ComVoMujer: Fighting against violence in an extremely violent continent towards women

Once again this November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women will be commemorated, in remembrance of the brutal assassination of the  Mirabal sisters in 1960 in the Dominican Republic. It is no coincidence that it was in Colombia, during the First Feminist Encounter in 1981, that this commemorative date was proclaimed: Latin America continues to be an extremely violent continent towards women. The numbers of the region are shocking: between January and December 2010 Peru officially reported 130 femicide victims; in Bolivia, the Manuela Observatory registered  157 femicide cases in 2011 and 97 cases have been counted in the year in course; in Quito, Ecuador, 1831 femicides were reported between  2000 y 2006. Three to five of every ten women living in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia y Paraguay  is a direct victim of gender violence.

The III International Report on Gender Violence, published by the Institute of Studies on Violence Reina Sofía of the International University of Valencia (VIU), which draws a comparative analysis based on the state of gender violence in  45 countries during the period  2000- 2006, reveals that eleven of the fourteen countries where femicide incidence is higher than on the international average are Latinamerican; Bolivia and Paraguay are amongst the most violent.

According to UN Women, 603 million women still live in countries that do not consider domestic violence a crime. Latin America and the Caribbean turn out to be one of the most advanced regions in this regard: most Latin American countries have adopted the Belem Do Para Convention, an instrument designed specifically to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women, and they also count with legislation that acknowledges gender violence as a violation of human rights. But as the figures show, the gap between the law and a reality that is just beginning to reveal itself is enormous. In order to bring change, it does not suffice to promote the enforcement of the law, socio-cultural changes must be introduced as well.

Moreover, gender violence manifests itself regardless of  cultural, class or nationality barriers, as can be clearly observed in multiethnic and multicultural societies such as those in Latin America. It is a problem based on  structurally and historically unequal power relations between men and women, and takes form in societies that are deeply marked by patriarchalism, discrimination and racism.

The influence of the most conservative expressions of the local catholic church, the social and institutional acceptance, to the point of naturalization, of gender violence, are just some of the factors that hinder its treatment. In addition, the reports tend to underestimate the magnitude of the problem, resulting in lack of information on the topic, due to the fact that domestic violence is generally silenced and kept secret by the same victims. To shake these women out of their isolation and silence is no easy task, especially in countries with large rural and indigenous populations.

ComVoMujer, a program of the German cooperation organization GIZ (Deutsche Gesellshaft für Iinternationale Zusammenrbeit), is an ambitious attempt to revert this  situation.  Specifically designed to focus on the needs of   indigenous, afroamerican and rural women living in  Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay y Peru, ComVoMujer’s objectives are to bring about a change in mentality in order to protect women against gender violence and to eradicate discriminatory practices based on prejudices and stereotypes.

The actions and measures carried out as part of the program pursue a double strategy: on the one side, to develop capacities in those actors considered relevant, on the other to effectively bring to enforcement the regional treaties and national action plans against gender violence through local financial support and assistance. This comprises the improvement of public and non public services in rural areas as well as the promotion of an entrepreneurial culture to actively fight against gender violence from the workplace.

A central aspect of the program is its collaborative and participative approach in directly involving “the three most important pillars of society – government, private sector and non governmental organizations” in order to work towards its goals,  as Christine Brendel, the regional program’s director explained.  ComVoMujer is based on the idea that “only by working together can such a multidimensional problem like gender violence be confronted efficiently and effectively, since  its solution necessarily requires the efforts of all those involved.” Brendel gives top priority, therefore, to the promotion of collaborative instances amongst these actors through actions that link and bring them together, promote dialogue and exchange, generate networks and such. Collaboration, in fact, takes place at different levels: on  the national level, amongst the aforementioned actors within each country, on the regional level amongst participating countries, and on the international level between Germany and the involved countries. ComVoMujer acts then as a platform for South-North knowledge exchange. The program, , as technical assistance service provider to the federal Economic Development and Cooperation Ministry (BMZ), contributes its experiences, systematizes them and makes them available to the German state.

In the context of the inaction and lack of protection offered by the state to victims of gender violence in these countries, ComVoMujer shows that there is yet much to be done, and in doing so deployed a wide range of intersectorial measures at all levels. Agreements were subscribed with industry representatives committing businesses to tackle gender violence in the workplace, training courses were destined to personnel of the numerous entities involved in law enforcement: from police stations -such as the Family Protection Brigades of Bolivia-, shelters for women, courts and district attorney’s offices, dialogue encounters with local associations organizations were held, information booths and legal assistance services were promoted, prevention and promotion activities were held in local communities together with women organizations, legislation projects received support and publicity, information campaigns at local and national level were designed and promoted, just to name a few of the activities and lines of action of the program.

An example of ComVoMujer’s focus on indigenous populations is the audiovisual document “Voces de dignidad” that the Sunu Group of intercultural action in Paraguay is now finishing, based on their research on gender perception and violence related issues in several indigenous communities. Mariana Franco, a member of the Sunu Group that took part in the field work, explained that this is the first time ever that the indigenous communities of Paraguay are asked about gender issues, while pointing out that the entire material including hours of interviews has been recorded.

Once the discussion on gender was initiated, Franco told of the interviews, the topic of violence arose in all cases, with no exception. She emphasized the fact that “100% of the women knew of a case of violence in their own community”. Amongst her conclusions she stressed that these women felt their voices go unheard, and this was perceived by them as a form  of violence: “even if there is participation, they manifested… that their voices are not taken into consideration”.  Triggered by the interviews and the discussion on gender matters, the women showed an enormous need to know more about their own rights; for the researchers, a concrete demand for more training on this issue was detected. Franco also pointed out  to the absence of the state in responding to the needs of women in the more isolated regions of these countries. As a consequence, women are used to recur to communal instances of justice, but when they do, explained the interviewed women, it is of no use: the coexistence of the two judicial systems often implies that victims seeking legal help end up being revictimised by both systems. Since the cultural norms and the communal judicial systems of indigenous communities are very different from the official ones, “amongst the unresolved tasks that the State has yet to face is the assembly of  intercultural codes, in several languages, in order to respond to the cultural and linguistic realities of these countries, and the training of communal promoters that would provide legal advice and information related to women’s rights”.

Regarding the involvement of the private sector in ComVoMujer, Brendel explains that gender violence specifically hinders full economic development and thus the region’s economy. “Once businessmen/women see the impact that violence against women has on their own businesses, they commit to take action in an assertive way through their Corporate Social Responsibility policies”. Such was the case in the floriculture industry of Ecuador, where companies adopted gender violence indicators in the Flor-Ec certification process, in addition to providing training courses for their staff and establishing critical support routes for derivation to public services in crisis situations,. Similar training instances took place in 21 public water utilities and in the fishing company TASA in Peru.

The successes of ComVoMujer can be measured in terms of the provision and the strengthening of capacities and tools, in the appropriation and adoption of joint measures within the region and in the generation of innovative lines of action to try to reduce gender violence in the participating countries. Brendel adds that the technical assistance of the program and its work process have led to a greater visibility and an important perception of the issue for the region. Proof of this was the incorporation, for the first time, of gender violence to the “concept for Latin America” of the German cooperation ministry (BMZ). The experiences and examples originated in the program, moreover, could be of use for other regions, thus expanding the international cooperation circuit: the German ministry, in fact, already counts with competences, proved examples and material to define innovative strategies in future gender violence projects.