Femicide in Latin America


“No more femicides,” reads this graffiti, scrawled on a wall in Mexico City, where public outcry has been mounting against gender-motivated killings.
“No more femicides,” reads this graffiti, scrawled on a wall in Mexico City, where public outcry has been mounting against gender-motivated killings. Photo: Denis Bocquet

“Every time the body of a dead woman appeared, at least four families would come to see whether or not it was their loved one. The problem was much greater than we realized,” recalls Silvia Juárez, Coordinator of the Programme for a Life Free from Violence for Women, of the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA, Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz).

Supported by UN Women and others, ORMUSA is one of the many organizations of the Feminist Network against Violence towards Women, which advocated for the Special Integrated Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women in El Salvador, which came into effect on 1 January 2012.

The legislation includes concrete steps for identifying and preventing violence, including for the crime of femicide (also referred to as feminicide) and establishes measures to protect and assist survivors and families of the victims.

Femicide is a crime involving the violent and deliberate killing of a woman, but many States do not specifically define such a crime in their criminal codes. As a result, statistics are hard to come by.

According to a 2012 report by the organization Small Arms Survey more than half of the 25 countries with very high femicide rates are in the LAC region [1]. Citing the same report at the “Gender-Motivated Killings of Women, including Femicide” side event on 8 March during the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57), UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang pointed out that in 2011, 647 women were killed in El Salvador, 375 in Guatemala, and femicide is considered to be the second leading cause of death of women of reproductive age in Honduras. She added that the rate of impunity of femicide crimes is estimated in a 77 per cent in El Salvador and Honduras.

El Salvador is in fact the country with the highest murder rate of women in the world [2]. However, with its legislation that also outlaws femicide, the country is among the most recent to join the fight to confront this type of violence in Central America – along with Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, amongst others.

Lawyer Silvia Juárez is a member of the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), one of the NGOs that lobbied the Government and helped give shape to the resulting law against femicide in El Salvador.
Lawyer Silvia Juárez is a member of the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), one of the NGOs that lobbied the Government and helped give shape to the resulting law against femicide in El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Silvia Juárez.

“The experience in Mexico provided a boost to developing the legislation in El Salvador. It was in the context of the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez [in Mexico] that the term ‘femicide’ was first used,” says Silvia.

“Then, based on practical experience in Guatemala, we created a criminal model for El Salvador, centred on hatred as a motive. In addition, various meetings were held for women parliamentarians from Guatemala and El Salvador. There, they shared their experiences, including how to negotiate with patriarchs within their own parties.”

Silvia Juarez is 34 years old and a lawyer by profession. She began her career giving legal advice to women on labour rights and violence within families.

She worked with countless others to address the issue and speaks about her motivation. “When I was providing these support services for women, I realized that El Salvador had made significant progress in legislation on violence. However, it was focused [only] on the family [defining gender violence as violence within the family]. This did not give women genuine access to justice,” explains Silvia.

In 2012, the Attorney General of El Salvador approved a national protocol created by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which is now guiding officials tasked with investigating the crime of femicide. It is based on national legislation and international human rights standards, including both the UN protection system and the Inter-American Human Rights System.

At a regional level, UN Women is working with OHCHR, the Spanish Human Rights Federation, Carlos III University, and the Human Rights Office of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards adoption of a regional “Protocol for Investigating Gender-related Deaths: Femicide” as a tool to help in the fight against violence against women.

This protocol, once established, will provide guidelines and instruments for the accurate investigation, of these crimes, including in the collection of evidence and in criminal prosecutions, to guarantee women’s access to justice.

“In Latin America, we have developed initiatives to stop impunity, through legal reforms to typify femicide as a specific crime,” explained Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, during her speech at the CSW57 side event on femicide. “In Guatemala, for instance, this led to the development of specialized prosecutor units and tribunals. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, there are now policies and procedures to address the crime of femicide, to name just a few examples.”

Angela Amelia Leon, a judge in a specialized criminal court in Chiquimila, Guatemala, says these tribunals “seek to avoid revictimization. We are using scientific measures, the anticipation of proof, screens and videoconferences in the courtroom. We are very careful to avoid the use of discriminatory language during trials, be that on the part of those being prosecuted, of witnesses, or of anyone else involved in the trial.”

For Silvia in El Salvador, where the law does now address femicide, some progress is evident: “Now there are specialized units within the police for dealing with cases of violence against women, and to support victims in dedicated spaces.

There is interest in reviewing the internal regulation of public institutions, and in disaggregating data. June 2012 marked the first successful conviction for femicide. However, the issue of funding needs to be resolved. We are still coming across ignorance of the existence of the law, and resistance in applying it. The work does not end with the law being passed.”

The need for continued efforts to confront femicide even after laws have been adopted was also specifically addressed in the historic Agreed Conclusions of CSW57 on 15 March.

The Commission urged Governments to strengthen national legislation in order to punish violent gender-related killings of women and girls, integrate specific mechanisms or policies to prevent, investigate and eradicate femicide, and end impunity by ensuring accountability and the punishment of perpetrators of such crimes under national or international law or justice.

Related links:

[1] http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/publications/by-type/yearbook/small-arms-survey-2012.html

[2] http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-14.pdf