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Latin American women and the constant fight to end violence against women

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Earlier his month, in front of the Manhattan Criminal Court, as Harvey Weinstein was tried for rape and sexual assault, a group of 60 women sang out the chilling feminist anthem “El violador eres tu” (”The Rapist Is You”). Since its viral premiere in Chile last November, this chorus has inspired survivors of gender-based violence worldwide. 

However, Friday’s performance offers just one example of how recent protests in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico and the rich traditions of feminist social movements throughout Latin America are bringing international attention and systemic change to the pervasive problem of violence against women and girls (VAWG). 

Undeniably, gender-based violence is one of the most widespread, persistent, and devastating human rights abuses in our world today. And Latin America includes 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world. 

At the same time, Latin American women have been among the most effective internationally in increasing public understanding and policy action to fight violence against women and girls. They are also clear: while activism and ensuing policies to fight violence against women and girls should be prioritized worldwide, ending gender-based violence will not occur solely by actions taken in public spaces or on particular days.

Violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of a widespread social power imbalance that benefits men, whether socio-economically, politically, or within intimate relationships

According to the United Nations, “1 in 3 women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner; 1 in 2 women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family in 2017; while only 1 out of 20 men were killed under similar circumstances.” 

Indeed, most violence against women and girls occurs in private spaces and during everyday activities, the majority of victims come from impoverished and politically marginalized communities, and the most dangerous places for women and girls remain in their homes, workplaces, and among intimate partners and relatives.  

To be sure, Latin American women have been at the global frontlines in confronting gender-based violence, where both institutional mechanisms and social activism have placed gender equality and women’s empowerment as central to the regional political agenda. Publicly, efforts for women’s empowerment in Latin America date back to the 1990s, when the adoption of gender quotas for legislative candidates led to the highest regional proportion of women legislators in the world.

In turn, increasing proportions of women in public office have influenced the regional legislative agenda and increased significantly the adoption of policies against VAWG. 

Feminist activism and scholarship in Latin America has also been key to publicly addressing gender-based violence and pressing for policy change, both local and internationally. After all, even before the UN recognized the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls in 1999, the Latin American feminist gatherings (Encuentros) recognized this day in 1981 to honor the Mirabal sisters, three sisters who were political activists in the Dominican Republic and were brutally murdered in 1965 for their opposition to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). 

The “Ni una menos” (Not one woman less) movement, which began in Argentina in 2015 spread quickly throughout Latin America and has globally inspired women to protest against VAWG.

Despite the decades of making women’s voices heard in public spaces, activists themselves point out that most instances of VAWG remain hidden due to the stigma and shame placed on individual women when trying to report it officially, and the corresponding lack of stigma and shame placed on male aggressors. 

For example, while the pink crosses and women’s shoes left at the Day of the Dead Women protest in Mexico last November brought an international remembrance of murdered women, geographer María Salguera’s map of the over 6800 femicides that have occurred in Mexico since 2016 shows that an annual day of remembrance isn’t enough.

These examples, in part, demonstrate the power and relevance of the Chilean protest song “El Violador Eres Tu” and its message to men and women around the world. The song denounces the inaction by men to prevent and respond to the violence they ignore, commit, or even promote. It also highlights common forms of inaction by law enforcement officials and courts in prosecuting male aggressors, and their complicity in blaming women for the violence brought against them.

Overall, institutional mechanisms and public activism by women in Latin America have made awesome, significant, and meaningful changes to international and public understanding of the pervasiveness of violence against women and girls. Women have taken to the streets and to national legislatures to assert their basic rights to live violence-free lives. 

But, this violence is still prevalent in Latin America (and beyond) despite these advances, because no matter how many people gather in publicly recognizing victims and survivors; social activism and political efforts have yet to inspire the same widespread action among men to prevent gender-based violence in response to women’s everyday activities in intimate spaces.

Real change will require men and women to modify attitudes and behaviors that tolerate gender-based violence and perpetuate gender inequality in the spaces where we live, work and play.

Anne-Marie Hanson is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield and Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.  She is author and co-editor of “A Political Ecology of Women, Water, and Global Environmental Change.”

Adriana Piatti-Crocker is a professor of political science and co-director of the Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Springfield and Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.  She is author and co-editor of “Gender Quotas in South America’s Big Three: National and Subnational Implications” and author of “The Diffusion of Gender Policy in Latin America: From Quotas to Parity.”

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