Thursday, August 25, 2016

Domestic Violence as a policy issue in Latin America

The process for making domestic violence a relevant policy public issue in the Latin America Region has been strongly influenced by the activism of feminist and human rights organizations arguing that violence against women is not a private and domestic issue but a political, social and human rights problem that should be publilly discussed and addressed (Sagot 2008; Muñoz 2010).
 Feminist movements in Latin America have been characterized by a shared agenda, strongly influenced by the indignation about the widespread violence against women in society and the persistent gender inequality on the continent. Starting in the 1980s, feminists throughout the region joined forces in several regional conferences, identified a common approach and, thanks to the emergence of non-governmental organizations, furthermore found the adequate institutional channels to connect their demands and gain political relevance. Also, women in disadvantageous conditions were able to organise themselves, since both development agencies as well as government programmes to specifically assist the poor and marginalized groups included many women (Barrig 1998). Lemaitre (2014) has argued that the feminist movement in Latin America in this period was largely inspired by the radical feminism common in the Anglo-Saxon world and its emphasis on the relationship between sexual harassment, violence and power relations; as well as the proposition that masculine domination is paramount in relations between men and women, a state of affairs based on fear, and often expressed in intra-family violence, as described by MacKinnon (1983). These unequal power relations between men and women formed the basis for the public outcry of feminists in Latin America.

At the global scale, acknowledgement of domestic violence as a social problem began to gain ground in the public agenda, which also implied that the state should have an important role in addressing the violence (Rioseco Ortega 2005; Bosch Fiol & Ferrer Pérez 2000). Nevertheless, in the context of a region that has long been characterised by authoritarian states and persistent poverty, the role of the state in dealing with domestic violence has been a very polemical issue among feminists, since the state was considered by radical feminists as the principal proponent of the patriarchal system, of which the building blocks are the power of the few, men´s domination over women, and violence. (Lemaitre 2014; Conavim 2009.
  In contrast to feminist movements in the North in the last part of the last century, dominated by intellectuals, the Latin American movement consisted mainly of middle-class and poor women who sought to fulfill their basic rights, fighting against structural and institutionalised forms of inequality and poverty. The literature on domestic violence in the region is closely connected to the issue of poverty and a lack of full ‘citizenship’ for women, notably indigenous women (Frías 2008, CEPAL 2014; Rioseco Ortega 2005). As a consequence, both the literature and the activist politics of the feminists dealing with violence in Latin America is closely related to the political and economic conditions of women´s lives, and strongly embedded in larger discussions about structural inequalities between men and women as the main cause of violence against women. These debates were appropriated by international organizations whose discourse about discrimination against women was firmly articulated with broader issues of poverty, exclusion and violence against women. 

In 1992, the Committee of the CEDAW adopted General Recommendation 19, which defines gender-based violence as violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman, or that affects women disproportionately, and declares it to be “a form of discrimination against women that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men”. 

During the 1980s the inequalities between men and women have provided the broader framework for thinking about violence against women and putting the issue on the public agenda, and this is reflected in the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979.

After the end of the dictatorships and the return of democracy in many of the Latin American countries in the beginning of the 1990s, new governments became committed to undertake reforms which formally acknowledged political liberties and human rights, and this in turn led to legislative reforms in the field of domestic violence (Carosio 2014). Supported by the international community’s focus on the rights of women, feminist movements all over the world started to call upon the state’s responsibility to fulfill human rights, especially to socially excluded groups, which included many women. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (Vienna 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development5 (Cairo 1994), and the Fourth World Conference of Women (Beijing, 1995) represent milestones for feminist groups all over the world. They provided the framework necessary to turn principles into concrete instruments with which to push the governments to put an end to discrimination against women. These important discussions also paved the way for an international political consensus on states’ obligations to prevent, punish and eradicate every form of violence against women, including those which occur in armed conflicts, other public spaces but also those occurring in private spaces (Sullivan 1994).

The new legitimacy of human rights at the international level, the end of dictatorships and authoritarian political regimes in many countries of Latin America, and the renewal of political and economic liberalism, began to frame the debate in terms of human rights for women. Falquet sustains that “these institutions [international institutions], led by the United Nations organisations, provided moral legitimacy to the women´s and feminist movements, under the ‘consensual” development flag’ (2008: 49) of liberal globalisation. 

Since neoliberal politics imply reduced state intervention, in effect the substitution of the welfare state for a minimal state based on decentralization and population targeting instead of universalization and centralization, public action to tackle violence against women as a specific vulnerable group fits well this view of what the state should do, as García Otero shows for Colombia (2012). 

For the Latin America region, there is no study of the relationship between the neoliberal state and the policy of criminalisation of domestic violence, but the judicialisation of politics has been described and analysed by several authors (Sieder, Schjolden, Angell, 2011) as an extensive phenomenon since the 1990s. For the USA, Wacquant argues that at the end of the 20th century, “the neoliberal state strengthened and redistributed its surveillance, judicial and prison system to stop disorders caused by the diffusion of social insecurity based on class, and to stage an ostentatious discourse of of ‘law-and-order’ to confirm the authority of a government that seeks legitimacy for having dismissed its obligations of social and economic protection” (2014: 190). 

What is important here is that although violence against women is conceived as a social problem from the feminist point of view, and is referred to as such in the different international, regional and even national normative instruments, making a social problem something that can be resolved by legal means is only a partial and incomplete answer, since a problem that is social is reduced to a problem that is individual, a matter of individual rights to be defended, and no longer a broader question of social justice or social welfare. 

In 1994, the adoption of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belem Do Para Convention) by a large majority of Latin American states, and subsequent legislative reforms, shows that the focus is no longer on equality issues, which would imply more comprehensive social policies and measures, but only on gender-based violence against women in the context of a liberal and individualistic approach centred on human rights. Moreover, these new legal reforms rely largely on the judiciary or the police, who are less sympathetic to victims’ claims even if they are responsible for providing assistance to abused women (Fries 2008). The Inter-American Court found that the investigations made for the Cotton Field Case “were prejudiced by gender-based stereotyping to the extent that public officials adopted stereotypical attitudes and blamed the victims themselves, as well as their relatives, for their fate”.6 Instead of protecting and guaranteeing women’s rights, gender bias in institutions re-victimize women through institutional violence which in the end represents the main obstacle for women to get access to justice (Lagarde y de los Ríos, 2005; Inter American Commission on Human Rights 2011; Tiroch, 2010).

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