By Harriet Allan
Women and girls are being murdered in higher numbers during the current global pandemic, as quarantine traps victims with their abusers. As a result, the number of emergency calls reporting attacks on women in Mexico has jumped by over 50 percent, with similar statistics across the continent.
Violence has surged since the pandemic began. According to government data, 987 women and girls were murdered in Mexico in the first four months of 2020, and the shocking murders of Ingrid Escamilla and Fatima Aldrighett brought to attention the gendered nature of many murders of women and girls in Latin America. In February, Ingrid Escamilla was killed by her partner, who confessed to killing and skinning her as well as removing some of her organs. In the following days, pictures of Ingrid’s mutilated body appeared in sensationalist tabloid newspapers with headlines such as, “It was Cupid’s fault”, blaming her poor choice of partner, her age, and her beauty for her murder. In the same month, Fatima Aldrighett was taken from her school and found in a black plastic bag by the side of a dirt road four days later – killed, naked, and bearing signs of torture. She was 7 years old.
High levels of violence against women are prevalent across Latin America. The Colombian Femicide Foundation and the National Institute of Legal Medicine found that, in Colombia, 8,532 women and girls reported experiencing sexual violence in the first five months of 2020. More than half were under 18.
Argentina saw at least 6 femicides in just under a month of quarantine (20 March to 13 April), and recent figures show at least 86 femicides have occurred in Argentina this year. Some organisations claim the figures are much higher.
What is femicide?
The World Health Organisation defines femicide as the “intentional murder of a woman because they are a woman”. The term separates the murder of women and girls into a distinct category in order to legally and socially recognise gendered motivations for killing. As the WHO explains, femicide is usually perpetrated by men. It differs from homicide in that most cases are committed by partners or ex-partners and often involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence, or situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner.
The term femicide helps to acknowledge violence against women as a distinct issue rooted in gendered power structures. In ‘Terrorizing Women: Femicide in the Americas’, Regoso and Bejarano define femicide as gender-based violence that implicates the state (directly or indirectly) as well as the individual perpetrators. They argue that femicide is a form of structural violence rooted in social, political, economic and cultural inequalities. The label sets apart murder involving misogyny and the dehumanisation of women from other types of homicide.
By separating femicide from the broader category of homicide, more attention can be paid to convicting perpetrators. Since 2007, 15 countries have recognised femicide as a distinct category of murder, and in many countries, jail sentences are longer for femicide than for other murders. For example, in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico, the maximum sentence for femicide is 70 years, 30 years longer than for other types of murders. Additionally, Mexican courts do not require proof that the abuser intended to kill his victim, making it more difficult for men who beat their wives to death to get away with a manslaughter conviction.
Despite this, the categorisation does have its flaws. For example, a man who kills a woman is sentenced to decades more jail time than a woman who kills a man. Some femicides are also misclassified as ordinary homicides to make them more likely to win a conviction, and if cases are pursued as femicides, it can be difficult to prove that a murderer has been motivated by misogyny.
The Mexican Criminal Code (Código Penal Federal) offers some guidance to prosecutors as to what can precede a femicide. According to the Code, a homicide is often considered a femicide when the victim shows signs of sexual violence, if she has suffered degrading injuries, if the abuser has a history of violence, and if there was an affectionate relationship between the victim and abuser.
Activism and response to femicide
Legal progress is just one way in which activists are countering femicide. In 1994, Latin American countries signed the Convention of Belém, requiring them to pass laws to protect women from violence, educate people about women’s rights, and fight machismo (defined as strong or aggressive masculine pride). Most countries followed through, but real, practical change has been limited.
Unpunished violent crime is rife in Latin America: most cases of violence against women are not investigated, and those brought to the authorities are rarely effectively prosecuted, as many officers still believe that domestic violence is a “private matter”. Meanwhile, activists argue that this attitude and the urge to commit violence comes from a culture of machismo that encourages male misbehaviour.
To eradicate this, states need to “start young”, educating children and changing perceptions of gender. Investment in classrooms and the police is imperative to ensure change across all aspects of society. In Perú, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable People (Ministerio de la Mujer y Poblaciones Vulnerables) has Emergency Centers for Women (Centros Emergencia Mujer) across the country, offering free aid to victims of familial and sexual violence, including legal advice, psychological help, and social and economic assistance. They have also launched social campaigns to educate and train people in the community on violence and gender inequality. Comprehensive and multidisciplinary approaches like this tackle the problem from the grass-roots level.
Quarantine has not suppressed activism; as the feminist collective Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) declared, “Femicides don’t stop in quarantine, and neither does our rage”. The high-profile cases of femicide in Mexico spawned protests and feminist movements against patriarchal violence and oppression, as Mexican women band together to call for better policies and systems to allow women to leave abusive relationships, and for their abusers to be charged. Activists are also pressuring governments to uphold their laws and implement the social programs necessary to overcome this persisting threat to women in the region.
Government responses to the rise in femicide during the pandemic have been mixed. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested that a demise of family cohesion and isolation was fuelling domestic violence in Mexico, though activists criticised his approach and called for institutional reform and funding for this. On the other hand, Colombia reacted strongly to two shocking cases of sexual assault of children by soldiers, as President Iván Duque signed a constitutional reform to allow life imprisonment sentences for the rape and murder of children, in the name of “unrestricted defense of the children of Colombia”.
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández noted the increased risk to women during mandatory isolation and urged people to reach out to the country’s helpline or the police, stating, “Patriarchy exists and machismo ravages Argentine society, and we cannot allow that.” The Argentine Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity also launched a campaign whereby women who fear for their safety can go to a local pharmacy and ask for “the red face mask”, and pharmacists will call for help. These efforts attempt to reach women who are struggling to leave their homes.
Feminist Lawyer Sabrina Cartabia has noted that some government measures to protect women have been positive, but ineffective. For example, courts have extended protective measures over women, but cut hours of operation and do not take complaints digitally, and therefore the number of recorded complaints has reduced dramatically. However, the Argentine Ministry of Women did boost personnel to answer its helpline, adding an email address and WhatsApp number to help women get in touch. In the province of Buenos Aires, requests for assistance jumped 60 percent during the first six days of quarantine, demonstrating a greater need for these kinds of administration changes across Latin America.
Activists are campaigning for easier ways to report cases of abuse at police stations, more visible publicity campaigns, more resources allocated to courts, and more shelters for those women who are escaping violence. Perhaps the circumstances imposed by the virus could catalyse further legal and social change to protect women and girls from misogynistic violence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas. Rosa-Linda Fregoso, Cynthia Bejarano, eds. 2010. Duke University Press.