Gender Rights

The Dialogue’s work on gender rights aims to promote a better understanding of issues of concern to women, with a focus on women’s leadership, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive rights. It also raises awareness of challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities. Our work explores ways to advance more women into political power and enhance their influence over policies affecting women at all levels, in both the private and public sectors. The Dialogue provides a platform to discuss the unique challenges women face today and seek ways to address them.

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More than half of the countries with the highest number of femicides are located in the Americas. In 2018, at least 3,529 women in the LAC region were victims of femicide. In Ecuador, Uruguay, and Peru, femicide at the hands of an intimate partner exceeds 85 percent of the total deaths of women in the country. Violence against women (VAW) encompasses a wide range of acts from verbal harassment to other types of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and femicide is the most extreme manifestation of VAW.

Most incidences of VAW occur in intimate settings, according to couples and former partners. This type of violence tends to be normalized in the context of machismo culture predominant within Latin American households, as explained in "Activism against Gender-Based Violence on the Rise in LAC." In the first quarter of 2019, the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System reported 60,384 cases of domestic violence in Mexico, an increase of 4 percent over the previous year. 

In this context, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent government responses have had a severe impact on certain vulnerable segments of the population in Latin America. Lockdowns force women to go home with their abusers without access to support or aid services. Furthermore, the shutting down of businesses, the absence of social engagement, economic uncertainty, and increasing unemployment create tensions within the household that could trigger a rise in tensions that lead to domestic violence. In response to this intensified crisis, governments and other societal actors have had to quickly implement new forms of outreach, adapt their resources to fit a Covid-19 reality, and develop new partnerships to widen their impact. 

Gender Inequalities during the Pandemic

The recent pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality, made care work more burdensome and dangerous, and increased gender-based violence. Before the lockdown, women carried out three to four times more housework than men in Latin America. In addition, online schooling requires women to spend more time on housework and childcare than before. In the region, women represent 59 percent of the informal sector. Lockdown practices have limited financial independence of women as they are more at risk of losing their jobs.

Lockdowns increasing domestic violence 

In several countries of the region, such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, there has been an increase in calls and reports of domestic violence since the beginning of the lockdowns. Abusers usually restrain the liberty and mobility of their victims, so the lockdowns provide a new platform of control for the abuser. 

In some countries, the opposite has occurred. In the Dominican Republic, a country with the fifth highest rate of femicides in Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a 50 percent decrease in the number of reports of gender violence. Experts note that this does not mean that violence has disappeared. Their domestic circumstances may not allow many women to report abuse privately. Others may fear the sickness and potential death that could result if they were to leave home to report violence or seek shelter more than their abusive living situation. 

Misinformation surrounding the lockdowns and government restrictions has played a large role as well. Some victims do not know if they are able to leave their homes safely without being fined or arrested, especially if the government has not been explicit about lockdown exceptions. For that reason, the Argentinian government openly states that women and LGBTQ people experiencing violence are free to violate the quarantine to seek help.

The recent pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality, made care work more burdensome and dangerous, and increased gender-based violence. Lockdown practices have limited financial independence of women as they are more at risk of losing their jobs.

State responses

Governments in Latin America have taken certain measures to ensure that support networks and legal resources are still available for domestic violence cases during the pandemic. Once the lockdowns began, Argentina and Uruguay automatically extended precautionary protection measures for victims of gender-based violence. These either expired in the last 40 days or will expire within the quarantine period. In São Paulo, Brazil and Colombia, authorities issued a decree to guarantee continued access to services virtually, including legal counsel, psychosocial advice, and police and justice services, including hearings. 

In the region, Peru, Panama, and Colombia have adopted restrictions on mobility based on gender. Even though these restrictions are adopted with the goal of preventing the spread of Covid-19, gender restrictions on mobility could also present a viable escape valve for women in situations of domestic violence. Women can leave home without their abusers to seek help and access support services. On the other hand, policies based on biological sex can be counterproductive to the LGBTQ community and expose them to more violence on the streets. 

The role of technology

In light of mobility restrictions, governments have resorted to technology to maintain services for domestic violence cases. In Argentina and Chile, authorities have included a WhatsApp number to support helplines in receiving reports. WhatsApp and text messages are a preferable resource because they provide a more discrete way for the victim/survivor to reach out for help. These platforms also offer mental health and legal services. 

Blockchain technology is another resource that has gained popularity for reporting. Blockchain is a digital protocol that creates an unalterable documentary record. This feature has allowed new applications to use the internet to document, time-stamp, and establish key evidence. UrSafe is an app that uses blockchain technology to record calls and sounds around the device which could be later used to support legal actions against abusers. Currently, the app is free during the time of the emergency period in Latin America. 

[caption id="attachment_97156" align="alignright" width="300"]Mujeres Seguras en Casa Alcaldía Municipal de Pacho Cundinamarca[/caption]

Social media is also an essential platform for governments to advertise helplines and support services. Campaigns have tried to make domestic violence a more visible issue in the Covid-19 context. In Mexico and Colombia, campaigns like informative guides #HeForSheDesdeCasa and #MujeresSegurasenCasa were launched. 

Nevertheless, technology has its limitations in reaching women outside of urban areas and capital cities in the region. Internet is still considered a luxury in impoverished areas. Globally, women are 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone, so technology-based solutions could exclude women in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods. 

The private sector and civil society organizations addressing domestic violence

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and private companies have played an important role compensating for the limitations of state responses to domestic violence. Shelters in Mexico and Argentina have been declared essential services to ensure their continued operation. Governments are building alliances with the private sector to expand facilities to house people in need of shelter. In Argentina, the Minister of Women introduced "Plan H" in partnership with hotels and student residences. Plan H aims to house people identified from calls to the helpline 144. 

Pharmacies have also proven to be crucial allies in expanding support networks. In Argentina, the initiative Barbijo Rojo (red mask) is a joint effort of the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity and the Argentine Pharmaceutical Confederation. Women in need of help can go to pharmacies and ask for a red mask. This is a code that alerts staff to call the helpline 144.  

CSOs play a fundamental role in keeping governments accountable. These organizations often provide crucial legal support and mental health services. They also encourage more transparent communication among different societal actors. In Bolivia, a pregnant girl who violated the curfew to access the hospital was forced by the military on the street to go back home. Breeze of Hope, an NGO, mediated between local authorities and hospital facilities to get the medical help needed. 

The involvement of private companies in these awareness campaigns has also helped reach a wider audience through social media. Avon and Natura, companies with enormous presence in the region, have implemented initiatives to raise awareness of domestic violence before and during the pandemic. Avon launched the campaign #AisladasNoSolas. This outreach strategy uses silent videos to disseminate different helplines and support networks among their customers on social media without alerting abusers.

Challenges ahead

Covid-19 has brought on new challenges for governments to address regarding domestic violence and VAW in the region. Efforts to tackle VAW are still hobbled by the lack of regional coordination around establishing a cohesive definition of and criteria for terms such as femicide. It is important that governments mobilize resources to standardize their data collection and legal framework of VAW in the region. This will allow a better assessment of the state of gender-based violence in the region and enhance policy efforts. 

To address the increase of VAW, civil society organizations should continue documenting and sharing data to hold key stakeholders accountable and ensure that this issue is at the forefront of state responses to Covid-19. 

Likewise, the government should emphasize the key role of social networks in neighborhoods. Campaigns must raise awareness of the importance of reporting sexual violence. Research has proven that bystander training, involvement of leaders and influential social referents are effective interventions against domestic violence and/or VAW. 

Lastly, even though the spike in domestic violence is gaining more coverage in the media, there is a need for measures to address domestic violence and VAW through an inter-sectional lens. Migrant, indigenous, older, and transgender women are vulnerable groups who often get overlooked by these policies.

Melanie Ordóñez is an undergraduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She was an intern with the Office of the President.


Covid-19 in the Americas: The Dialogue’s Coronavirus Updates


[post_title] => Domestic Violence in the Context of Covid-19: State Responses & Alliances in Latin America [post_excerpt] => Covid-19 restrictions have resulted in an increase of domestic violence throughout the region. In response, governments and other societal actors have had to quickly implement new forms of outreach, adapt their resources to fit a Covid-19 reality, and develop new partnerships to widen their impact.  [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => domestic-violence-in-the-context-of-covid-19-state-responses-alliances-in-latin-america [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-06-16 22:01:16 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-06-16 22:01:16 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 87036 [post_author] => 57 [post_date] => 2019-09-11 17:33:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-09-11 17:33:36 [post_content] =>

 “There is a broad underestimation [by US immigration court judges] of how dangerous the situation on the ground is in Central America. Most people… live in a constant culture of violence. For example, most of my teenage clients have witnessed someone being murdered on the streets, and this is the norm.”

 - Corie O’Rourke, “Nowhere to Turn: Violence Against Women in the Northern Triangle and its Impact on Migration”


Violence against women and girls has long been epidemic in the Northern Triangle, but is recently gaining more attention due to both sustained advocacy from local groups on the ground and the coverage of female migrants that flee to the United States. Quantifying the extent of violence faced by women and girls, especially in a region where it is culturally normalized, is difficult: instances of violence often go unreported, or are ignored or contested. One measure of victimization is gender-based homicides, or femicides—that is, the killing of women and girls because of their sex. High rates of femicide are evidence of societies that are incredibly hostile to them. Three of the four countries with the highest rate of femicide in Latin America are the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador (6.8 femicides per 100,000 people), Honduras (5.1), and Guatemala (2) (Bolivia is the fourth).

The main reason that countries record femicide data—albeit often incompletely—is because of sustained advocacy and pressure from local and international women’s groups, who in light of the unrelenting violence pushed for femicide laws in the mid-2000’s. Before that, violence against women as girls was recognized as a pressing regional problem by the 1995 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, known as the “Belém do Pará Convention” which specifically enumerated the rights of women to live with dignity and free of violence, and was ratified by Northern Triangle countries soon after entering into force. However, neither the Convention, nor subsequent national anti-discrimination laws, or femicide legislation are sufficient to mitigate violence against women—as attested to both anecdotally and statistically. Such violence manifests as including emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse and/or harassment throughout the region.

In these countries, which already struggle with generalized insecurity and widespread impunity for violent crime, comparatively little attention is paid to violence against women and girls, who are often treated as property. As a starting point, it is important to parse how institutional decisions and conditions in the Northern Triangle affect women’s security.

First of all, the pervasive presence and influence of criminal gangs–particularly in Honduras and El Salvador–negatively affects women, since there is an increasing weaponization of rape and violence against women, usually as a means of revenge, in order to assert control, or as part of a dispute between two men. Even female gang members are subjugated and abused by their male counterparts, and face death or the death of a family member if they decide to leave.

In order to respond to increased criminal activity and insecurity, the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have tended to rely heavily on their militaries, dedicating more funding and resources to military operations, that is, disseminating more arms with greater lethal capacity to soldiers with more freedom to use them. Increased militarization leads to more human rights violations across the board, with particular dangers for marginalized groups such as women. Migrant women are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of their uncertain status, lack of local knowledge, and lack of resources, among other disadvantages.

Furthermore, the greater distribution and availability of munitions aggravates domestic violence, which is very common in the Northern Triangle. Even in the United States, where rule of law is arguably far stronger than in the Northern Triangle, dangerously lax gun legislation contributes to violence against women in the home, where “women with access to firearms become homicide victims at significantly higher rates than men.” Many of the firearms seized from criminals in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador come from the United States, and a surprising percentage were bought legally at retail outlets in the U.S. and then transported south, pointing to the ease of purchase and lack of oversight of gun purchases.

The major accelerant for violence against women is near-total impunity for its perpetrators. Generally, most sexual violence against women is perpetrated by someone they know, and, globally, most women are murdered by either a family member or intimate partner. This makes it much more difficult to denounce, especially in cultures that condone abuse of women. Unfortunately, even when denunciations are made, in countries in the Northern Triangle, there is almost total impunity for crimes against women. Of the cases presented to Guatemala's Special Prosecutor for Women, 97.5 percent are not resolved or do not result in prosecution. The Honduran National Human Rights Commission reported that 90 percent of the femicides committed between 2002 and 2018 brought no one to account; according to local human rights groups, the number is closer to 98 percent. In El Salvador, 95% percent of the denunciations of crimes against women never go to trial. Effectively, this means that, if a woman takes the often extremely dangerous step of denouncing her attacker, the likelihood of his being called to account is far smaller than the likelihood that she will be punished for speaking out.

It is also important to acknowledge how national policy decisions, in the form of a denial of reproductive rights, exacerbates violence against women and girls in the Northern Triangle. It is no coincidence that the societies in these countries are plagued by entrenched machismo: the culture of subjugation of women and girls is perpetuated and exacerbated by the total abortion bans in Honduras and El Salvador, where many women are incarcerated for miscarriages or die from unsafe attempted abortions (In 2016, Evelyn Cruz, an El Salvadoran woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder after being raped by a gang member and giving birth to a stillborn child. After 33 months in prison and sustained advocacy from local and international groups, she was released from prison, but is still facing murder charges from state prosecutors. She is one of at least 25 women who have been incarcerated in El Salvador for some form of miscarriage.) In Guatemala, abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life, and the new President-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, openly opposes decriminalizing abortion.

Abortion restrictions are only one part of holistic national campaigns to deny women and girls rights over their own bodies. Lack of sexual education, stigmas around premarital sex, and lack of knowledge about or access to contraceptives effectively condemn women and girls in the Northern Triangle to early motherhood, which often involves health complications and an increased risk of mortality. Adolescent birth rates in the Northern Triangle range from 66 to 81 births per 1000 teenage girls aged 15-19. To put this in perspective, the adolescent birth rate in the United States is about 19.  

In denying women and girls rights over their own bodies, countries in the Northern Triangle are stunting their physical and economic independence, circumscribing their freedom to go to school or work, which thereby makes them more dependent on men in their communities and less able to escape violent conditions. The denial of these rights is supported and even exported by the Trump administration through networks of politicized Evangelical fundamentalism and mirrored in increasing abortion restrictions in the United States.


In this suffocating environment, violence against women becomes a factor affecting outward migration from countries in the Northern Triangle: in recent years, more and more women, both alone or with their children, are fleeing Central America for survival. It has never been easy to gain asylum in the United States as a woman facing gender-based violence. In August of 2014, a landmark decision by the US Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) found that women facing severe domestic violence in Guatemala are eligible for asylum in the United States, setting a precedent for favorable asylum decisions for persecuted women from the region.

However, this did not change the essentially arbitrary nature of asylum decisions in the United States, which depend almost completely on the judge and often the location of the immigration court. For example, in New York City, the denial rate for asylum cases ranges from 2.2 percent for some judges to 59 percent for others. In Oakdale, Louisiana, the denial rate ranges from 93.1 percent to 100 percent. Even in Los Angeles and San Francisco, some judges deny asylum cases at rates of 77 percent. Immigration judges are given asylum cases at random, meaning that judges will face a variety of different pleas and situations. Consistent or absolute rejection of cases is therefore statistically unlikely to mean that few or none of the petitions were warranted or viable. Rather, it points to the undue weight that a judge’s judicial philosophy can have in deciding the fate of asylum seekers.  

Even judges more amenable to granting asylum are feeling pressured by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision overruling the August 2014 BIA decision, declaring that “persecution based on violent conduct of a private actor” is not grounds for asylum in the United States, though his ruling was eventually struck down by a D.C. District Court. In July 2019, Attorney General William Barr issued a decision overturning a previous ruling that recognized the legitimacy of asylum petitions based on threats to a family member, which the ACLU called the “continuation of an attack on Central American asylum seekers” by the Trump administration.

These attacks have so far included policies—such as “metering”, or limiting the number of asylum seekers that enter the United States per day, or “Migrant Protection Protocols,” colloquially known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—which force asylum seekers to remain, or send them back to, Mexico or, potentially, Guatemala while they await asylum decisions in the United States. While in migration limbo, migrants, and especially women and children, are at an increased risk of abuse and exploitation, on both sides of the border. As US immigration policies become more draconian, more migrants are waiting,  condemning them in many cases to, at best, destitute invisibility, and, at worst, targeting by cartels or corrupt Mexican government officials. “Safe third country” agreements are a sham: neither Mexico nor Guatemalaboth of which are facing epidemics of lynchings because citizens have little faith in police forces and local governments to enforce the rule of law—are safe even for their own citizens, much less for migrants who lack local protection networks and are unlikely to appeal to authorities because of their status. What’s more, detention in Mexico often means that migrants have difficulty attending their asylum hearings, and cannot find legal representation, negatively affecting their case. Already, more migrants from the Northern Triangle are applying for asylum in Mexico, which is unprepared to process their requests or accommodate them.

It is important to emphasize that the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the practice of detaining migrants, and other means used to deter or reject refugees or migrants seeking asylum are likely illegal under both domestic and international law, fundamentally violating the US Immigration and Nationality Act and the United Nations Refugee Convention 1967 Protocol, among others. The horrifying conditions at detention centers arguably violate the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which state that those in detention by governments must be treated humanely.

In short, women and girls in the Northern Triangle face violence seemingly in perpetuity, both at home and when they become migrants. The factors contributing to epidemic rates of violence against women and girls in the Northern Triangle, and beyond, are, in no particular order: organized crime; government militarization; availability of weapons; impunity for perpetrators; denial of reproductive rights; and cruel and arbitrary US immigration policies, all fed by a deep machismo and aided and abetted by networks of politicized Evangelical fundamentalism, many based in the United States.

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In Latin America, violence against women and girls is pervasive and practiced with relative impunity. According to a November 2017 United Nations Development Program Report, Latin America has the highest rate in the world of gender-based sexual violence against women, and in Central America two of every three women killed are victims of femicide, while the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found that on average 12 women are murdered a day across the region. The acceptance of violence against women is linked to the culture of machismo in Latin America: a recent report by Oxfam surveyed young people aged 15 to 25 from eight Latin American and Caribbean countries and found that machismo is tolerated by many young people in the region, with 86% of the young people surveyed believing their friends would not intervene if a friend hit his girlfriend. This normalization of violence against women has grave consequences for women and girls.

In order to bring to light overlooked and under-reported instances of extreme violence against women, in the past decade many countries in Latin America have introduced a new category of homicide called “femicide.” The internationally accepted definition of femicide is the murder of a woman or girl for the fact that she is a woman. However, there is no regional legal consensus on what constitutes femicide, and each of the sixteen countries that have included it in their penal code uses a different definition. For example, Nicaragua has an appropriately expansive definition, wherein the murder of a woman is classified as a femicide if it is driven by circumstances including any relationship with the perpetrator, unsuccessful sexual pursuit, gang violence, misogyny, or even if it is committed in front of the woman’s children. On the other hand, for a murder to be counted as a femicide in Mexico, the victim must either show signs of sexual assault or mutilation or have had a close relationship to the perpetrator. In Chile, the woman must have been the spouse or cohabitator of the perpetrator. The regional definitional divide in femicide classification results in inconsistent legislation. Simply having a consistent definition for femicide could help identify trends and regional best practices to address violence against women.

The lack of consensus over the definition also thwarts the effort to collect statistics on femicide that can be compared across countries. Collecting data is critical for researchers to measure the severity of gender-related violence and to monitor rates to identify progress. However, official statistics are scarce, and the differing definitions of femicide make it impossible to make country comparisons. For example, the Ministry of Peru has created a Feminicide Registry that clearly categorizes three types of femicide: intimate femicide, non-intimate femicide, and femicide based on connections. These subcategories are then compiled to record an official national number. If the entire region adopted such a methodology, steps could be taken to understand where, why, and how femicide happens, and implement an evidence-informed policy to better combat it.

Another issue underlying data collection is the lack of police training to correctly identify femicide, which results in underreporting. According to a recent report by Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, for example, only 20% of the over ten thousand murders of women between 2012 and 2016 were investigated as femicides. It is important that police officers, crime scene investigation officials, and forensic experts are properly trained to identify and report femicide. Some countries like Guatemala have established special units to investigate cases of violence against women. These units are staffed by police officers and other personnel that have received training on gender issues and human rights.

Data collection on femicide is also critical for informing preventative policies. Although preventative measures are being taken in many countries, data can inform more effective and targeted policies. For example, beginning in 2006, Chile developed “Casas de Acogida” or shelter homes for women under life-threatening situations due to intra-family violence. Data could be used to dedicate more staff and resources to shelters in areas with higher femicide rates.  

However, even the most well researched, coordinated, and drafted laws are worthless if governments do not dedicate resources to implementing them. For instance, in El Salvador, which passed a law criminalizing femicide in 2011, in the first 16 months after the law was enacted only 16 of the 63 reported cases were solved due to a systematic lack of investigation by police. According to the United Nations, as many as 98% of the cases of femicide and violence against women and girls in Latin America went unpunished in 2016. This may be due to policy “slippage” which is caused by the insufficient commitment of funds by the government to build up institutions to monitor the enforcement of newly enacted femicide laws.

The shocking level of impunity cannot solely be attributed to a lack of resources. Impunity is rooted in a lack of political will—to adequately organize resources and initiatives and mechanisms for the protection of women and their access to justice. Silvia Juarez, a member of the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace commented that although the government enacted legislation, there is “ignorance of the existence of the law, and resistance in applying it. The work does not end with the law being passed.” Cultural values and public support influence the success of policy implementation. In order to address the root causes of femicide, Latin America will ultimately need to confront the entrenched culture of machismo. Nonetheless, formalizing and building consensus around the definition and legislation of femicide could be the first step in bridging the legal gaps and generating the data needed to identify and deploy preventive policies to better protect women and girls in Latin America.

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