Sunday, August 21, 2016

Beyond Domestic Violence Laws in Latin America: Challenges for Protection Services for Survivors

The feminist and human rights movements in the Latin America Region have made public the discussion of violence against women as a social and multifaceted problem embedded in the private, public and collective spheres. Violence against women perpetuates gender gaps, highlighting the vulnerable situation of exclusion women face. In response, Latin American countries have put in place a variety of legislative and institutional mechanisms inspired by the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belem Do Para Convention), the first binding regional treaty that proposes a liberal and individualistic approach to dealing with violence against women, and establishes a variety of measures that states should adopt to prevent, protect and sanction this phenomenon. 

Despite these legalistic advances, responses to address domestic violence vary among the countries. A review of the literature finds that the influence of the neoliberal agenda, which focuses on population targeting in contrast to the universal Welfare State approach, has had a strong influence on policy responses in several of the countries. The issue is no longer one of social justice in a broad sense, but one reduced to the application of a discrete legal instrument which defines violence against women as an individual abuse of human rights. Criminalization and mediation strategies seem to be the two most common approaches to address domestic violence. These reflect a tendency to individualize a societal problem, thus limiting the space for a proper gender analysis of the issue.

 In this context of limited participation of the state in the public arena, a different trend however emerged in the late 2000s with a second wave of reforms that enacted comprehensive laws acknowledging different forms of violence against women, including domestic violence. Mechanisms to prevent, protect and sanction domestic violence were created. Mexico´s General Law on Women’s Access to Free Life (2007), for example, is a legal instrument unique in Latin America in its emphasis on strong inter-institutional coordination. Moreover, the law proposes a protection model for survivors of domestic violence which is presented as an integral part of the law´s strategy to tackle domestic violence. This legislation is implemented through a network of non-profit shelters, supported by public funds, as well as shelters run by the state. 

This study uses a series of in-depth interviews with survivors of domestic violence living in a Mexico City shelter, as well as with its staff, to analyse how survivors experience protection services. Although it only covers one shelter and thus constitutes only a partial analysis, it represents an innovative effort to understand a protection model from the perspective of the survivors. We look at the trajectory of survivors from the moment they decided to seek help from the institutions, to the period at the shelter itself, and finally the period after which they have left the shelter. We find that the public services have various deficiencies in terms of how their design is translated into practice. Indeed we find crucial failures in state institutions that have adopted the protection model, often resulting in a further victimization of survivors of domestic violence. Effective access to health services is still plagued by racism, misogyny, as well as the authoritarian habits of the medical staff (Herrera, 2013). Strategies to sensitize staff on gender and human rights, including women´s right to live free from violence, should be protected and guaranteed and integrated in protection (shelter) services. Attention to survivors of domestic violence should be removed from the criminal justice system, since it would appear to victimize women who are looking for help and does not respond to their protection needs. A creative effort should be made to come up with an institutional set up that genuinely decriminalises attention to survivors. Shelters should be thought of in a more flexible manner so that they could be more open to the outside and not demand that women suspend their lives, nor that of their sons and daughters, during their stay at the shelter. These spaces should also come up with creative ways to work with the community in order to promote a culture of prevention of violence against the women.

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