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Exploring the Data: The Prevalence of Gender-based Violence in Latin America

How Prevalent is Gender-Based Violence?

Globally, gender-based violence affects one in three women during her lifetime. A staggering 38 percent of women who are murdered are killed by a male intimate partner. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes, these killings "are rarely spontaneous or random, and should be examined as an extreme act on a continuum of gender-related violence that remains underreported and too often ignored."

Good data is a critical step in understanding the full scope and scale of femicide, and at the heart of a sound and sustainable public policy response. As part of this project, we have have gathered and made available below national (and sometimes sub-national) level data on femicide in Latin America. Far too often we encountered data that was incomplete or inconsistent—or simply missing—leaving us, along with policymakers and the public at large, with a murky view of the problem. Going forward, it is clear any national or regional effort to address femicide and gender-based violence more broadly must include new data standards for collecting and compiling gender-based violence data. Without it, our understanding of the problem—and thus our capacity to develop responsive and comprehensive policy solutions—will remain incomplete.

An Interactive Exploration of GBV Data in Latin America

The following five dashboards (two of Latin America, and one each focusing on Mexico, El Salvador, and Brazil) are interactive, allowing you as the user to explore the data and get a sense for the reality of gender-based violence in Latin America.

The data is available for download (click the lower-right corner of each dashboard); you can also share the dashboards on social media or through other platforms.

Understanding Gender-based Violence Data

  • Femicide is the end of a long, violent road. It is the result of systemic violence against women and girls that started long before the day she died. Femicide is a hate crime. Femicide is the gravest form of gender-based violence and its growing across Latin America. According to the Small Arms Survey, the region is host to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world. As of 2019, 18 countries in Latin America have adopted legislation that classifies femicide or feminicide as a crime.

    The term “femicide” was first publicly introduced by Diana Russell in 1976 during the International Tribunal of Crimes Against Women in Brussels. Since its introduction into the lexicon of gender-based violence, our understanding of what constitutes femicide has evolved and shifted with some groups taking a narrow interpretation limited femicide to situations of intimate partner violence to others including broad systemic issues pointing to the gendered impacts of poverty. The challenge we face in tracking and reporting on femicide is the lack of consistency in its definition. As a broad term, femicide can be understood as “the killing of females because she is female,” however in practice it can be hard to distinguish from homicide.

  • Mexican Anthropologist and Feminist Marcela Lagarde coined the term “feminicidein response to the word “femicide.” She argues that when translated from English to Spanish the term “lacks the political implications imbued by Anglo-Saxon authors”. Lagarde argues that the term “femicide” does not encapsulate the gendered motive which by definitions distinguishes this type of crime, and therefore concludes that the word “feminicide” is the proper term for when a women is killed because she is a woman. The femicide vs. feminicide debate is quite robust in Latin America where the terminology remains in dispute. According to a UN Women Report on the  Analysis of Femicide/Feminicide Legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean and a Proposal for a Model Law, these 9 countries (Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela) classify the crime as femicide, and these 8 countries (Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic), as feminicide.

  • The primary source for collecting these data are police records, which means it is often up to the local police department to investigate, define, and track femicide/feminicide. From a data perspective, this lack of consistency in the definition of femicide directly translates into a lack of consistency in how we measure the phenomenon. It is almost impossible to accurately compare countries or even states when the methodology for tracking femicide/feminicide depends on localized definitions of what counts as femicide and what does not.

    Leading the charge towards standardizing the definition of femicide in the region is the Latin America Open Data Initiative or ILDA. In 2017, ILDA launched an exploratory study to examine how these data are produced and how this can be improved to refine the response to femicide across the region. ILDA found that adopting data standards has the potential not only to improve the quality of the data but also to “[bring] about silent, localized changes in bureaucracies”. Adopting data standards is not just about improving the data, but also demonstrates how improving these knowledge systems change the behaviors of the institutions on the front lines of addressing the issue.

A Shadow Pandemic: Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19

Even before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the home was a place of fear for many women and girls living in situations of violence. In Latin Americ, 70 percent of femicides occur in the victim’s home.

The quarantine and stay-at-home orders that governments adopted to address COVID-19 trapped many women with their abusers; evidence from early on in the pandemic reinforces the urgency of this issue. ORMUSA, or Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreña, in El Salvador reported 13 femicides in the first 6 weeks of quarantine between March 17 and April 29, 2020. In Argentina, 63 women and girls were killed because of their gender between March 20 and July 7. In the month of March 2020, 50 feminicides were recorded in just six states in Brazil. These statistics are alarming as the virus continues to spread across the Americas, raising fears that extended lockdowns will continue to exacerbate gender-based violence while governments struggle to address the twin public health crises.

In response, many governments are looking to digital solutions to improve access to the criminal justice system during the pandemic. In Brazil, the government launched an application on government website for the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights for victims to report violence. The state governments of São Paulo, Espírito Santo, and Rio de Janeiro have also made available an online platform for victims of violence to file charges online and these reports have been prioritized by the courts. As much as these e-governance initiatives help victims access the justice system, there is much more to be done to proactively protect vulnerable populations during the pandemic and prevent violence.

GBV in Mexico

In Mexico 10 women die a day as a result of femicide, a rate that has increased 137 percent since 2015—four times that of other homicides. In recent years, feminicides are increasingly public with women’s corpses left on display, sometimes with visible signs of torture or beatings. The killings of Ingrid Escamilla and Fatima Aldrighetti, who was only 7 years old when her life was taken, shocked the public in early 2020. Ms. Escamilla’s body had been found horribly mutilated by her partner and photos of her body were leaked on social media and the press, sparking outrage as protesters demanded an end to impunity for feminicides; fewer than 3 percent of feminicides are prosecuted and a mere 1 percent are sentenced.  A report issued by the Secretariat of Home Affairs, the National Institute for Women, and UN Women examining data spanning from 1985-2016 found that women victims are three times more likely to die from strangulation, hanging, suffocation or drowning than men and 1.3 times more likely to die by stabbing. In Mexico, femicide is more than an epidemic, it is a scare tactic.

Experiences of violence are all too commonplace for Mexican women. In 2016, the National Statistics Office (INEGI), conducted a survey of relationship dynamics of more than 142,000 households across the country and a dizzying 66.1 percent of women surveyed reported experiencing violence in her lifetime. Half of women reported experiencing emotional violence and four out of 10 women reported experiencing sexual violence. Nearly 44 percent of women reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner. Violence against women across Mexico persists and in its most extreme form, feminicide, has resulted in senseless deaths. In 2019, the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (SESNSP) registered 976 femicides.

The treatment of feminicide as a crime separate from homicide is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In 2010, the state of Guerrero and Cuidad de Mexico were the first to criminalize feminicide. In 2012, Article 325 of the federal penal code in Mexico criminalized feminicide across the country and is applied in the following circumstances:

“I. The victim shows signs of sexual violence of any kind;

II. The victim has been inflicted with inflammatory or degrading injuries or mutilations, prior to or following the deprivation of life or acts of necrophilia;

III. There is a history or data of any type of violence in the family, work or school environment of the subject active against the victim;

IV. There is a sentimental, affective, or trusting relationship between the victim and the perpetrator

V. There are data that establish that there have been threats related to the criminal act, harassment or injuries of the person active against the victim;

VI. The victim has been held incommunicado, regardless of the time prior to the deprivation of life.”

GBV in El Salvador

The nation of El Salvador is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, seven of 10 women have reported experiencing violence in their lifetimes while a third of women reported experiencing violence in the last 12 months. In 2018, for every 100,000 women, 6.8 were victims of femicide which is nearly 10 times the global average and the highest feminicide rate in Latin America. In 2019, data collected by Gender Statistics Observatory of the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses (DIGESTYC) found that between January and June, 70 cases of violence against women were reported each day. In addition to the 230 registered femicides from 2019, 1,218 women were reported missing.

Much like in Mexico, the impunity for these crimes is staggering: more than three in four cases are never taken to court and a mere 7 percent of cases lead to a conviction. Accessing the criminal justice system is a significant barrier for most women, according to a national survey of violence against women. Of the women surveyed, 15 percent reported that they would not be believed if they reported violence to the police, 11.9 percent had been threatened for reporting and an additional 9 percent did not know where to go for help These fears are not unfounded: the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) found that in 12 percent of the cases of violence against women that were reported, the perpetrators were judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and police officers in their communities.

There is evidence that the rule of law in El Salvador continues to weaken; according to the World Governance Indicators, El Salvador scored in the 19th percentile of all countries in rule of law, down from the 30th percentile ten years ago. The most significant factor in that decline is the gang violence that that dominates the Salvadoran landscape and is a driver for the alarming levels of violence against women and impunity. According to Ana Graciela Sagastume, the chief prosecutor on femicide of the Women’s Coordination Unit, witnesses and family members of victims are often afraid to come forward for fear of reprisal from gangs and violence against women is often perpetrated because they reject advances or try to break up with a gang member.

In 2012, El Salvador adopted the sweeping “Special Comprehensive Law for a Life from Violence for Women, Comprehensive Law Against Violence Against Women (Dto.520/2012).” Article 45 of this law specifically addresses the crime of feminicide which is defined as the death of a woman by means of hate or contempt under the following circumstances:

“a) The death was preceded by an incident of violence committed by the perpetrator against the woman, whether or not the act has been reported by the victim.

(b) That the perpetrator has taken advantage of any condition of risk or vulnerability physical or psychological condition in which the female victim was found.

(c) The author took advantage of the superiority generated by the relationship gender-based power inequalities.

(d) Prior to the woman's death, the author committed any conduct qualified as a crime against sexual freedom.

e) Death preceded by mutilation.”

GBV in Brazil

Approximately every seven hours a women dies because she is a woman in Brazil. Last year Brazil set a record high of 1,341 femicides, an increase of 4 percent over the previous year. To give a sense of the truly breathtaking scope of the problem, in 2018, Latin America and the Caribbean recorded 3,287 femicides—37 percent of which took place in in Brazil. Feminicides have continued to rise despite Brazil’s adoption of legislation that criminalizes feminicide. Since the law went into force in 2015, femicides have increased by 62.7 percent.

Brazil first criminalized violence against women in 2006 with the sweeping Maria da Penha Law (Lei Nº 11.340), named after the human rights activist and biopharmacist Maria da Penha who fought for the law after she was nearly murdered by her husband and left paralyzed. The law addresses domestic violence by criminalizing it, establishing special courts, and requiring the authorities to create 24-hour shelters for victims. The law provides protection to the victim, empowering judges to put in place temporary restraining orders. It was a seismic shift for a country that had failed to protect Maria da Penha and countless women like her. However, the 2006 law was not enough to tackle the growing problem of feminicide and in 2015, Brazil adopted Lei No. 13,104 or the Femicide Law which explicitly criminalized feminicide under the following conditions:

“VI - against women for reasons of the female condition.

§ 2o-A There are reasons for female condition when the crime involves:

I - domestic and family violence;

II - disregard or discrimination against women”

Like Maria da Penha, the majority of femicide victims in Brazil knew their attacker. An analysis by Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública researchers found that 88.8 percent of femicides were perpetrated by an intimate partner and that 65.6 percent occurred in the home. In a study published by the Ministério Público in the State of São Paulo, analyzing data captured from March 2016-March 2017, 45 percent of femicides were caused by a breakup or attempt to end a relationship, and 30 percent because of jealousy or machismo.

Brazil is a large country with an estimated 212 million inhabitants and one of the most diverse populations in the world. Which then begs the question, who are the victims of feminicide? In 2019, 61 percent of femicide victims were of Afro-Brazilian descent even though they make up roughly half the population. However we can assume this number is larger because these data do not include the State of Bahia, which boasts the largest Afro-Brazilian population in the country. Brazil suffers from a long history of racism rooted in colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade whose legacy shapes modern Brazilian society; 75 percent of victims of police killings are Afro-Brazilian. Violence against Afro-Brazilian women is well documented, the homicide rates for Afro-Brazilian women increased across 20 states (out of 26 and the Federal District) from 2006-2016 and in 12 of those states the increase was 50 percent or higher during that period.

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Learn more about the project

In 2020, women’s rights and gender equality are taking center stage. In March, the Wilson Center launched a new initiative examining gender-based violence in Latin America with a focus on its most extreme form, femicide. Watch the video to learn more.

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