In March 2015, a nineteen-year-old Argentine woman by the name of Daiana García disappeared in a suburb of Buenos Aires after telling family and friends that she was going to a job interview. A few days later, a municipal employee found her mostly naked remains in a bag by the roadside. Police named a thirty-eight-year-old man, who had introduced Daiana as his girlfriend in the past, as a suspect in the case; he died by suicide while the investigation was ongoing.
Two months later and 250 miles from Buenos Aires, fourteen-year-old Chiara Paez’s body was discovered in the garden of her sixteen-year-old boyfriend’s house. She had been brutally beaten. The autopsy revealed that she was eight weeks pregnant and had traces of abortion drugs in her system. Chiara’s boyfriend confessed to killing her.
Paez and García were not the first Argentine women who were murdered by men, but the timing and brutality of their deaths struck a nerve in Argentina. In June 2015, two hundred thousand people took to the streets of Buenos Aires with the slogan “Ni Una Menos”—which translates literally to “not one less,” meaning that the world should not lose another woman to violence.
Nearly three years later, Ni Una Menos has grown from a slogan to a movement and has spread from Argentina to more than a dozen Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. The sudden spotlight on women killed by their intimate partners has revealed some deeply disturbing truths, but also provides an important starting point to address the far-reaching problem of violence against women in the region.
The Inter-American Development Bank, an international financing organization, estimates that between thirty and fifty percent of Latin American women have experienced psychological abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, and between ten and thirty percent have experienced sexual violence. The data, however, show substantial variation by country; a 2003 study in Bolivia found that seventy percent of women were the victim of some sort of violence. In this study, fifty-four percent of women reported experiencing psychological or verbal abuse from a live-in partner, and forty-one percent of women living in rural areas reported that they had been forced to have sexual relations with men they did not know.
In particular, intimate partner violence (IPV) poses serious long term consequences to women’s mental and physical health. In a 2012 study, the Pan American Health Organization found that “between one-half and more than two thirds of women who experienced partner violence in the past twelve months said they had experienced anxiety or depression severe enough that they could not carry out their usual work as a result of the violence.” The study also found that women who were victims of abuse as children were more likely to experience IPV later in life. When women are killed by a partner, there is usually a history of IPV, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
Femicide is broadly defined as the killing of a woman based on her gender. Many Latin American countries have specific femicide laws; in Mexico, for example, a murder is considered femicide if the female victim shows signs of sexual assault, or if there was a history of abuse. A 2015 report from the Latin American Social Sciences Institute found that seven of the ten countries with the highest femicide rates are in Latin America; the list is led by El Salvador. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates that, on average, a femicide occurs in the region every two hours.
A variety of theories attempt to explain the prevalence of violence against women in Latin America. Gendered power dynamics undoubtedly play a role. In a 2010 report, researchers from the Sexual Violence Research Initiative noted that “sexual violence is closely linked to cultural values, norms and practices that support the idea that men are superior to women and have a right to control women’s sexuality. For example, some research in [Latin America and the Caribbean] points to a link between rigid masculine attitudes and behaviours and perpetration of violence against women, including sexual violence.” Chiara Paez’s case fits with this explanation. Investigators say that she had likely fought with her boyfriend about her pregnancy before he killed her.
Organized crime and gendered power dynamics make a particularly lethal combination. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—three of the countries with the highest femicide rates—experienced a sharp increase in femicides in the early 2000s that correlates with the increased use of the Central American corridor for US-bound drug shipments. Raping or killing the girlfriends or wives of their opponents are ways in which rival gangs use women to send messages to one another and the authorities.
Other changing social structures likewise impact sexual violence. Researchers have suggested that urbanization affects both the nature and reporting of sexual assault. Data indicate that women in cities are less likely to be assaulted by an intimate partner, but more likely to be assaulted by a stranger, than their counterparts in rural areas. Public transportation is an unfortunately common site for offenses ranging from lewd comments to assault. In Mexico City, for example, sixty-five percent of women have been victims of gender violence on public transportation, according to government statistics.
While the statistics and stories about sexual violence in Latin America paint a disturbing picture, the situation has hardly been ignored. Over the past decade, many Latin American governments have introduced new laws designed to protect women, broadening the definition of assault and tightening sentences for perpetrators. Bolivia, for example, outlawed spousal rape in 2013. In 2008, just eight Latin American countries had femicide-specific laws; now, the number has risen to sixteen.
Unfortunately, passing laws is easier than enforcing them. In 2013, Honduras passed a law classifying femicide as a felony punishable by up to forty years in jail. Yet a 2014 United Nations investigation found that ninety-five percent of sexual violence and femicide cases in Honduras were never investigated in the first place. Macro-level studies have found little to no connection between stronger anti-femicide laws and the rate of femicide in Latin American countries.
Despite cries of “Ni Una Menos,” there will inevitably be more victims of femicide in Latin America. While certain measures—such as better enforcement of current anti-femicide laws and improved access to help for domestic violence victims—would help, no one law can end the underlying cultural attitudes that promote aggressive masculinity and policing of female sexuality.
In the meantime, women from cities as disparate as Buenos Aires, La Paz, and Guatemala City will continue to speak out. Although their words can’t bring back Daiana García, Chiara Paez or the thousands of other women who have fallen victim to gender-based violence, they are making femicide an issue that Latin America cannot ignore. Translating this attention into legal and structural reforms is much more difficult—but with another woman dying every two hours, change is long overdue.