Central American women face crime cultural barriers

Central America has made significant progress in recent years toward narrowing literacy gaps and empowering women. More women are coming to positions in power in places like Costa Rica and Guatemala. But the overall situation for women remains dismal in a region designated by the United Nations in 2009 as the most violent.

The region’s homicide rates have escalated in the past 15 years, according to Manuel Orozco, director for Central America and director of the migration and development program at Inter-American Dialogue. He says current homicide rates in most of the region have been occurring at the rate of 10-15 a day since the late 1990s. Out of that tally, the number of murdered women has nearly tripled in almost every country, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Orozco attributes the trend to youth crime, violent transnational gangs, and sexual violence, all of which increasingly affect women, particularly those related to gang members who quit, or those who have joined gangs. But that kind of violence also spills over to affect ordinary people like Rosa Leyva, a mother and homemaker in Mexico who said in an email interview that she and her mother always live with the “fear that our sons and husbands … leave our home and not return.”

El Salvador has had the world’s highest number of female homicides for the last few years, according to Jocelyn Viterna, a Harvard University associate professor of sociology.

“There has been … sort of a machismo understanding in El Salvador that men have the right to control what happens in their house,” said Ms. Viterna. “And that includes the right to keep women in line, perhaps by violence if
necessary. And there is a lack of legal and judicial will to change that situation.”

Despite recent legal initiatives to address the problem, Ms. Viterna says gang violence in El Salvador is a bigger problem and judges are unlikely to punish domestic abusers in the first place.

A recent bill pushed by female legislators calls for the creation of a fund to support victims of domestic abuse. Ms. Viterna says the fund would create a space for women to escape their aggressors.

“But my concern is that the fund is supposed to be paid for by the aggressors when they go to court,” Ms. Viterna cautioned. “So if the judicial system … continues to pardon men for domestic violence … it might take a very, very long time to develop.”

These types of violence stem from the culture of the region and perceptions of authority, says Orozco. He argues that the region’s social structure gave precedence to males as heads of the church, the country, and the family.

“So we call it the Trinity – il padre de la iglesia, el padre la patria, e il padre de la familia. The Three Ps basically created a condition by which authority was male-gendered, as well as concentrated in authority,” said Orozco. “This … has been inherited as part of the popular and political culturing of our societies.”

Orozco says the region is still “prisoner of many notions of gender differentiation, where women are still perceived by some as being below.” He cites Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica as examples of places where women, particularly ethnic women such as Mayans and Afro-Caribbean women, are discriminated against on multiple levels of gender, race, and ethnicity.

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