What Does New Research Say about Gender-based Violence in the Region?

Mia Mazer, Media and Communications Intern

"This man will kill me and nothing will happen."

For eight years, Dolores and her children endured severe beatings at the hands of her husband. During the first year of the abuse, she sought help from the local police and prosecutor in Cartagena, Colombia, but was met with accusations and blame. Dolores tried to leave her husband several times, but each time he hunted her down and forced her to return – one time at knifepoint. Finally, Dolores and her children were able to escape for good.

In recent years, Latin America and the Caribbean have been celebrated for making progress on women’s rights. Five countries throughout the region have female heads of state. Women are now better educated than men, and they've entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Despite these advancements, the region continues to struggle with gender-based violence. Some even believe violence against women is getting worse.

"Women are asking for rights, and men get very violent," said Nadine Gasman, the head of UNiTE to End Violence against Women for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Because the system is so cumbersome and does not provide responses quickly enough, violence gets worse and worse."

Globally, gender-based violence takes the life of one in three women worldwide and is the leading cause of disability and death for women between the ages of 15 and 44. Due in part to many years of armed conflict, Colombia struggles significantly with gender-based violence. Militarism often has grave consequences for the safety and security of women. They are subjected to sexual assault during military conflicts and are attacked for participating in activism to demand political change. Women and girls make up half of the four million people in the country who have been forced to leave their homes and are currently displaced, which places them in a precarious position.

A study by our local partner, Profamilia Colombia, and USAID found that 48% of women who have been displaced report having been subjected to domestic violence, compared to 37% of women in the general population. The higher rate of violence for displaced women is partially caused by additional barriers to accessing to health services, legal protection, and justice.

A new report on gender-based violence in Colombia by Human Rights Watch documents the stories of 80 displaced women and girls living in four major cities who have endured abuse. It explores obstacles they face in receiving support and assistance, such as being unfamiliar with health and legal institutions in their new locations, fear of retribution from abusers, and being unable to pay for services. More than 100 government officials, health care providers, and human rights advocates who have worked extensively with victims of gender-based violence in Colombia were also interviewed and gave accounts of their experiences.

Although Colombia has one of the most advanced legal and policy frameworks in the region addressing gender-based violence, there are shortcomings in its implementation, especially for displaced women and children. “Seeking medical attention for the [sexual] violence was difficult," explained a woman in Bogota. "Ten days later, I was finally able to get help.”

Delays in or denial of health care following sexual assault can mean a victim does not receive treatment to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. This compounds the potential negative health effects that result from gender-based violence, and research-in-progress indicates the impact may go beyond the victim.

“In our study, we are finding…that the negative effects of domestic violence are not limited to the women themselves, but also seem to be extending to their children,” says economist Jorge Agüero. Using data on domestic violence from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Agüero's study (which is still being analyzed) shows that children whose mothers have been victims of domestic violence have lower weight and height, are less likely to be vaccinated, and have more reported cases of diarrhea.

We believe gender-based violence is a sexual and reproductive health issue—and that bodily integrity is a human right. The right to be protected from, and to have recourse against, all forms of violence—including physical, verbal, psychological, economic, and sexual abuse—underpins the need for governments to ensure sexual rights and strengthen the commitment to protection from harm. Gender-based violence is often minimized, rationalized, and denied, while aggressors are granted impunity. This lack of accountability allows violence to continue unchecked, and is a major gap in the legal system.

Our Member Associations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean recognize the impact gender-based violence has on their clients’ sexual and reproductive health, and they work meet the needs of victims of violence by integrating gender-based violence prevention, screening, and services into their sexual and reproductive health programs. In 2010, our local partners offered over 171,000 services to victims of gender-based violence.

“We are always advocating for the rights of those at risk,” explains Dr. Maria Isabel Corea Ramirez. “We provide the information and services people need. But it’s also about the right—of youth, of women experiencing violence—to live free of violence and make informed decisions about their lives.”


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