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Violence against women in Latin America: Is it getting worse?

Like the majority of women in Colombia, Viviana Hernandez won't leave her house without makeup. She applies a thick layer of foundation and outlines her slightly deformed lips with red liner. She draws in her eyebrows – she lost her natural ones – and hides the few lashes she has left and her disfigured eyes behind the large dark sunglasses that she's worn day and night since an attacker threw acid on her face five years ago.

Ms. Hernandez has no doubt it was her estranged partner who ordered the attack. Once she came out of intensive care at the hospital, she remembers him calling her cellphone, telling her that no one else would want her now but him.

Hernandez's is but one face of violence against women in Latin America, a worrying trend in a region that has seen enormous advances for women over the past decade. Forty percent of the region is now led by women: There are female heads of state in Brazil,ArgentinaCosta RicaTrinidad and Tobago, andJamaica. Women have reached equal access to education and have increasingly joined the workforce. Awareness has also grown around the issues of violence against women through a spate of legislation aimed at protecting them.

But this progress stands in sharp contrast to gender-based violence that has long plagued the region, and is now manifesting itself in new and dangerous ways.

In some countries violence against women is far worse today, from a spike in femicides – the gender-based killing of women – in places like El Salvador andHonduras, where the drug war has become deadlier, to the disturbing trend of acid attacks against women in Colombia. In light of the Nov. 25 United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, this uptick leaves many questioning what can be done.

Why target women?

Last April Nadine Gasman, the head of UNiTE to End Violence against Women for Latin America and the Caribbean, a UN initiative that fights impunity and works to change cultural attitudes, attended a meeting with police, prosecutors, and justice ministries across the region to talk about violence against women.

"What was clear is that there is an increased number of [acts of] exacerbated cruelty," Ms. Gasman says. "We don't understand why."

Violence against women is linked to a number of factors, including hard economic times and communities where violent crime is endemic. But Gasman, like many observers, says that part of the spike in several countries could be attributed to different paces of change in society: Women are reporting crime more, but justice systems are not responding, making them even more vulnerable.

"Women are asking for rights, and men get very violent; and because the system is so cumbersome and does not provide responses quickly enough, violence gets worse and worse," Gasman says.

Femicides in MexicoGuatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have all shot up in recent years, registering some of the highest rates in the world. The latter has seen the biggest spike in femicide in Latin America, with 637 women murdered in 2011, almost quadruple the rate from a decade ago, says Silvia Juarez, who heads the violence against women program for the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace.

In 2009, Mexico recorded its highest number of femicides since 1985, recording 1,858 deaths, according to a UN report.

"We have documented an alarming growth of femicide in the country," says Jose Martinez Cruz, the head of a human rights organization in the state of Morelos in central Mexico.

Patsili Toledo, a Chilean lawyer active in women's rights issues, says the drug war, like most armed conflict, is particularly dangerous for women. They become more vulnerable amid a breakdown of law and order and social mores.

Women have certainly become victims of the drug trade as they participate in it; but in some cases, women are used as a form of social cohesion among gang members. The men can bond over inflicting violence against women. That may have been a motive in another setback for women in Mexico, when a group of teens on a spiritual retreat in July was overtaken by a gang that raped five women and girls.

Three of the suspects admitted to doing so after other gang members pressured them.

"The bodies of these women are a way of hurting the enemy," Ms. Toledo says. "There are also many, many more guns and weapons. That [kind of] domestic environment is more dangerous for everyone."

But beyond the context of organized crime, gender violence is still firmly entrenched in Latin America. This is especially true in terms of domestic violence, which in some places is getting worse and more brutal.

The number of femicides in Chile, which defines it as the murder of a woman by a current or former partner or husband, has jumped 31 percent in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year, according to a study by the nongovernmental group Activa and Pedro de Valdivia University.

'Permanent face of violence'

At least 282 women were murdered in gender-related crime in 2011 in Argentina; and among 542 women killed there in the past two years, 43 died after being set on fire by their attackers, according to La Casa del Encuentro, a women's rights organization in Buenos Aires.

In Colombia, a phenomenon of acid attacks against women has been reported. It is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to record such acts, which are more common in places likeBangladesh and Pakistan.

"Acid attack victims are the most visible and permanent face of violence against women," says Linda Guerrero, a plastic surgeon who heads a foundation for burn victims in Bogotá and spearheads a campaign to highlight the prevalence of such attacks in Colombia.

In 2011, official records show 42 women in Colombia were attacked with acid, and in 2012 there have been at least 19. But Olga Victoria Rubio, a city councilwoman in Bogotá, says the number is much higher than what the official records show.

"Most women are attacked by their partners and are terrified of reporting it," Ms. Rubio says.

In Hernandez's case, her attack is not included in any official registry as an acid attack. Though she reported the event, no investigation was ever opened, she says, because prosecutors left it up to her to collect evidence.

Additionally, many victims see little point in reporting the attacks because they are treated as misdemeanors, and perpetrators are not likely to face harsh repercussions, Rubio says. A bill making its way through Colombia's Congress would change that, classifying acid attacks as attempted homicide.

A silver lining?

The numbers are shocking but reflect some positive news: More women are reporting the crime, and the news media are paying attention to it, particularly when it comes to domestic violence.

"For a long time, women didn't come forward," says Alessandra Guedes, the regional adviser on intrafamily violence at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office of the World Health Organization, and coauthor of a forthcoming study comparing violence against women in 12 countries in the region. "It was very much a private issue ... dealt [with] within four walls."

Initiatives such as all-female police stations in Brazil for battered women have made it easier for women to come forward. Nonprofit organizations are reaching out to young men and boys to help chip away at machismo. There is also a spate of new legislation across the region.

A 2010 law in El Salvador and one in 2008 in Guatemala seek stronger protections for female victims of violence. On Nov. 15 the Argentine congress passed a law making femicide a crime that carries a life sentence.

In Colombia, new legislation that went into effect this summer stipulates that victims of domestic violence cannot withdraw their complaints and that persons other than the victim can report violence. Medical personnel who suspect a person is the victim of domestic violence are now obligated to report their suspicions to police.

Another initiative seeks to include femicide in the Colombian penal code, a bill that was prompted by a brutal attack on Rosa Elvira Cely in a Bogotá park last May. Ms. Cely, a single mother who sold candy on the streets, was found under a tree; she was barely alive after being raped and tortured. She died four days later. The brutality of her attack prompted nationwide demonstrations and campaigns.

"We had been working on drafting something like this for some time, but what happened to Rosa Elvira was the last straw. It mobilized so many people," says Teresa Martinez, an aide to Sen. Gloria Inés Ramirez, who is sponsoring Colombia's bill.

The 'biggest challenge'

But women's rights advocates say that impunity is their biggest challenge, which is one of the main priorities of the UNiTE campaign. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, half of all Central American women have been subjected to violence during their adult lives, but half of all verdicts delivered in cases of violence against women end in acquittals.

"Impunity sends a message of tolerance. I can rape you and nothing happens, and I can kill you because nothing will happen," says Ms. Juarez from El Salvador.

The limits of legislation are clear in Brazil. In 2006, the Maria da Penha Law was signed, increasing the maximum sentences for domestic violence from one year to three, and providing protective measures for at-risk women. The year following its enactment the number of women murdered dropped significantly.

But according to a 2012 study by the Instituto Sangari, by 2008 the rate had returned to pre-law levels.

In February, a congressional investigative committee in Brazil began analyzing cases in which public officials have refused to invoke the law.

Sen. Ana Rita, a member of the committee, says the law faces resistance from judges. She cites the recent case of Renata Rocha Araújo, a 28-year-old who was turned down twice for protective measures against her husband by a judge who argued that the María da Penha Law was not made to break up families. She was killed in May.

Senator Rita implored the nation to demand more from all parts of society.

"What vision of family do these judges have that they ignore the violence against women in their homes?" she says.

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