The #MeToo movement kicked off in the US in 2017 and inspired women worldwide to speak out about their experiences with sexual abuse and harassment. While you may have heard of the many important spin-off movements or hashtags being used on social media around the world, you might not have heard of the massive movement against femicide and gender-based violence across Latin America prior to #MeToo in 2015. The term ‘femicide’ is generally understood to involve intentional murder of women because they are women, but broader definitions include any killings of women or girls.
#NiUnaMenos (‘not one [woman] less’ in Spanish) began in Argentina as a social movement speaking out against femicide. The official Ni Una Menos organisation states in its Carta Orgánica that they are protesting violence against women, of which femicide is its worst component. The name of the movement demonstrates that enough is enough and that it’s unacceptable to continue counting the number of women who are killed just because they are women.
Although gender-based violence was already a growing issue, a string of horrific femicides in 2015 struck a chord in the Argentine population. The body of 14-year old Chiara Páez was found underneath the patio of her boyfriend’s family home. An autopsy confirmed that she was pregnant, had been badly beaten and was buried alive. Her boyfriend confessed to killing her when questioned. Other gruesome deaths followed. Páez’s death marked the tipping point which provoked marches across Argentina to address the seriousness of the issue, utilising the slogans #NiUnaMenos and #VivasNosQueremos (‘we want us alive’). Similar marches were held in neighbouring Uruguay and Chile, and one was held in Peru a month later, which was said to be the biggest mass protest in the country’s history.
Two more notably horrific killings occurred in 2016 and once again, women took to the streets. Solidarity marches were organised across Latin American cities again, with growing support. Several marches were also held in Spanish cities to support Latin American women.
The 2016 Small Arms Survey gendered analysis on violent deaths reports that among the top 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, 14 are from Latin America and the Caribbean. El Salvador tops the list as the country with the highest murder rates of women in the world. The situation in Argentina is especially dire. Government statistics claim that femicide occurs every 30 hours on average.
So who exactly is being targeted in Latin America and why are femicide rates so much higher than in other parts of the world? It’s a complex issue, with misogynistic behaviour deeply-rooted in the culture of many Latin American countries. Potential targets for gender-based violence include transgender women, migrant women, prostitutes, and indigenous women. Demographic and biological factors alone are not to blame, and women of all ages, social classes, economies, or ethnicities can be victims. The common theme here is control. A man exerting control over a woman, any woman, in a less fortunate position legitimises violence against women and allows the male to dominate over the victim.
In Latin American countries, machismo or patriarchal values are deeply ingrained in the national cultures. Biology and social norms dictate behavioural expectations. This may not be an issue in itself, but combining this with predefined gender expectations leads to normalising violence against women. This perpetuates a certain acceptable level of violence within relationships; it can be considered justification to mistreat someone of a lower social class or of an indigenous population. Certain occupations might be considered less worthy where abuse might be justifiable, as in the examples of prostitutes or migrant workers. Exerting control over women is standard and accepted by men and women alike. Colombia’s Emberà indigenous group has been known to traditionally perform female genital mutilation on young girls, to make them more appealing to prospective husbands. Drug gangs target women associated with members of rival gangs to send a firm message. Women are not even in control of their own rights to abortion in most Latin American countries.
While Latin America’s patriarchal cultures are remnants of colonial pasts, Spain, Portugal and other countries that influenced the region are not as inherently patriarchal today, and femicide rates are substantially lower. Laws exist in many countries worldwide to protect women’s basic rights. Although many Latin American countries have recently implemented laws to defend women’s rights, many of these laws are rarely enforced, again a cultural issue. It’s almost as if the laws exist to keep up appearances. Women are also not keen to speak out about abuse or violence if they manage to survive it; often abuse is disguised as lovers’ quarrels. Violence against women is always about exerting power or control over your victim, and this applies anywhere in the world.
Historically, control has been used to flex dictatorial muscle across many Latin American countries. In Guatemala, where gender-based violence rates are incredibly high, post-war attitudes include normalised views on violence toward women; violent tactics were used to make women scapegoats. This was the case in many Latin American countries, as the continent was once rife with dictatorships, and women were regularly made examples of to exert control. Rape and torture were used as political weapons to marginalise women and to keep them submissive, in turn this sent a strong message of warning to everyone else. Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile all share this in their relatively recent histories.
Machismo culture is accepted by many men and women alike. Domestic violence plays a huge part in machismo, and sadly much of it is tolerated by victims. A victim-blaming culture of provocation exists, and educating the population is key. Empowering women to recognise and acknowledge abuse and speak out is paramount. Demonstrating the benefits of gender-equality and mediation to evidence how harmful victimising others can be is crucial. Less reliance on a display of strength and more focus on emotional awareness should be taught to children. Gender stereotypes must be eliminated; educating the general population on the implications of gender-based violence and inequality is crucial. Schools or public health institutions could potentially take this on to spread awareness across each of the countries impacted.
Despite machismo’s prevalence, progress is being made. Women are speaking out, taking to the streets to protest, marching in solidarity for the culture to change and to support victims. Women in positions of power are using their platforms to speak out, such as the 2017 Peruvian beauty pageant contestants who collectively shared statistics on gender-based violence issues within the country instead of reciting their measurements or the Argentine actress with 1M Instagram followers who spoke out about her rape by a famous actor.
Feminist organisations are popping up left and right amongst many of the more marginalised populations, more women are getting involved in politics thanks to aggressive affirmative action policies, there are more support organisations and shelters for women than ever before. Notably, more women are speaking out about being abused, and spreading awareness to others. Now we just need to pressure governments to enforce existing laws and stop governing like machistas. People are advocating for change, but it’s not enough. Until the day #NiUnaMenos becomes a reality, we will continue to support our sisters and march.