Is gender violence getting worse in Latin America?

People show pictures of missing women during Mexico's 'One Billion Rising' flashmob against violence against women, at the Republic Square in front of the Monument to the Mexican Revolution, in Mexico City on Feb. 14, 2013.
Credit: Yuri Cortez

NEW YORK — "This man will kill me and nothing will happen."

For eight years, Dolores and her children endured severe beatings at the hands of her husband. During the first year of the abuse, she sought help from the local police and prosecutor in Cartagena, Colombia, but was met with accusations and blame. Dolores tried to leave her husband several times, but each time he hunted her down and forced her to return — one time at knifepoint. Finally, Dolores and her children were able to escape for good.

In recent years, Latin America has been celebrated for making progress on women’s rights. Five countries throughout the region have female heads of state. Women are now better educated than men, and they've entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Despite these advancements, the region continues to struggle with gender-based violence. Some even believe violence against women is getting worse.

"Women are asking for rights, and men get very violent," said Nadine Gasman, the head of UNiTE to End Violence against Women for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Because the system is so cumbersome and does not provide responses quickly enough, violence gets worse and worse."

Globally, gender-based violence takes the life of one in three women worldwide and is the leading cause of disability and death for women between the ages of 15 and 44. In March, at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), international leaders will gather at the UN Headquarters in New York to deliberate ways of eliminating violence against women and girls.

The purpose of the meeting is to evaluate the progress made, identify barriers, establish global standards and best practices, and develop concrete policies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide. The CSW will produce a document to guide policies and legislation in countries around the globe in their struggle to end gender-based violence.

Due in part to many years of armed conflict, Colombia’s struggle against gender-based violence is significant and complex. Militarism often has grave consequences for the safety and security of women. They are subjected to sexual assault during military conflicts and are attacked for participating in activism that demands political and social change. Women and girls make up half of the 4 million people in Colombia who have been forced to leave their homes and are currently displaced. This places them in a most precarious position.

A study by Profamilia Colombia and USAID found that 48 percent of women who have been displaced report having been subjected to domestic violence, compared to 37 percent of women in the general population. The higher rate of violence for displaced women is caused by greater barriers to accessing health services, legal protection and justice.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch on gender-based violence in Colombia uses the stories of 80 displaced women and girls who have endured abuse to explore the obstacles faced when seeking support and assistance. A lack of familiarity with health and legal institutions in their new locations, fear of retribution from abusers, and being unable to pay for services prevents some women and girls from accessing the help they need.

Although Colombia has one of the most advanced legal and policy frameworks in the region for addressing gender-based violence, there are many shortcomings in its implementation, especially for displaced women and children. “Seeking medical attention for the [sexual] violence was difficult," explained a displaced woman in Bogota. "Ten days later, I was finally able to get help.”

Delays in or denial of health care following sexual assault can mean a victim does not receive treatment to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. This increases the chances of detrimental health effects as a result of gender-based violence, and research-in-progress indicates this negative impact may go beyond the victim.

“In our study, we are finding … that the negative effects of domestic violence are not limited to the women themselves, but also seem to be extending to their children,” says economist Jorge Agüero. Using data on domestic violence from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Agüero's study (which is still being analyzed) shows that children whose mothers have been victims of domestic violence have lower weight and height, are less likely to be vaccinated, and have more reported cases of diarrhea.

“We are always advocating for the rights of those at risk,” explains Dr. Maria Isabel Corea Ramirez, of Profamilia Nicaragua. “We provide the information and services people need. But it’s also about the right — of youth, of women experiencing violence — to live free of violence and make informed decisions about their lives."

Gender-based violence is a sexual and reproductive health issue and bodily integrity is a universal human right. The right to be protected from, and to have recourse against, all forms of violence — including physical, verbal, psychological, economic and sexual abuse — underpins the need for governments in Latin America to ensure sexual rights and strengthen their commitment to protect women and girls from harm.

“We must insist that sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be separated from sustainable development,” says Carmen Barroso, regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region. “The fact remains that sustainable development isn’t sustainable if it doesn’t empower women to control their own bodies.”

Mandy Van Deven is a writer, advocate and online media strategist. Her work exploring contemporary feminisms, global activism, and sexuality has been published in Salon, AlterNet, GlobalPost, The Guardian, and Marie Claire. Learn more at

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