Violence Against Women in the Progressive Agenda of Latin America

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By: Inés Pousadela / Source: / The Dawn / November 10, 2015.- The most recent estimates of the World Health Organization confer violence against women the status of pandemic. As a phenomenon, violence against women is practically as violent as humanity. But something has changed in the last decades: this violence has been recognized as a problem and has been progressively redefined. Before, it was regarded as an individual problem, private to those involved (hence the term ‘domestic violence’), and a matter of concern of ‘low politics’ at most. Nowadays, it is beginning to be thought of as a social and public problem, deserving of global policies.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageSalem witch trials

Media coverage is indicative of this change, not only because it has grown exponentially in recent years, putting the issue on the table, but also —and more importantly— because it has gradually shifted its interpretative framework, abandoning the morbid and sensationalist tabloid style towards opinion pieces and ‘general information’ articles that put individual cases in the context of a broader social issue. Cases of violence against women are no longer presented through a narrative of ‘passionate crime’ or as the result of anomalous behaviour of a twisted person, but as a phenomenon that emerges from a whole culture that is sexist and violent, in different ways, against women.

Protagonism of civil society

These changes, that are promoted by the inclusion of the issue in the narrative of human rights, have been the result of decades of sustained efforts by feminist organizations and by promoters of women’s rights all over the world. As Jürgen Habermas noted, social movements and civil society organizations have the ability to function as sensors of critical situations. Closer to human experience than political and administrative systems, they are more capable than them to perceive new problems, identify them and provide interpretative frameworks. This is why social organizations —not public administrators nor political leaders— were the ones that put all the big issues of the last decades in the public agenda.

Indeed, self-organized women were the ones that created a name for the problem; found a channel of communication —in a fraction of journalism that, around the same time, was beginning to get involved in the promotion of non-sexist media— to get the word out; became authoritative voices to analyze it and definitely changed the way of thinking about it. They were so successful in this that their slogan ‘women’s rights are human rights!’, that not so long ago constituted a true war cry, is now regarded as common sense in our societies.

women liberation

It is important to emphasize that the women’s movement was the architect of significant changes not only in the public opinion level but also at the level of institutions and public policies. This is demonstrated in an interesting article by Mara Htun and Laurel Weldon titled ‘The civic origins of progressive policy change: Combating violence against women in global perspective, 1975–2005’ (American Political Science Review, 2012). Based on the analysis of data from 70 countries over several decades, the authors argue that the work of strong, autonomous and feminist women’s movements is the variable that predicts —more than political factors such as presence of left-wing parties or women in the government, or economic factors such as the level of income of the country— the appearance of progressive of policies to combat violence against women.

In sum, beyond the issue of how effective these policies are —of which not enough information is available—, the problem of violence against women has been met with public policies mostly because of the pressure exerted by organized feminism, both in the national and transnational arena. Not even the social justice or human rights movements have achieved results, without organized pressure.

Violence against women

Globally, the gender agenda as we know it today began to take shape between the 80s —when the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women  (CEDAW), adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1979 began to be ratified in one country after another— and the 90s, marked by the growing role of the feminist movement and women in setting the agenda of the United Nations —not only because of their participation in the historical Beijing Conference in 1995 but also, and above all, for their ability to include the gender agenda in every other global conference of the decade (about population, environment, human rights, etc.). The first major milestone in the acceptance of the issue of gender violence took place, in fact, two years before Beijing, as a result of the efforts of the women’s rights movement to put the focus on the topic at the World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna, 1993.

The debate in Latin America —which predated Vienna— crystallized shortly after the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belem do Pará (1996). Ratified by the countries of the region in the subsequent years, the Convention gave birth to a cascade of legislation on violence against women —still sometimes regarded as domestic or intrafamiliar violence—, and was accompanied by the implementation of various public services for the denounce of these crimes and assistance of the victims. In the following years, however, these services were labeled as deficient and problematic, not only because of their effectiveness in practice but also because of their conceptualization of the cases —for example, because they followed the ideological current that labeled rapes as a crime against the ‘honor’ of the victim, therefore only ‘honorable’ women were true victims. The so-called ‘second generation’ legislation would only be achieved in the following decade.

IMG_8584Red shoes were used in Juarez City to protest against the femicides

At the same time, despite all the advances, the problem of violence against women remained relegated from the global agenda. For example, it did not appear among the Millennium Development Goals formulated in 2000 to be achieved in the present year; instead, the struggle for gender equality focused almost exclusively on the closure of educational and laboral breaches —despite the fact that this goal is strongly influenced by the structural context of sexist violence. This omission only started to be addressed in recent years, particularly in the context of the so-called Post-2015 Agenda. By then, the concept of femicide had been gaining acceptance, at first exclusively in the context of the murders in Juarez City, and after, as an interpretative framework for a problem that was found, with different intensities, in other latitudes. Femicide, defined as the murder of a woman because of her gender, was progressively adopted by different national and international legislations and resolutions of international organisms.

Easier said than done

Violence against women is now an issue on the global agenda, and in some (unfortunately. few) countries, it has even become important in the political-electoral agenda, with a growing presence in electoral debates, campaign promises and public policies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Latin America. As reported periodically by organizations in defense of women’s rights, violence against women is still not a priority in the Latin American political agenda. Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up.

In Argentina, epicenter of the recent mobilizations against gender violence, the Law on Integral Protection against Violence against Women was sanctioned in 2009. The feminist movement has considered a it a conquest, product of their struggles, and it has been regarded as second generation or avant-garde piece of legislation, both for its broad conceptualization of the types —be it physical, sexual, psychological, financial or symbolic— and the contexts —domestic, institutional, occupational, medical, media, etc.— of violence, as the battery of measures it provides to combat it. Among its few flaws is the fact that, five years later, most of these policies have not yet been regulated, implemented and/or funded. Therefore, the action of women’s organizations —which had already been doing the job of the State for years in terms of making statistics that quantified the problem—, is focused on this point.

1-ni-una-menos-img_1243‘To be passive towards injustice is to take the side of the oppressor’


The dissemination of  each new count of victims of femicide was key in shedding light on the problem and paved the way for a massive mobilization. This mobilization was, at its core, about a petition that demanded the full implementation of the instruments that the Law established.

It was known as #NiUnaMenos (Not One [Woman] Less) and it took place in June 2015, in Buenos Aires and in dozens of Argentine towns (with replicas in other countries in the region, including Uruguay), and had its roots in civil society. Launched on Twitter by a group of journalists associated with the feminist movement, the call found fertile ground in a society sensitized by the cascade of cases of femicide in recent months, was viralized by Facebook in the form of selfies of people holding the poster and, on the territories, it was underpinned by innumerable social and political organizations. The call was picked up by the print and broadcast media, in their digital versions first and then in the covers of newspapers and radio and television programs.

Una multitud manifiesta contra la violencia de género frente al Congreso en Buenos Aires, Argentina, miércoles 3 de junio de 2015. (AP Foto/Natacha Pisarenko)

The demonstration in front of the National Congress in Buenos Aires

Many politicians and officials sought, at the last minute and in view of the massive support the slogan was gathering, to opportunistically latch on to it by taking selfies of their own. In fact, with the notable exceptions of four or five women politicians, almost no substantive statement had been ever heard from them on the subjects prior to the initiative. Cleverly, the organizers responded to these offers of support with the slogan #FromPictureToSignature, challenging politicians and candidates to publicly commit to include the issue in their campaigns and government actions.

Superficial consensus


Far from being just an opportunist maneuver attempted even by those who, from their positions of authority, could have but did not do anything to promote the implementation of the policies they claimed to support, this avalanche of support reflected a fundamental feature of the consensus generated around this subject. In effect, the dilemma puts all players in one field, leaving the opposite side of the political field desert. Because, who could (publicly) agree with the murders of women? In that sense, violence against women could not be more different from the other slogan of feminism that is the legalization of abortion, that does sharply divided public opinion and becomes a battlefield in which the feminist movement and the counter-movement that calls itself “pro-life” contend. In a deeper sense, however, both demands have the same foundation: the recognition of women as equal, autonomous beings. Thus, while the alignments around either issue vary, violence against women and the prohibition of abortion are located in the same plane: against the denial of the autonomy of women to make decisions about their bodies and their lives. As pointed out by Rita Segato, acts of domestic violence are meant to discipline women who have stepped out of the subordinate role they have been assigned, thus putting into question the whole system of hierarchy that ensures male dominance. Fighting violence against women at its root represents challenge to male privilege, gender roles and hierarchies associated with them. The “consensus” around #NiUnaMenos, however, is far from being based on a similar conviction. In the debate around abortion, those who oppose it privilege other considerations above the autonomy of women, and the result is a sort of honest dissent, based on a battle between principles. But the consensus observed around the issue of violence against women, in contrast, is superficial in nature insofar it is not supported by substantial consensus on the underlying principles of this issue.


zzzznacg2 NOTICIARGENTINAS BAIRES, NOVIEMBRE 1: Numerosas agrupaciones sociales y politicas se manifestaron hoy en favor del aborto legal, seguro y gratuito, mientras grupos ultracatólicos hicieron lo suyo oponiéndose a esta manifestación frente a la catedral metropolitana. foto. Marcos Adandía zzzz

It is precisely there, where the difficulties of the Latin American left reside. The left has the challenge to fight a violence, that in many countries is really increasing, ie, attributable not only to more and better measurements but also a wave of reactions of protection of traditional roles by those who resist the growing empowerment of women in Latin America, fueled by the impunity the perpetrators have enjoyed to date.

In many countries of the region, the political space of the left is now occupied by forces that claim to be leftist, but are essentially populist, and only slightly left-wing. Unlike the European post-communist left, they exhibit marked traits of cultural conservatism. Since the fight against violence requires recognition and promotion of the empowerment of women, the issue is more likely to be incorporated into the agenda and result in effective policies in places where the left in power has a more liberal tradition, as is the case of Uruguay, or perhaps to a lesser extent, in cases like Argentina, where, like Maristella Svampa says, there is an abnormal “middle class populism”. In all cases, however, the prospects for incorporating the issue on the political agenda of liberalism will continue to depend, beyond the actions of the the left-wing parties, on the continuity of political action —that is, oriented to expanding the boundaries of what is possible— , in each country and within the framework of regional and global networks, by feminist and autonomous popular movements.



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