Columnas / Inequality

The Deadly Effects of Trivializing Violence Against Women in Central America

Thursday, May 21, 2020
María Luz Nóchez

On February 27, 2020, a couple gave an exclusive interview to a television channel. They’re both in what we call “show business” in El Salvador, which instead of artists includes radio and TV personalities. Two days before, the wife had publicly reported her husband for throwing boiling water at her legs and spitting at her. For twenty minutes, right there on the TV, which many have on and playing while they eat, followed an exhibition in the normalization of domestic violence, in the style of one of those Discovery Channel documentaries, where the narrator recounts what is happening: “the lion mates with the female and then abandons her…”

For a march against homicides in 2015, feminist organizations demanded and end to agression against women and a respect for their rights. Photo from El Faro.
For a march against homicides in 2015, feminist organizations demanded and end to agression against women and a respect for their rights. Photo from El Faro.

Some twenty years ago, the story could have been part of an anecdote about a televised national joke that to some genius looked like a potential money-maker. But we are in 2020, and practices like these, which to some are merely a “domestic quarrel,” are now regulated by the law. There is, moreover, an entire generational movement that is not inclined to let events like these go unpunished. Statistics prove they have a point: In 2019 alone, 215 women were murdered. That number can be tricky, and sound like an exaggeration when compared to the 2009 men who were murdered in the same year. But the reasons behind the violence and the type of violence matter, and we should remember that when it comes to violence against women, feminicide is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands shouldn’t have to die for it to shock us.

These women, for the simple fact of being women, have certainly experienced other kinds of violence throughout their lives: they were harassed in the street or, with worse “luck,” in their workplaces; they were denied opportunities to access education, better working conditions, or even a mortgage loan; the way they dressed, the way they spent their money, and their friendships were all controlled; they were made to believe that they were someone else’s property, and so didn’t have the right to make their own decisions.

All of these other kinds of violence that don’t necessarily end up in death have for years cut across the experience of being a woman. In 2012, when the Special Integral Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women (LEIV) went into effect, it managed to put a name to these practices, but it is still difficult for us not only to be recognized, but to be recognized as victims. 

In countries like El Salvador, violence against women is also exercised by the State. This is the case, for example, in the countries that still prohibit abortions, without exceptions; this is also why stories as surreal as a woman spending up to 40 years in prison, accused of having killed her baby, when she had a miscarriage, keep making headlines. 

El Salvador has long succumbed to the same spiral that other Central American countries, as well as Mexico, are trapped in. 

In Guatemala, for example, the Public Ministry registered 148 daily complaints of violence against women at the national level. And although the number of complaints has trended downward over the last three years, this doesn’t take away the fact that the home remains the most violent place for women. Living in the most violent zone on the planet, Central Americans don’t migrate; they flee. In the case of women, they aren’t just fleeing from harassment by the gangs, but also the possibility that their partners, ex-partners, or “suitors” will kill them. “Despite the risk associated with migration, it is still lower than the risk of being killed at home,” Angela Me, chief of research and analysis at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told the New York Times in August 2019.

In the case of Honduras, the circumstances there aren’t very encouraging for women either. In the first third of 2019, the Special Prosecutor for Women received more than 2,500 complaints — that is, 13.6 daily complaints of domestic, intrafamiliar, and sexual violence. By July of that year, the country registered 180 femicides. 

Hence, even though more men are killed, the inequality gap in terms of the reasons why women are victims of violence runs much deeper. Because of the power that has historically been exercised over women’s bodies, violence against them continues to be seen as something that — with the exception of death — can be mediated and broadcast on national television.

In the days leading up to March 8, for example, a female journalist denounced, on live television, during one of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s national morning addresses, that one of her male colleagues who was there had incited violence against her, pleading “from the heart” that she be shot. The president downplayed her complaint. “What I want is for you to seek a reconciliation. I’m going to ask that we not fight here like this. I can even help you with the reconciliation, hugs.”

Age did not stop women from uniting to demand rights for women on March 9, 2018. Photo: Carlos Barrera.
Age did not stop women from uniting to demand rights for women on March 9, 2018. Photo: Carlos Barrera.

The selective blindness towards this subject is so serious that it is easier for city and state officials to speak on behalf of the monuments and walls that were seized during the 8M marches than to the statistics that show daily how dangerous it is to be a woman, and the physical, spatial, work, and emotional limitations that this entails.

The Covid-19 emergency has given further evidence of the vulnerability of women. While at a global level, “Stay at Home” has become a call to consciousness to avoid the spread of the virus, home quarantine has been truly dangerous for many women. With decrees restricting movement in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, fear of the street persists; at the same time, for some women, staying home has become deadly.

On top of the stress and fear of contracting a deadly virus, comes the scourge of having to cohabitate with an aggressor without possibility of escape, or even breaks. Complaints of physical violence inside the home have increased in comparison to the months preceding the health crisis. In El Salvador alone, just since the order of mandatory home quarantine on March 21, feminist organizations have counted 21 violent deaths had taken place.

The increase of domestic violence complaints against women is only one of the most visible faces of inequality. It is also important to consider the concurrent reality that, with the whole family at home, the care work that women carry out inside their houses has surely also multiplied. According to the National Survey on Time Use in El Salvador, before the pandemic, women spent 3.48 hours per day on domestic and carework, in addition to their paid work, compared to an hour and 37 minutes carried out by men.

The tradition of delegating unpaid work in the home to women is so ingrained in Salvadoran society that it became a theme of the day on a Salvadoran morning show. On April 16, almost a month into the mandatory lockdown, a group of men discussed how they could pass the quarantine in the dignified manner that their gender afforded them. “You must always be the respected man in your home. I don’t want to see these machos sweeping, mopping, washing dishes… Nooo. Alpha machos, with hair on their chests, don’t you dare.” The four troglodites gloated, believing that in 2020 declarations like these would pass by unnoticed. The next morning, the main instigator of the group admitted publicly that his comments were machista and wrong.

An acknowledgement like this on national television will perhaps not end up changing the behavior of men who believe that attending to the household is the sole responsibility of women. But hopefully, it will help shift the judgment of the people in charge of creating television programming, who end up triviliazing inequality and violence against women in the name of entertainment.

*Translated by Laura Weiss

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