Targeted violence against women claimed over 500 lives in El Salvador last year, and the death toll continues to rise. The rate of these femicides, as they’ve been termed, has risen 197% in El Salvador over the past decade.
Victims of femicide are murdered precisely because they are women, and targeted violence takes many forms, the most obvious being domestic abuse within an established relationship and sexual violence both in and outside of a relationship. But victims of female-targeted crime do not always know their victims. Often, their crimes are even motivated by circumstances outside of the victim’s direct control, such as family members’ gang involvement. Perhaps the most disturbing trend in violence against women is the targeting of young women in rural areas, who are prone to random attacks by strangers simply because they are vulnerable.
We’ve written about femicide on this blog in the past, and but the issue has received more attention recently due to a particularly disturbing court ruling in Mexico. The ruling of Campo Algodonero, is the first case in which a state has been found guilty of violating rights to “life, integrity, and personal liberty” by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In brief, the ruling addresses the violent deaths of eight women in Ciudad Juárez in 2001 and condemns as criminal the government’s complete lack of diligence in investigating the crimes. This ruling ought to have far-reaching consequences, as it solidifies the government’s role in ensuring a safe environment for all of its citizens as well as its responsibility to uphold justice, no matter the social status of the victim.
Currently, “there are a lot of murders because everyone knows that, if you kill a young girl, nothing will happen to you,” states Rosa Isela Pérez, a Mexican-born columnist now exiled in Spain, during an interview with El País. She goes on to explain that Mexico and other Central American countries are essentially lawless when it comes to protection against violence toward women. Further, despite appalling statistics in Mexico, the situation is even graver in El Salvador, the country with the highest rate of violent crime.
Some believe that the high rate of femicide is a far-reaching remnant of the violence of El Salvador’s civil war: exposure to extreme violence for so long increases the likelihood of this violence being continued, they claim. This is an overly simplistic explanation, as it doesn’t account for the specific targeting of women, which is very hard to account for. Some say that most femicides are motivated by “hatred, contempt, pleasure, or a sense of ownership over women” (Diana Russell), but that gives no explanation of the origin of these feelings. The only apparent answer, though a very unsatisfying and disturbing one, is the established system: men rank higher (socially, politically, economically) than women, and are determined to hold onto this power, no matter the cost.
Fear plays a large role in femicide, both in the perpetration of the crime and in the lack of justice following it. In El Salvador, as in many Central American countries, the atmosphere is rife with machismo – a culture in which the masculine, powerful man is the ideal. Unfortunately, when juxtaposed with the realities of Salvadoran life (poverty, lack of economic/ social opportunity), this ideal stretches out of reach, sometimes driving men to lash out. Determined to prove their manhood, some men turn to physical violence in order to inspire the fear necessary to maintain control and respect in a relationship.
This fear doesn’t stop when the relationship ends, however: at least 12% of ongoing cases of criminal violence against women are stopped because of the victim’s continuing fear of their aggressor. This statistic echoes larger structures of threats and intimidation throughout El Salvador and the rest of Central America, in which fear is employed as a means of obtaining power and control. Violence against women is only one of many devastating symptoms of the culture of impunity in Latin America, pointing to the necessity of an overhaul of the system, through education, political participation, and international solidarity and aid.