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Unraveling Sexual Violence in Costa Rica and Throughout Latin America


Memorial femicide protest in Chile
A memorial in Chile during a protest against femicide. The placards mean: "Warning! Machismo Kills," in English.

For the past three decades, Costa Rica has carried out progressive steps to reduce violence against women, a major inhibitor of human and economic development in the country and throughout Latin America.

While the issue has garnered more attention among the general public in recent years, it remains intertwined in the fabric of Latin American society and difficult to quantify.

“Violence against women is rooted in centuries of discrimination,” Moni Pizani, UN Women regional director for Americas and Caribbean, told PassBlue. “It is deeply stemmed in values ​​that promote unequal relations of power between men and women at all levels of society, and the risk of occurrence depends on a number of complex and interrelated factors.”

In Brazil, for example, the number of femicides — murders of women based on their gender — has reached huge proportions, with 40,000 women killed there in the last 10 years merely for being women.

In Honduras, the overall homicide rate is 85.5 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, and is said to be the most dangerous country for women in the world. The Observatory of Violence sector at the Institute for Democracy, Peace and Security in the country found that since the 2009 coup in Honduras, violent deaths of women has tripled, taking 606 victims in 2012. Impunity and the “disastrous” performance of the justice system increase the vulnerability of women-to-male violence, wrote Mirta Kennedy, a founding member of the Center of Women’s Studies, Honduras, in a blog post.

For example, of the 3,124 violent deaths of women in the last decade, only 5 percent have been investigated and prosecuted, Kennedy wrote. Femicide victims are most often women who are 16 to 30 years old, killed with firearms.

Statistics on femicides, sexual assaults and incidences of domestic violence can only scratch the surface of how pervasive violence against women is in Costa Rica, as the numbers ultimately fail to present the full extent of the problem.

Between 2001 and 2011, 351 femicides were committed in Costa Rica — an average rate of 1.45 per 100,000 women — according to the most recent government data. Costa Rica has a relatively low rate of femicides compared with neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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Much more difficult to measure, however, are incidences of nonlethal violence against women, like domestic abuse and sexual assault, particularly because such crimes are vastly underreported. Worsening the situation in the region is the rise in violent crime as a result of increased drug trafficking and expansion of criminal groups. The ingrained “culture of machismo,” as it is known, also reinforces gender inequality, which contributes to acts of violence against women.

Given the complexity and diversity of the factors that incite violence against women in Latin America, measuring progress in its reduction is not simply a matter of looking at a selection of crime statistics, which can be incomplete and unreliable. The lack of comprehensive data — or credible data — on these issues is a problem throughout the developing world, especially since there are no globally agreed definitions of what constitutes violence in its nonlethal forms.

Ana Hidalgo, a program coordinator for Costa Rica’s National Institute of Women, a government ministry that oversees policies affecting women, said that it was improving data-gathering on violence against women by coordinating, for example, with local hospitals and courts to get more reliable data. But the institute was unable to produce conclusive evidence on trends in nonlethal violence.

Hidalgo said that on average around 50,000 women have sought legal protections from their abusers in recent years, which gives some indication of the size of the problem.

“The numbers are sometimes less, sometimes higher,” she said. “This is not necessarily good or bad. What’s important is that women need to come forward and seek help.”

Gabriela Mata, a Costa Rica-based researcher for the United Nations Development Program, said that nonlethal violence against women has typically been underreported because of fear and shame among the victims and insufficient resources for physical security, psychological counseling and legal protections.

“There needs to be a more integral approach,” Mata added, saying that “Costa Rica has been improving in comparison to many of its neighbors.” She cited numerous legislative steps aimed at dismantling the culture of misogyny and providing women with institutional support to speak out and report violence against them.

This begins with recognizing the problem. Costa Rica is one of 11 countries in the region that has criminalized femicide, differentiating the crime from homicides in general and acknowledging that gender inequality is a primary factor in such murders.

Costa Rica is also trying to battle other inequalities women face, like representation in government. (Its president is a woman, Laura Chinchilla, 54, whose term is soon up.) The country has passed a law that promotes political inclusion of women. At present, the legislature is 39 percent female (pushed along by legal quotas), making it one of the most egalitarian governments in the world.

“Not all women politicians will necessarily be progressive on women’s issues, but there is a better chance that those issues will be considered,” Mata said.

Other laws in the country are intended to punish the perpetrators of domestic violence by imposing restrictions on men who commit violence against their partners, both through criminal and civil courts. For example, a man who has abused his wife may not be allowed to keep a gun in the home or will be ordered to temporarily relocate while providing financial support for his family.

Costa Rica has also set up programs to provide shelter and support for women who are survivors of domestic or gender-based violence. Many of the programs fall under the purview of the National Institute of Women, which was established in 1998 to address the needs and concerns of women, especially those at risk of violence.

The institute “represents a landmark in the commitment by Costa Rican State and society towards gender equality and equity and the promotion and protection of women’s human rights,” a UN report said.

With these measures, programs and institutions in place, Costa Rica has made progress in unraveling the systemic discrimination of women that leads to abuse and exclusion in society.

Yet challenges persist.

“The challenge for Costa Rica, as for the other countries in the region, is to provide comprehensive, multisectoral and sustainable solutions to violence against women and girls,” Pizani of UN Women said.

Ingrained attitudes of inequality remain, engendered by the culture of machismo, and government agencies and nongovernmental organizations continue to explore ways to reach out and educate males about the personal and social repercussions of their behavior and actions toward women.

“Under models of rigid and stereotyped masculinity, certain behaviors of women are viewed as a threat to the authority of men, who consider legitimate the use of force to maintain control of the situation and of their partners,” Pizani said.

Amanda Klasing, a researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, emphasized the necessity of educating children early on through school programs about gender-based violence.

“It is fundamental to educate young citizens that violence against women should not be tolerated,” she said.

Addressing this issue may be a slow process, but the negative impacts of violence against women on society are becoming clearer. Saul Weisleder, the deputy permanent represent of Costa Rica to the UN, said that Latin American society was gradually becoming more conscious about the inherent violence of machismo culture against women, and that new laws were being adopted to prevent such incidences, although the level of awakening varies from country to country as the region continues its “renaissance” toward more democratic societies.

“Violence against women has enormous social, economic and productivity costs for individuals, families, communities and societies,” Pizani said. “The elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls can promote economic development and peace and security.”

The American government has acknowledged the contributing effects of violence against women on crime and insecurity in the region by donating $1.6 million to Costa Rican state programs to “combat domestic violence” and “reduce the demand for drugs and increase police engagement with communities in Costa Rica.”


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Ryan Villarreal is a news curator for Facebook. Previously, he was a videographer for Columbia University, where he was a production coordinator and assistant editor for an online education project. He has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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