State-Sponsored Violence Against Women

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

Julia Pérez Cervera

THE WORDS OF Latin American women continue to have no value to those who legislate, govern and administer justice. The permissiveness and omissions of state laws, institutions and functionaries in response to the violation of women’s rights are part of gender violence. The advances have been minimal and the need to dismantle this theater of illusions is urgent.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Mexico presenting a project to help women whose rights had been violated. While I was waiting for it to be received, I ran into a woman recognized for her work with social organizations and who has held important posts. Among other things, she asked me how the proposed modification of Mexico City’s Law for the Prevention of and Response to Intra-family Violence was going.

I replied that it was going badly, in fact it wasn’t going anywhere; that it was tough due to the composition of the legislative branch, the limited strength of its Gender Equality Commission, the political parties’ lack of interest in the issue…In short, I told her about the difficulties that are repeated in every country when it comes to making or reforming certain laws.

So she said to me, in what I believe was a well-intentioned way: “Look, the problem is that you’ve got the strategy wrong. Women’s NGOs can’t go alone to fight with legislators for the kind of modifications they want. If you like, I could get together with some important people (Carlos Monsivais, Paco Cervantes, the president of the PRD fraction) and ask them to talk to the legislators and propose the needed modifications to the law as if they were their own. They aren’t even going to listen to you and as some of you are feminists to boot, they won’t so much as look at them.”

Maybe our political strategy is wrong, but I’m personally convinced that the mistake is to continue letting ourselves be represented and spoken for by people who deny women’s value as people, who deny the value of women’s words, who don’t recognize any truth that isn’t spoken by people of the same class, ideas, sex or rank. In short, as the end did not justify the means, I didn’t accept her proposal.

I want to look at the issue of violence against women in Latin America in a little more detail, and specifically link it up with the value of women’s words. Because the fact is that despite decades of denunciation by women’s organizations, for the governments of Latin America the problem of violence against women is a relatively recently discovered issue of limited relevance.

In some cases, they are only just learning about the different kinds of violence exercised against women; and in others, not all of the violence exercised against women just for being women is talked about so the issue is limited to family, domestic or intra-family violence, as it is variously referred to, depending on what they want to acknowledge. The true dimensions of family violence — understood in its diverse ways and still not very well at that — are only now beginning to be plumbed in Latin America.

Physical violence is recognized in some countries and both physical and psychological violence in others. Yet others are beginning to recognize economic violence. In almost all Latin American countries this acknowledgment always comes conditioned, with qualifiers or limitations: i.e. only when it is repeated and ongoing, when it happens between cohabitants, when it happens within the family residence… or, in the case of Puerto Rico, when a couple that has been living together for less than five years can prove they intend to continue living together. I wonder what it would be like to go and denounce your partner for violence against you and be asked to prove that you want to continue living with him in order to be attended.

I sometimes feel that what’s proposed in the laws aimed at dealing with violence is just a sick joke; that the idea is precisely to render non-viable any action that really could start putting the brakes on male domination.

The fact is that state violence, which no country anywhere recognizes, seems to assume that women can be violated, beaten or humiliated every now and then. Could that be because it’s thought that we must be corrected or that it’s good for us to know who’s in charge?

Most of the laws promulgated to respond to or prevent violence against women, which up to now have been limited to the domestic sphere, require before intervention by government institutions that the woman must have suffered violence repeatedly, continuously and in her own home, and that the violence must have been serious or led to her death. And curiously enough, when a woman dies as the result of violence, it is not labeled homicide; it’s just family violence. At least in Mexico, this is what they would have the world believe in the case of the women murdered in Ciudad Juárez.

I think that this state violence is precisely what generates gender violence, the violence against women that includes family violence, rather than the other way round. When a law defines family violence only as “repeated violence,” what else is it saying than: “You can hit your partner, but be careful not to do it every day and try not to let things get out of hand so it won’t be considered a crime. If not, it won’t be so easy for us to help you.”

And when a law limits its definition of family violence to violence committed within the home, it is saying: “We still consider it a private matter, and not some huge quarrel. The male partner continues to hold sway over his house, his woman, his children, his family. It’s no big deal: we’re not going to get involved, we’re not going to throw stones in our own glass house.”

When a law like the one recently approved in Guanajuato says that the main objective of an anti-violence law is to preserve the family and that after two sessions the man and woman have to sign a conciliation agreement, it is effectively telling women to “Grin and bear it because this is all the protection the state has to offer you.”

They Sign, Then Don’t Comply

I’ve been reviewing the legislation of the different Latin American countries, and to tell you the truth I don’t think any country has a real political willingness to eliminate violence against women, or even reduce domestic violence. I don’t believe they’re really bothered about violence against women. What’s more, I believe that they’re actually worried that it might come to an end. Then how would they maintain their power, their position; how would they defend their interests?

All of the Latin American countries — although I’m not sure about Venezuela — signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women somewhere between 1980 and 1995. With certain reservations, maybe, but they’ve signed it. Yet fewer than half of them have signed the implementation protocol, and those that have only did so in recent years.

Something similar happened with the Belém do Pará Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, which was adopted in 1994. None of the countries has complied with what it signed, and in certain cases they openly contradict it, for example by excluding common-law wives, divorced women, women who have not had sexual relations with their partners — as in the case of Puerto Rico — or women subjected to violence outside the conjugal home.

Latin American countries have certain legal common denominators regarding violence against women:

* Faced with the “political necessity” of creating a law related to violence against women, all, without exception, have established the same backdrop, the same basis and the same limits: namely, the family in its most archaic, conservative and machista conception, which must be sustained even if through violence.

* The goal of most of the laws and programs is “conciliation,” understood as the signing of a contract in which the men promise to be less violent in the future. It is a contract that in most cases has to be signed after only a couple of sessions or chats with a staff member from the violence treatment center. And incidentally, the staff member is not necessarily even trained in this field, much less a specialist, and in some cases is a university volunteer.

* None of the countries have resources for these programs or centers.

* Most of the personnel related to the attention provided — judges, public prosecutors, expert witnesses and the like — have no sensitivity to or knowledge of the topic, which explains why they generally suggest that the women put up with the situation, make excuses for not pursuing the charges or simply shelve the cases.

* They either avoid writing punishments into laws or define laughable sanctions for the aggressors. And when real punishments do exist, they look for ways not to impose them, explicitly establishing proposals such as plea bargaining or a waiver if, for example, the accused presents a certificate of previous good behavior or an evaluation by two psychiatric or mental health doctors named by the public prosecutor’s office, as happens in Panama.

* Official research and statistics seek to minimize the problem, or violence is justified with arguments as crass as the one found in a study by Mexico’s Inmujeres: that it’s brought on by female wage earners’ economic independence.

These are just some of the common points in Latin America’s different responses to violence against women. But for me, this isn’t the important point.

Institutional Mockery As Violence

I’m more concerned about the fact that violence against women has been made invisible, diluted in the false notion that violence is given and received without distinction by all family members, that men and women are responsible for an equal percentage of violence and for the same reasons.
Violence against minors, family violence and violence against older people or those with different capacities have been lumped together as if all these were the same.

There’s no desire to understand the different causes and consequences of the different kinds of violence. I worry that there is talk about important advances when every day I see that the governments and legislative and judicial branches are making such a great effort to deny reality, to avoid any kind of punishment for those who have either committed violence against women or allowed it to be exercised on a daily basis for years whether to save them from themselves, compensate for their own insecurity, provide an identity and/or preserve a form of power that depends on the use of force.

Violence against women is being used as an electoral campaign platform. Rather than help guarantee women’s rights, the theatricality set up around this problem — considered to affect just a few women — only hinders the exercise of women’s rights and subjects women who suffer violence to yet another of its forms: institutional mockery.

Some say that the very fact that family violence is being talked about openly is an advance in itself, because at least women know it isn’t normal and should be rejected. This might be true, but I have my doubts.

I’m going to explain my point with some real examples to provide a clear understanding of why I question that thesis.

Ana, a 17-year-old girl, came to the office where I work with an eight-month-old baby, having been convinced to come by her mother. She told me that to escape from her stepfather, who treated her badly, she left home when she was 16 with a 40-year-old neighbor, who, as always, promised to treat her like a princess. This man took her out of the city and kept her in a small-town motel. Whenever he went out he left her locked up with no money and nothing more than a nightgown to wear.

Evidently the sexual relations were forced and involved physical violence and threats when she said no. While he brought her food and even bought her a radio, he also showed her a gun and swore to kill her if she dared try to escape. She tried anyway and returned home, saying that she had spent a few weeks with a girlfriend because she was afraid of how her stepfather and mother would react if she told the truth.

Two days later the neighbor turned up with his pistol and took her away again. She wanted to die. When she got pregnant, she hid it until the seventh month and when she could hide it no longer, she escaped again. This time she told the truth to her mother, who encouraged her to press charges.

That is what she did, but neither the rape nor the false imprisonment was treated as a crime because she went with the man “voluntarily.” The violence has not been prosecuted because she hasn’t been able to prove the blows, the insults or the threats, as demanded by the law.

The lesser charge of “abuse of minors” is being considered by the authorities because, according to the expert’s testimony, “Ana is a very sexually mature woman who tends towards promiscuity.”

We’ve been involved in this process for a year now, and in the latest appeal we managed to get the man arrested, although we’re afraid he might be released because the authorities are currently deliberating why Ana went with him a second time and we haven’t been able to demonstrate that he threatened her with a firearm. We’ve asked for different expert opinions and contended everything we could, but to no avail.

Ana is still terrified and at times wants to give it all up, particularly when she has to tell yet another doubtful-looking psychologist how it all happened, why she returned, what she felt like when he was raping or hitting her, or what she was thinking when she heard him arrive, something that’s impossible to rationalize.

The Risks In Denouncing Violence

So we’re back where we started: women’s words have no value. Presumption of innocence works for the rapists, who only have to say that it wasn’t them.

The chief crime suspect is always the women’s body. It is presumed that women lie and men tell the truth. In such cases statistics are absolutely inoperative and nonexistent. It means nothing that 90% of gender violence is exercised by men against women, frequently their partners or wives. It means nothing that violence against women is exercised in closed spaces with no witnesses, because that’s how the law defines it.

If you want the state to intervene, you have to prove it, to take photos in which the fist in front of your face can be clearly seen, and you have to carry a tape recorder to prove the insults and threats. And if possible, when you’re just about to be hit, you need to ask for time out to call a few witnesses.

For a while, there were campaigns to get women to denounce family violence. It always seemed a bit irresponsible to me to invite women to denounce violence when the laws are still fundamentally protecting the aggressors. I particularly questioned those campaigns that made it seem as though the women were to blame for keeping quiet. Several women had to die before it was understood that it isn’t just a question of pressing charges.

Unfortunately, certain government institutions — women’s institutes, councils and secretariats — continue to promote the same thing, although the emphasis is now on prevention.

It’s not that prevention is bad, but I can’t help wondering whether a campaign “For a Culture of Peace” really does any good against the reality of “If you hit your wife without leaving any marks, don’t worry; she won’t be able to prove it.” I wonder about the use of a campaign or law against violence when it doesn’t even consider violence as grounds for divorce; in fact it forces you to negotiate, to conciliate.

What’s the use of having a unit to treat cases of violence if they treat you like the aggressor when you go there? Isn’t this just more violence, and from those who should protect the victims above all, but instead dedicate themselves to defending the aggressor’s presumption of innocence?

Doesn’t it amount to violence that the only way the state offers to guarantee a woman’s life is by making her leave her house, her work, take her children out of school and shut herself up with them in a shelter as if they were the guilty ones?

Why don’t they make the shelters or refuges for the aggressors? It would be much cheaper and wouldn’t affect the children so much. In addition, now that they’ve seen the light and found that you need to educate the aggressors, what better place to do it than in a shelter, after work, thus avoiding absurd restraining orders and better protecting the lives of the rest of the family?

Why are those who suffer punished instead of the aggressor? Why do battered women have to leave their home and hide with their children, knowing that in three or four months they’ll have to leave the shelter and knock on the door of the very person who beat them up for no good reason?

Many women see this as progress, but I’m not one of them. Hiding women away, terrified, without knowing whether they’ll live tomorrow or not, on the silencing argument that “there are laws protecting them now,” seems to me to be torture, an ongoing violation for all women, even those who have so far managed to free themselves — ourselves — and think that liberating oneself from male violence is a personal matter.

We can’t talk about progress: I know very well how these things are being handled in Latin America and to be quite honest the laws that are being applied are a trap, a trick. In some cases they actually put women at greater risk. And generally speaking, they’re a farce.

For many people, talking like this makes me a radical feminist who’s overly critical. Maybe it’s because I can’t stomach them telling me that a lot of progress has been made when, for example, marital rape is considered neither rape nor violence.

Maybe it’s because I can’t understand where the progress is when family honor is placed above my right to personal integrity. Excuse me, but I find it very hard to accept that there has been progress when a women who is beaten and kept under lock and key by her husband only has access to her rights if she herself dares press charges, because violence is only treated as a crime if the interested party files suit.

I recognize that it’s not possible to change in one fell swoop an almost perfect state of slavery for women that has taken twenty centuries to construct. But I believe that the way to achieve these changes is to point out the deficiencies, the gaps and the injustice that remain.

It’s true that many women no longer view their partner’s violence as natural, and that’s a good thing. But I can’t sit back and be happy with that. I don’t want to play the game of the governments or public powers or wise men who continue defining my life according to their interests. I don’t like concessions being made with my rights or diplomatic games that cost women their lives.

Costs, Problems and Shortcomings

It’s easy for the state to sign agreements and for legislators to change Constitutions and declare that all people are equal in dignity and rights. But at the end of the day, nobody calls to account those who decide women’s lives through laws and decrees pushed through with no knowledge of the cause or, what’s worse, without even caring.

I don’t belong to any government, party or religion; I’m simply a person who feels obliged to say that there’s a long way to go before the right to integrity, to a dignified life are part of women’s everyday life in Latin America. The special rapporteurs and high commissioners on violence, human rights and extra-judicial deaths have repeatedly stated the shortcomings, problems and consequences of not taking serious and adequate measures in response to the problem of violence against women.

As corresponds to the particular interests they defend, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank have pointed out the high costs of violence: 14.2% of the world GDP, which amounts to around US$170 billion spent on programs related to the problem, on medical care for victims and on police services. But states never have the funding for any decent programs for women. Moreover, if the budget has to be cut, those programs are precisely the ones that get the axe.

Perhaps I’m very influenced by the fact that I deal with women who suffer violence every day and have to tell them: “Before pressing charges look for somewhere to go and how to survive because you’re not one of the priorities for the laws or the rule of law.”

If only: If only inclusion of the issue of violence against women in the three Summits of the Americas could help the efforts to ensure normative and public policy changes to overcome the serious shortcomings in fulfilling the Belém do Pará Convention’s objectives in Latin America. There are considerable obstacles with respect to information and registry, access to justice, provision of treatment and protection for the victim and educational training.

If only the proposals to create a specific follow-up mechanism for that convention were implemented and could actually contain the underlying violence. Fifteen countries in the region have expressed their commitment to these proposals: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United States, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, St. Kitts and Neves and Uruguay.

But once again, due to “limited financial and human resources,” both the countries and the OAS are voicing concern that the proposed mechanism will increase the funds and commitments required for its long-term sustainability. Ten countries have still not named a representative for this mechanism.

And now we are faced with feminicide, another unquestionably more serious problem that I can’t leave unmentioned. Ciudad Juárez triggered it off, but in reality it’s just a small sample. To give you some figures, Ciudad Juárez has only the fifth highest homicide rate for women in Mexico, below the states of Mexico, Chiapas, Morelos and Guerrero. And increasing numbers of women are murdered in Guatemala.

Nothing is known about feminicide in Honduras —  which doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist there — and it’s being researched in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It’s probably best not even to imagine the number of women disappeared right now. No, I’m sorry, I can’t talk about progress. I can only repeat that if we want to assert our own rights rather than those they want to grant us, we can’t let the academics, the jurists, the secretaries and the judges continue defining what constitutes violence against women.

We’ve already been through the idea that it’s a public health problem, an educational problem, a problem of family de-structuring, and we’ve already been “vulnerable groups.” Enough already! Enough of accepting patches, or palliative campaigns. Enough of shelters and preventive measures.

The Most Urgent Point

I accept that as men are generally stronger, the only defense possible against gender violence would perhaps have to be too definitive. But I therefore demand that the state comply with its obligation to protect my rights, my life and my liberty. And my rights can’t be traded off against my liberty or my liberty against my life. All of my rights are valid and aren’t negotiable with time periods or conditions.

The state’s permissiveness and omission toward the violation of women’s rights also constitute violence against women. And that’s the first, most urgent point in Latin America. This official permissiveness and omission is what is maintaining the rates of violence against women, allowing it to be reproduced and turning the efforts of organizations, programs and plans to eradicate it into a permanent, seemingly endless battle.

ATC 121, March-April 2006