Latin America On The March To Stop Violence Against Women

Rallies, demonstrations in the streets, conferences, cultural events - yesterday's International Women's Day commemorations around the world took many different forms. In Latin America, women's-rights activists and their supporters called special attention to various forms of violence against women that continue to prevail in many countries in the region.

Among the alarming statistics: "In Guatemala [last year], 603 women died as a result of violence [against them], a figure that represents ten percent of all murders in the country.. ..In Chile, according to official data, seven out of every ten women has been.. ..beaten or psychologically maltreated."

A just-released report by the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based, independent organization that promotes human rights and democracy, focuses on conditions many women face in Mexico and Guatemala. In those countries, the WOLA study points outs, "The absence of a functioning criminal justice system has contributed profoundly to a continuum of violent acts against women. The failure to act is perpetuating a culture of impunity, and consequently sending the message that it is acceptable to hit, rape and murder women."

A WOLA representative said in conjunction with the release of the new report: "The police and justice institutions in Mexico and Guatemala are weak, ineffective and often corrupt. These flaws are compounded by gender biases within the institutions, which act to systematically silence and discriminate against women."

In Mexico, the national congress has created a new law aimed at guaranteeing women "a life free of violence." The problem is, its critics say, that it doesn't put forth "specific sanctions against aggressive behavior" toward women. In the congress's lower house, legislators on the left have called for swift justice and tough punishment for those who sexually abuse, torture or lock up women, as well as "pederasts and their accomplices in positions of power." Those legislators have described the murders of women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez - almost 500 since 1993 - as "an open wound that will never heal." They're sick and tired of lawbreakers getting away with impunity.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, in a public appearance that mixed International Women's Day celebrations with politics, called for a change in the nation's penal code to make life sentences mandatory for those who abuse or enslave women (example: in forced-prostitution rings).

In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, the country's first female president - and a former victim of torture under the U.S.-backed, right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet - told International Women's Day celebrants that "[e]quality is not a dream" and that "women have arrived to stay in Chilean politics." Nevertheless, she acknowledged, "We're still not a society of men and women who are equal in rights and opportunities."

In an official statement issued to mark yesterday's big day for the women of the world, the United Nations' new secretary-general, South Korea's Ban Ki-moon, observed: "In almost all countries, women continue to be underrepresented in decision-making positions. Women's work continues to be undervalued, underpaid or not paid at all. Out of more than 100 million children who are not in school, the majority are girls. Out of more than 800 million adults who cannot read, the majority are women. Worst of all, violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women's lives, on their families and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence - yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned."

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