Latin American and Caribbean nations have pulled ahead of most other developing regions on numerous measures of economic growth and human progress in recent years. The region has one of the world’s lowest poverty levels; hunger has been reduced to under 5 percent of the regional population; primary school enrollment rivals that of rich nations; and at secondary school level there is parity in classrooms between boys and girls. Nineteen regional nations are in the United Nation’s “high human development” category— with Argentina, Barbados and Chile — rated “very high.” Only one nation, Haiti, falls in the lowest-ranked group globally.
Evidence continues accumulating, however, that women are too often left out of this positive picture. When it comes to the lives of women in the Latin America and Caribbean region, the news is grim. In 2012, when the Pan American Health Organization looked at the results of surveys in 12 countries in the region, it found that in every one of those countries women reported being abused by an intimate partner at some time in their lives.
“For women in many Latin American countries violence has been a constant,” Johanna Mendelson Forman and Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote in a commentary marking International Women’s Day in March this year. “Bolivia has the highest rate of domestic violence in South America,” the authors wrote, using data collected by UN Women. “Guatemala is experiencing an epidemic of gender-based violence and femicide that particularly affects young girls and older women.”
Colombia, struggling to overcome the legacy of a decades-long guerrilla war, saw as many as 150 acid attacks in 2012, according to a report in The Washington Post. At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mendelson Forman and Meacham wrote that “[D]ue to a culture of violence that emerged as a result of this conflict, ongoing violence against women and girls in Colombia has morphed into an irrational variation of machismo misogyny.”
Many of the women attacked with acid had been victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, a marker of trouble and by far the largest cause of nonconflict death and injury globally to women. World Health Organization studies on violence as a factor in public health found that women were murdered by male partners overwhelmingly more often than women killed men.
In the Pan American study, “Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean,” the incidence of reported violence varied from 17 to 53 percent among women, and it was emotional or psychological as well as physical.
“Emotional abuse and controlling behaviors are closely linked to physical violence by partners,” the survey found. “In all countries, a majority of women who experienced physical violence in the past 12 months also reported emotional abuse, ranging from 61.1 percent in Colombia in 2005 to 92.6 percent in El Salvador in 2008.”
Caveats are important. The United Nations Population Fund and others inside and outside the UN system are working hard to determine reliable data when some countries do not collect credible statistics — or any at all — and many, many women who survive abuse are reluctant or afraid to report it, often shrinking from interviews even with other women who are trying to help, informally or officially.
Lately, research scholars and activists are digging deeper to look for explanations, partly because the health and rights of women are dragging down advances on relevant Millennium Development Goals, most notably seen in the lagging progress on maternal mortality and on measures of development generally.
The Pan American Health Organization report said that its findings “support a large body of global evidence that intimate partner violence is a public health problem with serious consequences for women’s physical health.” Women who survived attacks reported injuries from bruises to broken bones, burns and knife wounds. Their experiences lead to anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, the study said. A legacy of guerrilla wars, military abuses, government repression, the abundance of weapons, alcohol consumption and trafficking in people and narcotics plays a large role in the situation. Rape occurs inside marriage as well as outside the home in criminal assaults by strangers.
There are also endemic social factors. The World Health Organization lists, among others, young age, low income, low education levels, witnessing or experiencing violence as a child, weak community sanctions against domestic violence and traditional gender norms.
Violence is linked closely to a range of reproductive health issues among women, the Pan American organization found in the 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries in its report. Three were in the Caribbean: the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica; four in Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; and five on the South American continent: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru.
The incidence of intimate partner violence, the study found, was “significantly higher” among women who had their first child very young — teen pregnancies are the leading cause of death in that age group in numerous countries worldwide even before nonpregnancy-related violence enters the picture. Giving birth to a large number of children, at least some (if not a significant number) of them in unwanted pregnancies was also deemed to be a factor.
Though in much of Latin America, at least in urban areas, contraception and family planning advice is available, women may be deterred by the threat or fear of domestic violence from obtaining it. Wives are killed by their husbands for using contraceptives surreptitiously in a number of societies.
Abortion is still a controversial issue in the Latin American-Caribbean region. It is severely restricted or entirely forbidden in seven countries: Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, according to the Guttmacher Institute in New York. Only Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States) allow legal abortions without restrictions.
Regionally, unsafe abortions are a serious health concern, Purnima Mane wrote in an opinion article for the Inter Press Service news agency in early August. Taking together abortion and other issues affecting women’s health conditions, Mane, chief executive of Pathfinder International, a global nongovernmental sexual and reproductive health organization, and a former deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund, wrote, “The conclusion is clear: universal access to reproductive health is still far from being a reality in the LAC region.”
Without the ability to make decisions about their sexual health and fertility, women become more vulnerable to violence and unwanted pregnancies that can result in bodily harm to reproductive organs and serious infections such as HIV-AIDS, when sex is forced on them by husbands or other partners. UN experts say that a priority now is getting women to understand that unwanted sex is considered a violation in defining the wide range of domestic violence.
In the wake of international conferences in the 1990s on population and development, women’s issues and human rights, as well as the milestone Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, demanding that women be protected in conflict areas and given greater roles in peacemaking, the Population Fund produced a handbook for health care providers and others dealing with violence against women and girls in the field.
In 2008 the Population Fund introduced a global strategy pinpointing eight areas where the agency might concretely contribute to change in countries where it works. These are in policy making and legal protection; collecting and analyzing data; addressing violence in sexual health programs; building prevention into conflict zones and humanitarian crises; involving adolescents; teaching tolerance to men and boys; working with faith-based groups and traditional cultural leaders; and paying attention to marginalized and vulnerable groups. The fund’s representatives scattered around the world are expected to report on local situations.
But, as with every other international issue, the UN does not have the power to compel change. Governments need to be persuaded to act or even convinced that there is a problem. In some offices around the world, UN representatives find officials in complete denial and unwilling to let the subject of violence be raised publicly. The UN agencies working on ending violence against women rely on the advocacy and work of nongovernmental organizations, both local and international.
Under Michelle Bachelet, the former executive director of UN Women, attention in the organization was turned to the failure of legal and justice systems to ensure access and fair treatment for women. The Obama administration is leading a campaign in the Human Rights Council to document laws prejudicial to women.
As a whole, the UN system from the top of the Secretariat down through all the offices and agencies is expected to support a campaign begun in 2008 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called UNiTE to End Violence Against Women. The motto and directive is: “Break the Silence. When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act.”
Some governments in Latin America and other regions have begun to act, and in new ways. In Guatemala, where more than 700 women were believed to have been killed in physical violence in 2012, special courts have been created to deal with cases of femicide. (In Africa, Liberia has also pioneered the establishment of a similar special court.) Guatemalan women can also use women-only buses, which were introduced in the capital, Guatemala City, in 2011.
Other large cities around the world — including Beijing, Mumbai, New Delhi and Tokyo — have women-only buses or reserved coaches in trains. Indian hotels, feeling the effects of a reduction by more than a third of female tourists over the last year, have begun adding secure floors or wings for women, serviced by female-only staff, according to the India Abroad News Service.
This approach raises an obvious dilemma, however. Does segregating women — however much they appreciate the enhanced safety — solve the larger problems of offensive and violent behavior by men in the society those women inhabit?
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.