Photo Credit: Sofía González
By: Dina Ljekperic
In May 2015, 14-year-old Chiara Paez was murdered by her 16-year-old boyfriend. Pregnant at the time, she was found buried in the garden of his home in Argentina, in the province of Santa Fe. Thousands of Argentine women responded in protest, fed up with the ever-increasing murder of women and girls. Close to 300,000 women gathered in Buenos Aires on June 3, 2015 and shouted “Ni una menos” (not one less), demanding that not one more woman be lost to gender-based violence in Argentina. The Ni Una Menos movement spread across Latin America, with anti-gender-based violence protests erupting in nearly every country.
Official statistics are absent, but it has been estimated that a female is killed In Argentina every 30 hours.
Gender-Based Killings in Latin America
While gender-based violence is by no means unique to Latin America, more than half of the countries with high female murder rates are in the Americas, with El Salvador topping the list. Throughout the region, the killing of women and girls has increased at an alarming rate compared to men and boys.
The UN describes several factors that leave women more vulnerable to violence in the region: discrimination, poverty, fragile states and institutions, organized crime, narcotraffic, and militarized post-conflict situations.
Argentine activists, along with activists across Latin America, also point to the prevailing “machista” culture, drawing a link between the everyday accepted acts of sexism and harassment to the prevalence of gender-based murder.
Femicide and its Codification
A common refrain from Latinx women’s rights activists is a call for the end of “femicidio” (femicide). The UN defines femicide as “the murder of women because they are women, whether it is committed within the family, a domestic partnership, or any other interpersonal relationship, or by anyone in the community, or whether it is perpetrated or tolerated by the state or its agents.”
Several Latin American countries have now codified femicide as a specific hate-crime, unique from homicide or a subsection of homicide, in their criminal codes. Argentina amended its criminal code in 2012 to include femicide, as have Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and others.
Brazil most recently included a Femicide Act in its legal code in March 2015, making it the 16th Latin American country to do so. Generally, these crimes carry harsher sentences than general homicide crimes. Brazil’s new legislation also includes longer jail times for crimes committed against pregnant women, girls under 14, women over 60, and women and girls with disabilities.
Leaders argue the inclusion of femicide as a specific crime has encouraged states to take further steps to ensure the fair investigation and prosecution of that crime, such as the creation of special courts and special prosecutor units.
Furthermore, advocates hope that these laws address an issue at the heart of gender-based violence: the majority of crimes go unreported. The acknowledgement and indoctrination of femicide on a national level, as well as the creation of stiffer penalties, may help identify the crime and produce more informed statistics, change the general public discourse around gender-based violence, increase public awareness, and ideally, encourage more reporting of killings motivated by the gender of victims.
Do Femicide Laws Work?
It is still too early for data on the impact of femicide legislation, but their weaknesses are readily anticipated.
There is great concern that femicide becomes a law in name alone. The law alone does not bring about overhauls of justice systems that continually failed victims and allowed for impunity for perpetrators. A UN report stated that the inconsistency of femicide laws (the crime still lacks a common definition across countries) has resulted in its weak application. The same report went on to explain that there remains “impunity and lack of due diligence by the State to prevent femicide, protect women, investigate and punish perpetrators, and provide reparations to victims and their families.”
Addressing some of these weaknesses, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, along with UN Women published the Latin American Model Protocol for the Investigation of gender-based killings of women (femicide/feminicide). The report provides guidelines to support the successful investigation and prosecution of gender-based killings of women. After passing legislation for creation of femicide laws, Brazil was chosen as the first pilot country in the region to adopt the Protocol into its national legislation and investigative practice.
The creation of femicide legislation certainly marks a step forward in the recognition of the systemic gender-based killings that occur with impunity across Latin America, but these laws risk being meaningless without dynamic changes in the underlying sexist culture, increased access to health and education for women, and the willingness of government agencies to protect women, punish perpetrators, and offer restitution to families of victims.
On October 19, 2016, a little over a year since the death of Chiara Paez, protestors filled the streets of Buenos Aires again. Just a few weeks earlier, 16-year-old Lucia Perez was brutally murdered in a coastal city outside the capital. Women were forced to plead again: “ni una menos.”