in Mar del Plata – 16-year-old Lucía Pérez – who was drugged, raped, and tortured to the point of suffering cardiac arrest and died from internal injuries.

  • Argentina passed laws between 2008 and 2012 protecting a range of rights relating to human trafficking, violence against women, marriage equality, and gender and sexual identity, creating new space for discussion of the issue. But the Casa del Encuentro, an NGO that helps victims of gender violence, says that data through 2015 indicate that somewhere in Argentina a woman is killed every 30 hours.  The government’s Secretariat of Human Rights says that 19 women and girls were murdered in the first 18 days of October.  Argentine President Macri, challenged since early days of his administration to address the problem, has reiterated pledges to push legislation that would establish a hotline for reporting abuse and create more shelters for abused women as well as better ways of monitoring abusers.

Similar protests were held in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and El Salvador – with thousands of protesters in capital cities demanding an end to the systematic violation of women’s rights.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced last week that she was joining the NiUnaMenos movement.  She condemned the murder of a 10-year-old girl asphyxiated, burned, and buried by her step-father.  Movement organizers cite research showing that violence against women is a serious problem in much of Latin America.  The Mapa da Violencia published by FLACSO Brazil last year shows that seven of the 10 countries with the highest female murder rate are in this region – with El Salvador (8.9 homicides per 100,000 women), Colombia (6.3), Guatemala (6.2), and Brazil (4.8) near the top of the list.

The demonstrations reflect growing global awareness of gender violence as a violation of human rights and that legislation, while helpful, is not enough.  NiUnaMenos and other groups are also rewriting the traditional definition of violence against women as attacks perpetrated by strangers rather than boyfriends, husbands, or family members – just as coverage of femicide in Mexico in the 1990s raised public awareness of gender violence as systematic and deeply structural as opposed to “every-day,” “familial,” and “private.”  NiUnaMenos is challenging “the culture of violence against women” in machista societies and condemning “the men who think that a woman is their property and they have rights over her and can do whatever they want.”  In Argentina, the mainstream media have stimulated much of the backlash, with reporting that exploits private details of victims’ lives and portrays victims in a manner that suggests responsibility for the crimes committed against them.  This recycling of the “algo habrá hecho” logic that circulated freely during the dictatorship coincides with a renewed focus in Argentine society on cases of torture during those years, treating them specifically as acts of sexual violence.  A week or two of protests obviously will not change ingrained culture, but the burgeoning movement highlighted by NiUnaMenos offers hope of continued progress in protecting the fundamental rights of women throughout the hemisphere.

October 24, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

Gender Violence in Argentina and the Education of Mauricio Macri

By Brenda Werth*

Macri Ni Una Menos

Photo Credit: Mauricio Macri Facebook page. Public Domain.

Argentina’s new President, Mauricio Macri, has an historic opportunity to address the country’s longstanding crisis of gender violence.  In a radio interview in 2014, he notoriously stated that “All women like to be catcalled,” and asserted, “I don’t believe the ones who say they don’t.”  Little did he know at the time that the most intense period of his presidential campaign in 2015 would coincide with a revolution in public awareness of gender violence in Argentina.  #NiUnaMenos – a movement launched in response to a rash of femicides and their graphic coverage by the news media – organized  marches in cities across Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, drawing an estimated 300,000 protesters in Buenos Aires alone last June.  Journalists, artists, and activists, in collective denunciation of machismo and violence against women, demanded that the government develop a plan of action to implement the Comprehensive Law on the Prevention, Punishment and Elimination of Violence against Women (Law 26.485), approved in 2009.  The law was a significant milestone in addressing violence against women at the national level, yet without government support, its effectiveness has been limited.  Current data indicate that a femicide takes place every 30 hours in Argentina, and statistics suggest that the total number of femicides occurring in 2015 will meet or surpass numbers in 2014.  The NiUnaMenos movement has captured the public’s attention.

The presidential candidates (Macri included) took note of the impact of NiUnaMenos and pledged support to prevent violence against women as outlined in the five major points it published.  Macri posted a picture of himself holding a handmade #NiUnaMenos sign on Facebook and Twitter.  Yet activists remain concerned about Macri’s sincerity, not just because of his 2014 remarks.  As mayor of Buenos Aires (2007-15), he undermined initiatives to prevent violence against women and provide assistance to victims.  Specifically, in 2014 he closed an outreach center for victims of sexual violence that had operated under the Subsecretary of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, and he reduced the budget of the National Agency for Women from 0.1 percent in 2007 to 0.06 percent in 2015.

Macri has his work cut out for him if he wants to be perceived as a leader confronting Argentina’s gender violence.  Although his promises to slash government spending suggest social programs will suffer, there are some promising signs.  Macri’s Minister of Social Development, Carolina Stanley, has offered the post of President of the National Council for Women to Fabiana Tuñez, the founder of the Casa del Encuentro, a leading NGO on gender rights and eliminating sexual violence – and key in the #NiUnaMenos movement.  In a broader human rights framework, Macri’s agenda still remains relatively undefined.  Although his vision will depart significantly from former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s, he has reiterated his commitment to continuing trials against former military accused of human rights abuses during dictatorship, rejecting claims that such efforts reflect “politics of revenge.”  In interviews, moreover, he has emphasized a forward-looking conception of human rights, rooted in the 21st century, focusing on issues related to pubic health, education, and freedom of expression.  While some observers view this as a regression to a “culture of amnesia” associated with the Menemist era, Macri has an opportunity to move the country forward by heeding activists’ demands for leadership addressing gender violence in Argentina. 

January 7, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American Unviersity.

Pension Reform: Uneven Progress

By Christina Ewig*

Two Women

Nathan Gibbs / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent pension reforms in Latin America show promise for greater gender equity across the region, but progress remains uneven in coverage and generosity.  Since 2007, 13 countries have either introduced or expanded some form of non-contributory pension, offered to defined groups as a social right, while others have made reforms to their existing pension systems that specifically compensate for gender inequalities.  These reforms in several instances were conceived with the participation of gender equity advocates.

  • The introduction of non-contributory pensions has equalized pension coverage between women and men in the region, according to a comprehensive study by the Organización Iberoamericana de Seguridad Social.
  • The equalization of men’s and women’s retirement age in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay makes it easier for women to attain the minimum number of working years for eligibility for a minimum pension.
  • The use of gender-neutral mortality tables in Bolivia and a return to the state-run defined-benefit system that treats men and women equally in Argentina, are also improvements.
  • More innovatively, in the 2007 expansion of the non-contributory pension in Bolivia and the 2008 reforms of the traditional pension systems in Chile and Uruguay, women were given credit toward their pensions for children born or adopted, to compensate for time out of the labor market.

The need for such reforms is great globally and in Latin America.  Women face much greater risks than men of poverty in old age due to workplace discrimination and gender imbalances in family carework responsibilities – the “motherhood wage gap” – during their working years.  Women are employed in smaller numbers than men in the formal economy, and they are often concentrated in the lower-paid and less-stable informal sector.  Domestic workers, primarily women, are in a sector notorious for employers’ evasion of pension payments.  Women in Latin America are also more likely than men to be found among the ranks of the unemployed or partially employed.  When employed full time in the formal sector, they face a diminishing but still substantial wage gap, earning 17 percent less on average than similarly educated men, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.  While the original pay-as-you-go pension systems were based on a male-breadwinner model that envisioned women as “dependents,” the 1990s push toward pensions that relied entirely on individual earnings magnified the effects of these discriminatory employment contexts and carework imbalances.  Moreover, in the individual capital account model, practices such as the use of differential mortality tables to determine monthly payments further reduced women’s income in old age, due to their greater expected longevity.

Despite the progress toward greater gender equity in pension policy, the issue deserves wider attention because advances have been uneven.  For example, while most countries in the region have adopted some form of non-contributory pensions, the percentage of the population eligible for these varies dramatically – as does the monthly payment.  Moreover, while the gap in pension coverage between men and women has narrowed, the compensation levels remain dramatically unequal.  Reforms, like those of Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile, that build-in compensation for market and carework inequalities deserve wider replication. 

February 26, 2015

*Dr. Ewig is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is the author of Second-Wave Neoliberalism: Gender, Race and Health Sector Reform in Peru.