Last month, a 26-year-old man who assaulted and threatened his ex-wife was sentenced to jail for five years. In a landmark ruling in Argentina, the Buenos Aires’ court found that Miguel Leonardo Paz’s oral harassment, beatings and threats towards his ex-wife had to be considered as a situation of violence against women under international definitions.
According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UNIFEM), violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with the abuser usually someone known to her.
Abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological and economic, and it cuts across boundaries of age, race, culture, wealth and geography. It takes place in the home, on the streets, in schools, the workplace, in farm fields, refugee camps, during conflicts and crises.
Violence against women has many manifestations; from the most universally prevalent forms of domestic and sexual violence, to harmful practices, abuse during pregnancy, so-called honour killings and other types of femicide.
In Argentina, a spate of brutal crimes, in which women were burned alive by their partners, has raised new concerns about domestic violence. So far this year 14 such cases have been reported, already exceeding the 11 deaths recorded in 2010.
Yet these shocking attacks form just a small part of the country’s serious problem with violence towards women. According to the National Supreme Court of Justice of Domestic Violence (CSJN OVD), there were 657 cases of domestic violence reported in Argentina in 2010, an increase of 75% on the previous year.
Although domestic violence affects both genders, data from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights reveal that in 80% of the cases the victims are women, and 85% of the offenders are men.
The NGO ‘La Casa del Encuentro’, an Argentine association which is fighting against gender violence, estimates that there are more than 4.5 million female victims in Argentina. Last year, 260 women – more than four a week – died as a result of their abuse.
Steps taken so far
These numbers are disturbingly high, though Gabriela Boada, Interim Director of Amnesty International Argentina, explains that it is hard to make comparisons with other countries or with past years: “Violence against women is poorly documented because many women are simply afraid to report the crimes against them and are suspicious of the protection that the authorities can offer.”
Though cases of violence against women have increased sharply, Boada believes the support and protection offered by the legal system has improved significantly in recent years.
Dr. Olga Chaves, a lawyer and psychologist at the OVD, which was inaugurated in 2008, stated: “Before the Supreme Court consisted only of men. Since 2004, when two female judges entered, violence against women has received more attention.”
In 1989, under the chairmanship of Dr. Carmen Argibay, Buenos Aires started working to form the Association of Female Judges Argentina (AMJA). “The AMJA resulted in more emphasis and impulses for changing the judicial situation of violence against women in Argentina,” explains Chaves.
In 1994 – as part of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – Argentina signed the Inter-American convention on the prevention, punishment and eradication of violence against women, known as the ‘Belem do Pará Convention’.
The convention affirms that violence against women is an offense against human dignity and a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men. Within the directive’s framework, the ‘Law of Integral Protection of Women’ was sanctioned in Argentina in June 2009, and began to be implemented a year later.
Putting theory into practice
Creating new legislation is only half the battle. As Boada says: “Laws may be good on paper, but when they do not translate into reality, the consequences can be fatal.
“If we want to reach more we need the (financial) support of the government. They should provide more coordination and promotion of the activities and facilities with relation to decrease violence against women. Right now, the main ideas, laws and plans exist, but bringing those into practice and implementing them is a next step.”
Over the years, many-predominately male-judges and police have been criticised for not having addressed complaints of gender violence from a broad enough perspective.
Guillermina Benito, who works at the ministry for justice and human rights, explains that in trials concerning cases of domestic violence, the defendant’s testimony often seems to be given more weight than that of the victim.
“A few weeks ago in La Plata there was a case of two children, five and eight years old, who had been mistreated by their father for three years,” says Benito. “Finally, there came a trial where the children gave a testimony of the crimes. However, when the offender arrived with a petition where 700 random people stated that he was a ‘good’ person, the judges suspended the case.”
Police and judicial failings were also highlighted in the landmark verdict that sent Paz to jail for five years for abusing his ex-wife.
“The risk inherent in the situation of violence was grossly underestimated by the police authority, chisels protection measures and assuming attitudes bordering the breach,” stated The Oral Criminal Tribunal N° 9 (TOC 9).
One of the judges of the case, Fernando Ramirez, explained in Página/12 that “crimes related to domestic violence cannot be investigated just as those that occur between strangers or in public areas, because they are crimes that are not normally expressed in a single behaviour but a set of behaviours that must be examined together.”
A vicious circle
Chaves says the complexities of domestic violence make it difficult to deal with: “Since it intertwines within several fields of professions it remains very complicated to fight against it. The problem is part of a circle wherein several disciplines are involved.”
In many cases, complaints include the application of different types of violence simultaneously. Ninety-one percent of the cases concerned psychological violence, 67% physical violence, 37% economic violence and 13% sexual violence.
Chaves adds that domestic violence has traditionally been a taboo subject for society, making recognition of the problem even more difficult. “Violence against women has always existed, only people did not talk or did not dare to talk about them. Nowadays we try to make this process – to talk about it and do something with it – more easy for women,” she stated.
“For many women it is very difficult and a huge step to talk about these kind of problems; they are often embarrassed or ashamed to tell their story. You have to treat them very carefully and it are not just things you can make public for everyone, they are personal experiences and they often stay like this.”
Dr. María Matilde Risolía de Alcaro, a lawyer at the OVD, explained: “One goal we reached so far is that violence against women nowadays gets real and more attention and that several instance try to make the facilities for women – to talk about those problems and report the crimes – more accessible”.
“A step we still have to reach is to shorten the process a victim has to go through after a crime,” adds Risolia. “This has a lot to do with the collaboration and tuning of different bodies which all have to deal with violence against women.”
‘Victims against Violence’ Programme
The ‘Victims against Violence’ programme of the National Ministry of Justice, Security and Human Rights, is one example of a project aimed at coordinating organisations – both public and private – that support victims of domestic violence.
The programme, based in Buenos Aires and founded in 2006 by Dr. Eva Giberti, is a collaboration between federal police, psychologists, social workers, hospitals and lawyers which has their own call centre and work by means of a mobile brigade.
Giberti, world-renowned psychologist, psychoanalyst and professor who has gained a lot of respect and prestige in the field of gender studies, explained that the premise of the programme is that “instead of victims having to come to us, we are going to them.”
When the 24-hour call centre receives a report of domestic violence, depending on the location – the programme only runs in the city of Buenos Aires for now – a mobile patrol wagon with specially-trained police is dispatched immediately.
A second car with a social worker and or psychologist is also sent to the scene. They try to convince the victim to report the abuse and, if they agree, accompany them to the police station.
However, Giberti adds that a lack of resources makes the follow-up process more complicated: “Since the victim often can not go ‘home’ again and have to be protected, the best place for a victim to go is an emergency shelter.
“Unfortunately, in all of Argentina there is only one emergency shelter, so it is often difficult to accommodate them there. So, we try to contact family or friends, where the victim can stay at least the first couple of days.”
It is important that victims will stay away from home and that people take care of them for a while, since statistics of the programme show that in 51% of al the cases the offender is the partner of the victim. However, did is often difficult. Benito explained that, “Since the victim is often terrified for threats which are made to her by the offender – often partner- in many cases she wants to go back to him.”
Giberti concluded: “It is a chicken-and-egg situation which remains hard to escape from. Often we are dealing with victims for several times, since the crime is repeated itself again and again. The only way to stop this is when the victim decides to go to court.”
“During the entire process they are accompanied and helped by us. But after this first task, the biggest problem arises: the fact that in Argentina, and throughout Latin America, follow-up support for the victim does not exist.”
Setting an example
Part of the problem, according to Gabriela Boada at Amnesty International, is that gender violence has a lot to do with the cultural history of a country. Stereotypes of traditional roles of men and women, and the fact that most Latin American countries are machismo-orientated, have an essential influence on a culture. “It is the task of the government to change these paradigms and stereotypes which are embedded in our society,” said Boada.
The ‘Victims Against Violence’ programme is the first and only of its kind in Latin America and a huge step forward in the Argentine fight against gender violence. So far it has gained a lot of international curiosity and could set an example for other countries.
Hopefully, with help and guidance of the government, the programme can also fulfill its role in Argentina, in a way that in the nearby future the imprisonment of Paz will be more often a rule then an exception.
To see what locals think about this issue, read here.