Femicides on the rise, more brutal than ever.
Indiana Barrios Recinos, 27, had just dropped off her two young children at school and was getting into her car when she was shot four times in the head by her ex-husband Rodrigo Maldonado, with whom she was fighting a custody battle in court. The murder occurred in Guatemala City’s zone 11, a middle-class residential district.
Two hours later, on the same day, Aug. 10, a woman’s body was found in Loma Alta, a small village in San Juan Sacatepéquez, about two hours away from Guatemala City. The woman, aged between 18 and 20, had been murdered with a sharp instrument and a message that read “this is what happens for extorting money from people” had been written on her stomach in pen.
This young woman, possibly a youth gang member, was never identified and her body bag was simply tagged XX and buried in a communal grave.
Femicide is reaching epidemic proportions in some Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador.
The statistics are chilling: between 2002 and 2006, 1,398 women were murdered in Guatemala, according to the National Police. So far this year, 271 women and 35 girls have been murdered this year in Guatemala and despite campaigns led by women’s groups and human rights organizations, the spiral of violence is worsening.
The authorities often try to play down the scale of the problem, arguing that these murders are part of the wider problem of increasing gang violence throughout the region, which affects society as a whole, not just women. But women’s groups say it is not just the increase in the number of murders that have occurred, but the viciousness with which these women have been killed.
A different kind of killing
According to a study by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office in 2006 based on murder cases reported by the national media 80 percent of men are killed by firearms, which do not imply physical contact between murderer and victim.
By contrast, 69 percent of women are killed by firearms with the rest being killed through direct forms of violence such as stabbing, kicking and punching, evidence of the killer’s intention to assert his physical superiority over his victim, also expressed through different forms of torture such as rape and genital mutilation.
In Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries with the highest femicide rate, the violent killing of women has coincided with the increase of gang violence. Turf wars between rival gangs often result in the killing of women associated with gang members, as the gangster’s partner is seen as the property of her boyfriend and therefore a legitimate target for attack. Raping and killing a gangster’s partner is seen as comparable to trashing his car or property.
When the violent murder of women occurs within the home, the murder is usually the result of many years of physical and psychological abuse against her. In both cases, women’s groups and human rights organizations stress the fact that the root cause of violence against women can be found in a patriarchal social structure that still regards women as second-class citizens who are inferior to men.
The prevalence of sexist attitudes has resulted in discriminatory Penal Codes that fail to impose adequate sentences for the various crimes associated with violence against women. For instance, a law stating that no charges would be pressed against a man accused of rape if he chose to marry his victim, was only repealed in late 2005.
In some countries, such as Mexico, where the murder of women in the northern city of Ciudad Juárez attracted considerable media coverage and became the subject of many campaigns from international human rights organizations, a new law has recognized femicide as a distinct crime from murder, as it carries the aggravating factor of sexual violence motivated by misogyny.
The law was approved by the Mexican Congress owing to a forceful campaign led by lawmaker Marcela Lagarde, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Mexican law also seeks that Congress is made of up at least 30 percent women.
Guatemalan Rep. Nineth Montenegro, head of the Congressional Commission on Women’s Issues, argues that it is unlikely this will occur in Guatemala, where only 9 percent of the Congress is female, in the near future. “Women in Congress don’t have a gender perspective. Even if we had 100 women in Congress, nothing would change,” she said.
As well as discriminatory laws, sexism has also resulted in a skewed budget that assigns derisory sums to women’s institutions created to tackle domestic violence and discrimination. There are several government-sponsored women’s organizations in Guatemala that deal mainly with equal access to employment and domestic violence. But they are assigned a paltry 0.25 percent of the budget, which can be seen as evidence that the authorities have set up these organizations as a PR exercise in order to pay lip service to gender equality.
Human rights organizations have strongly criticized the sensationalist and superficial way in which the media has reported the growing number of femicides in the region, which creates stereotypes and stigmatizes the victims.
According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, the media tends to give gang related killings greater coverage, presenting turf wars between rival gangs as the only rather than one of the causes behind the killings.
Coverage of these killings often includes remarks such as “the victim was wearing a low-cut top and a short skirt,” implying that that the victims of these crimes are “loose women” and that women should stay at home and dress modestly to avoid being the target of violence.