Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: Latin America’s femicide crisis

The World Health Organization defines femicide as the “intentional murder of women because they are women.” Globally, there remains a significant lack of data in regards to femicide rates, with many governments failing to collate data specifically relating to the murder of women. Instead, gender based murder is counted amongst overall homicide figures, obscuring the true prevelance of femicide. This approach to femicide fails to portray the true lethal reality women face, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) 43,600 women and girls had been killed by a partner, ex-partner, or family member in 2012. According to data collected from 2015 by the Femicide Watch initiative, coupled with data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 80 percent of the victims of murders involving romantic partners are women, with these crimes being notably more violent in comparison to other homicides. Women are more likely to die from strangulation, drowning, suffocation, or stabbing than their male counterparts.

The most complete data available on global femicide rates comes from a 2016 Small Arms Survey, “A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths,” which concluded that of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rate, 14 of these were located in Latin America and the Caribbean, though it must be noted that Latin America is also the region with the most complete data in regards to femicide. However, if the statistics provided by this region are to be taken as indicative of a global trend, it paints the picture of a horrifyingly violent reality for women globally.  

The issue of femicide in Latin America first grew in prominence in the 1990s when, from 1990 to the early 2000s, the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez reported hundreds of women either missing or found dead, their bodies showing signs of torture. Tragically, for the women of Mexico and Latin America, this decade of violence is far from an isolated case. The femicide rate in Mexico has experienced a staggering increase in recent years. In 2019 Mexico counted a total of almost 35,000 murders, and whilst only ten percent of these are femicides, this marks an increase of 145 percent from 2015, the equivalent of almost ten femicides a day. This number, although staggeringly high, remains incomplete as several Mexican states do not count femicides specifically. 

Regionally, Mexico ranked only behind Brazil in the number of femicides committed in 2018. Brazil reported over 1,200 femicides, a rate of 1.1 per 100,000 women. However, Brazil is often excluded from femicide data due to its extremely poor management of data, using one of the worst systems in the world. This obscures the true femicide rate of the country. Argentina ranked third for 2018 with a total of 255 femicides, a rate of 1.1 per 100,000 women.

Although estimates vary dramatically, El Salvador is believed to have a femicide rate between 6.1 and 13.9 per 100,00 women and Honduras between 5.1 and 32.7 per 100,000 women, with both countries ranking within the top five countries for femicide globally. 

Columbia has seen an increase in annual femicides, now averaging one femicide every two days. Despite these already high rates of femicide, and some governmental efforts to reduce the number, the annual number of femicides across the region has shown no indication of slowing.

Chile typically has a lower femicide rate than other Latin American countries, counting a total of 45 femicides in 2019 with a further 107 reported attempts. However, this seems to be increasing, following the same pattern as her neighbouring countries. In just the first two months of 2020, Chile counted five femicides and a furter 17 attempts of homicide against women. 

Significantly, no Latin American country includes the murders of transgender women in femicide stastics, despite trans women often being victims of extremely violent crimes.  

In November 2019, The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) announced it was working on developing a new system to register femicide data for all of Latin America and the Caribbean, this will create a new standardized data base for all femicides in the region. This represents a significant opportunity to tackle the crisis, once the full extent of the problem is known and countries can be held accountable for their statistics, appropriate measures can be put in place to target femicide. 

Speaking ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against women in 2020, Dubravka Šimonovic, a UN special rapporteur on violence against women called on  “all States and relevant stakeholders worldwide to take urgent steps to prevent the pandemic of femicide or gender related Killings of women, and gender-based violence against women, through the establishment of national multidisciplinary prevention bodies or Femicide watches/observatories on violence against women.”

The same year, an unprecedented number of Mexican women took part in a nationwide strike the day after 2020’s International Women’s day. The protest, known as “Un Día Sin Nosotras” or a ‘Day without us,” marked the beginning of a series of protests with women walking out of work, school, and the home. The protest highlighted the lack of genuine efforts from the Mexican government to tackle femicide and critiqued media coverage of such crimes, with protestors accusing media outlets of paying too much attention to the accused’s statements and showing little respect for victims, with their bodies and clothes from the time of the attack often being shown across news outlets. The Protest is the first time in Mexican history that so many women have protested against violence against women, the effects of which could be felt across Latin America as an increasing number of women become politicised in their fight to end gender-based violence.

Several Latin American countries have made efforts to tackle femicide, though these projects are typically limited and have so far failed to deliver any noticeable change. In 2003, femicide was typified as a crime separate to standard homicide in the Mexican Penal Code under Article 325. The article stipulates that for a murder to be a femicide it must include: signs of sexual violence on the body, degradign mutilations or injuries, the body is left exposed in public spaces, a record of family related violence, or an intimate realtionship between the victim and the suspect. Although this would suggest a great legal improvement for women’s rights and a step forward in the fight to reduce femicides, Article 325 has fallen short of delivering legal progress. The article includes a clause, known as the “patriachy padlock” amongst activists, which gives the judge the final decision on classifying a murder as a femicide. As a consequence, only a significant minority of apparent femicides are treated as such, with the overwhelming majority being typified as homicide and thus removed from data on sexually charged crimes.

So far, 17 other Latin American countries have also typified femicide into their legal codes, with the crime often carrying a much harsher punishment than homicide. In Panama, femicide carries a twenty-five year prison sentence, five more than aggravated homicide. In Honduras, femicide carries a thirty to forty year sentence, double that of aggravated homicide. In this way, Latin America is leading efforts against gender-based violence, few countries outside the region, and none in Europe, make any legal use of the term femicide. This does not mean, however, that there has been any significant, real-world world protection afforded to women, as femicide conviction rates remain drastically low despite the prevalence of the crime. According to the Directorate-General for a Life Free of Violence, Fabiola Alanís, of all reported femicides in Mexico, three percent make it to court, of which only one percent ends in a sentencing. 

There has, however, been some recent progress in the fight against femicide. In 2016 the Peruvian government acknowledged the issue of femicide with the creation of the National Plan Against Gender-Based Violence, with several bodies now working towards the reduction of femicide and the prosecution of perpetrators, and whilst it remains to early to detect any change in Peruvian statistics, the project represents a significant and meaningful attempt to reduce femicide in the country. 

Chile has also seen come progress with Sebastian Piñera recently expanding the legal definition of femicide to include non-married romantic partners and increased the sentences for the murder of pregnant women, minors, and disabled women. Prior to the new law, known as the Gabriella Law after Gabriela Alcanio who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2018, Chile only included spouses and live-in partners as perpetrators of femicide.

Though it remains too early to see any significant impact from new efforts to tackle femicide, there is significant hope that new efforts from governmental bodies, along with increasing numbers of women across the region vocally fighting for their rights and safety, that we may begin to see the tides change and a desperately needed reduction in the statistics of such a violent crime.

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Aislinn Wright

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January 2022
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