In 2011, Mexican poet and human rights activist Susana Chávez Castillo was tortured and killed in Ciudad Juárez. Eighteen years earlier, she coined the phrase “ni una mujer menos” protesting the unsolved murders of women in that city. Today, those words live on as grassroots movements across Latin America condemn the prevalence of gender-based violence. But, as Chávez’s own narrative suggests, meaningful policy change has been slow.
Violence against women has made headlines in recent months, but the roots of feminist protests against gender-based violence in Latin America go back decades. In 1981, the first Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro—“gatherings” where feminists could network, reflect, and mobilize—created what would become the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In the 1990s, women-led activism successfully pushed for the Convention of Belém do Pará, a landmark in the fight for women’s rights. Many countries in the region have since passed national laws criminalizing femicide and other forms of gender-based violence.
Yet Latin America remains one of the world’s most violent regions for women. A Pan-American Health Organization study found that in some countries, as many as thirty-three percent of women experienced domestic violence. The region has some of the world’s highest rates of femicide: on average, one woman is killed every two hours. Women who push back—activists, journalists, politicians—face vicious smear campaigns, online harassment, threats of sexual violence, and death threats, which are sometimes realized.
#NiUnaMenos started as a direct response to the murder of fourteen-year-old Chiara Paez in 2015. Her death triggered massive protests against femicide in Argentina. In 2016, the movement organized the first women-led mass strike in the country with similar demonstrations in Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and El Salvador. Other women’s protest movements have flared up in recent years, most notably the 2018 #EleNão (“not him”) campaign in Brazil against then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and the 2019 Green Tide demonstrations in favor of abortion rights in Argentina.
Women’s movements have achieved some policy victories, most notably in #NiUnaMenos’ home country of Argentina. In 2015, the Argentine government established the requirement to collect and publish national femicide statistics and mandated the creation of shelters for women. At the end of 2019, the new government of Alberto Fernández created the Ministry for Women, Gender and Diversity, which strives to eradicate gender-based violence and strengthen women’s and LGBTQ+ individuals’ rights to security and bodily autonomy. In Chile, activists successfully pressured politicians to enforce gender parity in the legislative body tasked with drafting a new Constitution.
However, these campaigns have endured to this day not because of their successes but because of the persistent lack of progress in addressing gender-based violence in Latin America. What makes Latin America so dangerous for women? The region is far from homogenous, but there are a number of common factors. Although many countries have good laws on the books, implementation is paramount, including training and resources—and this is where many governments in Latin America traditionally fall short. Women do not trust the judicial system to protect them, and with reason: over ninety-five percent of femicides go unpunished. There are a number of institutional factors at play, such as corruption, impunity, and a lack of political will. The COVID-19 pandemic has added new urgency to this problem. Seven out of ten estimated femicides in Latin America occur in the victim’s home, making social isolation measures deadly: across the region, reports of violence to emergency hotlines have spiked during the pandemic.
There are some initiatives that show promise. The Brazilian Forum for Public Safety is developing police training curricula on how to respond effectively to gender-based violence, even in cases where women are not ready to file a report or leave their abuser. But training should not stop with law enforcement: prosecutors, judges, and other officials also need training on the complexities of gender-based violence so that fewer cases are dismissed as illegitimate. Future policies should encourage collaboration between the judicial system and social services, to ensure that women who report abuse receive legal guidance as they move through the judicial process. Likewise, increased funding and resources for temporary housing, mental health counseling, and healthcare must go hand-in-hand with judicial responses to violence. The question of resources is perhaps one of the most challenging given the economic damage caused by COVID-19, prompting countries such as Mexico to cut funding for services for women. In El Salvador, Ciudad Mujer, a national program that championed protection and empowerment of women, was demoted resulting in abrupt resource adjustments. These hasty resource allocations further demonstrate the need for robust policies that secure a social safety net for women who experience violence.
Better data collection and transparency will facilitate the implementation of policies to target gender-based violence. Authorities can benefit from targeted programs on technical assistance and secure and reliable data reporting like the InfoSegura.org project, a joint UNDP and USAID effort in Central America to provide information on gender-based violence. Reliable data yields positive, long-lasting effects that allow authorities to develop solutions based on reliable information and monitor policy implementation results.
At a more fundamental level, there needs to be a reckoning with the cultural roots of gender-based violence. A culture of machismo and hypermasculinity emphasizes traditional gender norms and normalizes domestic violence. These societal patterns are self-reproducing: a 2018 Oxfam survey of fifteen to twenty-five year-olds in Latin America found eighty-six percent (men and women) believed no one should interfere in fights between couples. El Salvador allowed abortion under some circumstances until 1998, when a new law instituted a complete ban. In Mexico, where civil society has persistently demanded better accountability mechanisms for femicides, the attorney-general at suggested eliminating femicide’s designation as a separate crime from homicide as a solution.
A critical tool for changing societal attitudes is awareness campaigns, whether television, print, or social media. In Brazil, telenovela episodes that addressed domestic violence corresponded with increased reporting of violence. Other more targeted awareness campaigns, organized by the government, international organizations, and NGOs like the Avon Institute and Maria da Penha Institute, have focused on encouraging friends, neighbors, and community members to notice the signs of violence and intervene.
COVID-19 has created new challenges for activists as they work to change societal norms and culture. Massive street demonstrations—a core tool of the #NiUnaMenos campaigns—are no longer safe. Some women’s groups have become more creative: Salvadorian women recently organized a virtual #NiUnaMenos protest. In Mexico, civil society organizations have united in the face of President López Obrador’s dismissals of the prevalence of violence against women, forming coalitions to fiercely signal government missteps. But the challenge of holding leaders accountable remains. In El Salvador, the new administration of President Bukele has exposed women’s lack of social capital: despite running his campaign as an outspoken ally of women and the LGBTI+ community, he closed the Ministry of Social Inclusion, a key agency in the national gender discussion.
The challenge of turning grassroots protests into institutional change is not unique to #NiUnaMenos and other women’s rights campaigns, but it is exacerbated by the fact that governments in Latin America have traditionally been less responsive to women’s demands, largely because women still possess less economic and political power. Therefore, efforts to increase women’s representation in politics, business, and other positions of leadership matter. Government support for such initiatives is important, but grassroots activism, NGOs, and international organizations can also play significant roles by empowering women, like giving loans to women-owned small businesses, or providing platforms for aspiring women politicians. Yet all policymakers, regardless of their gender, need to incorporate a gender lens as a central part of the decision-making processes. Policymakers have long viewed gender equity as a niche issue, despite the fact that women represent over half of the global population. This compartmentalization of women’s issues, including gender-based violence, leads to policies with unintended consequences, notably including the COVID-19 lockdowns that have caused a worldwide spike in domestic violence.
Aided by social media, #NiUnaMenos has rallied around specific, horrific instances of violence to draw regional and international attention to their cause. This movement has given women across Latin America a platform to demand greater gender equity and an end to violence against women. Public naming and repudiation of violence against women is itself a seismic shift—but it is not enough. Five years after the first #NiUnaMenos protest, COVID-19 has laid bare just how much work remains to guarantee women public policies that protect them.
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Anya Prusa joined the Wilson Center in 2016 and currently manages the Brazil Institute as its Senior Associate. She leads the Wilson Center’s project “Accessing Justice: Femicide and the Rule of Law in Latin America,” and was editor of the Institute’s 2019 report on the status of women in Brazil.
Beatriz García Nice is the Program Assistant for the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. She has previously worked for the US Department and State and the Organization of American States. She is currently part of Wilson Center’s gender-based violence project, “Accessing Justice: Femicide and the Rule of Law in Latin America,” with a focus in El Salvador.
Olivia Soledad is the Program Assistant for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. She previously worked at the City of Boston’s Office for Immigrant Advancement and at the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations in Geneva. She is currently part of the Wilson Center’s project, “Accessing Justice: Femicide and the Rule of Law in Latin America,” where she is focusing on Mexico.