Violence against women (VAW) is a worldwide problem, a pandemic of its own. COVID-19, lockdowns, limited access to services, increased care burden, and economic decline have increased the exposure of women to abusive relationships and known risk factors. According to TIME, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine and UN Women, “when the pandemic began, incidents of domestic violence increased 300% in Hubei, China; 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore, and 50% in Brazil.” In the US, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice’s analysis released on February 24 of this year, the number of domestic violence incidents increased by 8.1% after lockdown orders.
Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization stated that “about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence” in their lifetime. Article 1 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) of 1993 defines violence against women (VAW) as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” VAW is a disease that affects every continent, it does not discriminate; and every region is attacking this disease in a different way. Some regions have redacted Conventions, developed important case law, and adopted new policies. However, this area in the law needs to be developed more. The lack of knowledge and urgency have perpetuated this disease and contributed to its spread.
Violence Against Women in Latin America
Latin America is one of the most lethal regions in the world for women right now. Most recent statistics show that:
- More than 4,600 women of the region were murdered for gender-based reasons during 2019, a 17% increase compared to 2018 (around 3,600), according to the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL).
- According to MundoSur, 5,457 femicides have been registered 2020 preliminarily and another 1,445 as of today; which is why more than 30 organizations of 21 countries in the region are calling for a state of emergency.
- 2018 UN reports show that 14 out of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates in the world were located in Latin America.
- Some countries have declared states of emergency. The Puerto Rican Governor, Pedro Pierluisi, declared in January 2021 a state of emergency because of the 60 femicides that took place in 2020, a 62% more than 2019.
- Disappearances have spiked. “Almost 1,200 women disappeared in Peru between March 11 and June 30, the Ministry of Women reported,”
- In 2020, “3,723 killings of women were registered in Mexico, of which 940 were investigated as femicides in the country’s 32 states.”
Unfortunately, these statistics are not completely accurate, many deaths and disappearances have not been dutifully investigated. Aware of this situation, governments have been trying to develop new strategies. Some countries have declared states of emergency. The Puerto Rican Governor, Pedro Pierluisi, declared one in January 2021. Others have even implemented ‘Pink alerts,’ so families can quickly declare their female (or any person that identifies as female) family member disappeared. Sadly, more needs to be done.
Fortunately, the Inter-American system, compared to other regional systems, has developed a big range of instruments and tools to combat this pandemic. In 1994, the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (also known as Convention of Belém do Pará). Thanks to these instruments and to case law of the Inter-American Court, States Parties to the Convention have a reinforced due diligence to protect women and prevent violence against women because States know or should know that women are in a higher risk situation. Cases like: Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes v. Brazil (2001); Raquel Martin de Mejía v. Peru (1996); González et al. “Cotton Field” v. Mexico (2009); and Yarce and Others v. Colombia (2016) all grants women more protection and more rights under the Inter-American system.
Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go. Impunity is still seen; women are disappearing by the minute, and laws still need to be modified.
Other regions and instruments
On March 2020, in his International Women’s Day address, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that, through South Africa’s chairship of the African Union (AU), he would be advocating for the adoption of an African Union (AU) Convention on Violence Against Women. Many African States have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but more than 10 have entered reservations which undermine their obligations in the convention. For example, “the Government of the Republic of the Niger expressed reservations with regard to article 2, paragraphs (d) and (f), concerning the taking of all appropriate measures to abolish all customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women, particularly in respect of succession.” Finland and Denmark filed objections to this reservation, stating that this reservation as well as others made by the Government of Niger “are not in conformity with the object and purpose of the Convention.”
Fortunately, there is already an instrument that provides some protection to women to compliment CEDAW. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol), which entered into force in November 2005, complements the African Charter by providing an explicit definition of discrimination against women and addressing traditional values and practices that can impede gender equality, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It is one of the first human rights agreements that protects the right to sexual and reproductive health (Art. 14); it also focuses on girls and the family sphere to combat cultural practices that violate the rights of women. Unfortunately, this is not enough. 42 out of the 55 African states are bound by this Protocol and about 6 countries have ratified it with reservations; this is less than those who have ratified the CEDAW. Many advocates are calling for a convention to directly combat violence against women to strengthen the African System.
On the other hand, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention) in 2011. It seeks to prevent violence against women; protect victims; combat the impunity of perpetrators; define and criminalize the forms of violence against women (which include forced marriage, female genital mutilation, stalking, physical, psychological, and sexual violence); foresee the establishment of an international group of independent experts to monitor implementation by States Parties; and establish the due diligence that States Parties have to prevent, investigate, punish, and provide reparations for violations committed by nonstate actors. As of 2021, about 34 of 47 member states have ratified the Convention and 12 have signed it along with the institution of the European Union. This same year, Poland and Turkey have notified their withdrawal from the Convention. Both systems also have case law that seek to protect women against violence.
Violence against women increases in complex contexts and environments, like we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though we are living in hard times, women and girls around the world should speak up and mobilize, ask for their rights to be respected, participate in the political arena, and have their voices be heard. Even though there are instruments and case law seeking to protect women and prevent further violence, there’s still a long way to go. Civil society should mobilize around the provisions of the Protocols or Conventions of their regions. We all must join together to end this worldwide pandemic that not only affects women, but also families, States, and society in general.
Sabrina M. Rodríguez is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, with an emphasis in International Relations, and in French from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus. She is a joint degree student, a Master’s in International Affairs candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs.