By Michele Frix, Program Officer of Seattle International Foundation
A recent article by the Associated Press reprinted by media sources throughout the country, has drawn attention to not only the rising levels of violence in Central America, but also highlights how women are disproportionately affected by violence in the region. On July 12, 2010, a federal court ruling in the U.S. State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit of San Francisco forced immigration judges to reconsider whether Guatemalan women constitute a “particular social group” that might be persecuted due to high levels of violence and crime. Although lower courts have spoken out against the ruling arguing that Guatemalan women is too broad of a category, activists and feminists disagree. Women comprise nine percent of murder victims in Latin America– the statistic rises to fifteen percent in Guatemala. The simple fact of being a woman from Central America is reason to fear for their lives, according to the Associated Press.
Violence against women in Central America (particularly Mexico and Guatemala) is not a new issue. Activists have been speaking out against the issue since the 1990’s with a surge of campaigns in the past ten years. Amnesty International, among others, has been active in speaking out against femicide with their own “Stop Violence Against Women” campaign. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Treaty for the Rights of Women), adopted by the United Nations in 1979, is considered the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women, according to Amnesty International. CEDAW represents a powerful tool for feminists around the world and has been proven effective in allowing women to bring about change in their own communities. Although the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in July, 2002 to recommend ratification of CEDAW, the Treaty has never come before the full Senate for a vote.
Acts of femicide* in Guatemala in particular, are infamous for their brutality as well as exacerbated by the impunity that exists for the perpetrators. Shockingly, only one to two percent of crimes against life are effectively prosecuted, meaning that someone who commits murder in Guatemala has a 98-99% chance of escaping prosecution and punishment (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, University of California Hastings). Between 2000 and 2007, the number of women murdered in Guatemala doubled– it is also estimated that less than 20 of the more than 3,000 cases of murdered women have been resolved by the Guatemalan justice system (Kathleen Melville, Upside World).
The problem of violence against women in Guatemala, and throughout Central America, is complex. Marred by civil conflict, gang violence, and drug-related crime, women have become the unfortunate target of this violence and many have become normalized and do not recognize that they are indeed the victims of violence. Many Central American feminists and activists who do speak out against femicide and violence against women have been threatened and killed themselves.
However, there is hope. Many grassroots organizations throughout the region are working tirelessly to draw attention to this issue and seek to alter the societal fabric that allows this pervasive violence to continue. Many of these organizations are supported by the Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM), a partner of the Seattle International Foundation in the region. FCAM seeks to support grassroots, feminist organizations dedicated to the empowerment of young, female leaders working in a variety of areas, including reproductive rights, and actively engaging women in public policy and advocacy against gender specific violence in the region.
*Femicide, also known as gendercide, is the mass murder of women simply due to their gender.