Law to Nowhere

Effectiveness of Violence Against Women Legislation: Ley General De Acceso de las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia (Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence)

An interview was conducted by COHA research fellow Julissa Delgado with Norma Ledezma Ortega, General Coordinator of Justicia para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for our Daughters). Justicia para Nuestras Hijas is an NGO based in Chihuahua, Mexico whose purpose is to seek justice for women who have fallen victim to femicide as well as the implementation of the Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence.

The Lost Women

Since 1993, many young women (between the ages of 12 – 22)1 have been victims of femicide—the murder of women solely based on their gender— in Juárez, Mexico, where many cases have remained unsolved over long periods of time. The rising number of femicide victims, who are characteristically tortured and sexually abused before their untimely death, has caused consternation among women’s groups and concerned members of the international community who collectively seek justice for these innocent victims. Due to increasing national and international pressure, the Mexican government passed the Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence in 2007, which was intended to prevent sanction and eradicate violence against women.2 Although most of the attention has been focused on Ciudad Juárez (the perceived epicenter for femicides in Mexico), the number of femicide cases has spread across the country and is rising at an alarming rate. Their expansion in geographical range exemplifies the increasing magnitude of crimes against women in Mexican society in spite of the new legislation. The ongoing prevalence of femicide victims illustrates that the existing Mexican law has been largely ineffectual.

As the U.S. Congress considers the possibility of passing the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which could potentially assist countries like Mexico in combating violence against women, it is key to examine the root causes that hinder the effectiveness of the Mexican legislation. The contributing factors to non-compliance of the Mexican legislation prove that it is imperative to increase police enforcement in order to decrease the existing impunity. This entails mobilizing additional economic resources to educate the local population of the dangerous spikes of violence, now being inflicted against women.

A Life Free of Violence around the Globe

The struggle to combat violence against women through legislation has been a long-standing issue worldwide. A particular example of such an undertaking under international law is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), overseen by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Adopted as a convention by the UN General Assembly in 1981, the CEDAW has been described as an international bill of rights for women. The convention (applicable only to countries that sign and ratify it) is composed of 30 articles, defining what constitutes discrimination against women and promoting an agenda for national action to abolish it. When CEDAW was originally ratified it did not directly tackle the issue of gendered violence towards women. It was not until 1992, when General Recommendation 19 was adopted, that CEDAW detailed actions toward combating such violence. General Recommendation 19 requires countries which ratified CEDAW to take appropriate measures to fight gender-based violence and calls for annual reports to the committee detailing the measures taken to do so. This initiative set the foundation for the 1993 UN General Assembly Declaration on Violence against Women (DEVAW), which unlike CEDAW, applies towards all members of the United Nations Assembly. The DEVAW defines what constitutes violence against women and challenged the previously held belief that such violence was a private domestic matter in which the state could not properly interfere. The adoption of CEDAW and the DEVAW set the stage for growing international recognition of a woman’s right to a life free of violence, encouraging individual countries to do the same.

In 1994, under the Clinton administration, the U.S. Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), joining the fight against gender based violence towards women. VAWA, drafted by then Senator Joe Biden’s (D-DE) office, emerged as women groups and the international community demanded tangible recognition of a woman’s right to a life free of violence. The law created multiple remedies to solve the problems. Included among VAWA’s resolutions were the creation of community-based response programs which dealt with domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual assault. VAWA demonstrated Washington’s intention to criminalize violence against women on a federal level (much like the Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence).

Increasing condemnation of violence against women by the UN and individual countries around the globe, like the U.S., augmented pressure on individual countries to condemn gender-based violence as well. The mounting number of femicides in Juárez, along with a growing critique of the Mexican government’s dramatic inability to address such crimes pressured the state to denounce these murders and take vigorous action. Ongoing demands for justice by NGOs and the UN led to the passage of the Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence (LGAMVLV). By adopting LGAMVLV, the Mexican government finally appeared to take a firm stand in opposition to violence against women. However, despite the enactment of the LGAMVLV four years ago, the number of femicides in the country has increased.3 Between January 2009 and June 2010 alone, the NGO Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio (National Citizen Observatory of Femicide) recorded that 1,728 instances of femicides occurred in 18 states despite the passage of the law.4 The inability of the Mexican government to legitimately combat gender-based violence calls into question the authenticity and substance of the government’s action.


“In keeping people straight, principle is not as powerful as a policeman.”

– Abel Hermant

Implementing anti-violence against women legislation, such as LGAMVLV, has been problematic for various reasons. The report titled In-depth study on all forms of violence against women, issued by the UN Secretary-General, highlights that even under such international initiatives; violence against women will not be eradicated without intense political will and a higher level of commitment to such obligations.5 One of the most significant reasons for LGAMVLV’s ineffectiveness is the inability of law enforcement officials to apply the legislation. Ortega, in reference to LGAMVLV, states that “The law is there but there is no one to put it in practice […] cops are not convinced that they have to apply the law [and] for that reason is why the law is ineffective.” The article, International Violence Against Women: U.S. Response and Policy Issues released by the Congressional Research Service, discusses, “national governments may pass laws that support anti-VAW [Violence Against Women] policies, but ineffective legal, political, or law enforcement infrastructures may hinder their ability to implement and enforce laws and provide the necessary support services to be effective.”6 The lack of commitment on behalf of law enforcement to effectively implement the law significantly inhibits the ability of LGAMVLV to operate.

The In-depth study on all forms of violence against women states that “State inaction with regard to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system has had particularly corrosive effects on society as impunity for acts of violence against women encourages further violence and reinforces women’s subordination.”7 In a May 2010 report, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted with concern the ongoing prevalence of violence against women in Mexico despite the passage of LGAMVLV.8 The ongoing indifference of the Mexican government regarding the unending violence towards Mexican women has allowed such crimes to continue to occur and go unpunished.

Deficient Funds

Another issue that inevitably impedes the success of LGAMVLV are the insufficient funds intended for programs that combat violence against women. An Office on Violence Against Women (OVAW) focus group—used to assemble input from both individuals and organizations associated in sexually based violence work–identified both a lack of resources as well as intrinsic problems within the justice system’s response as existing gaps in violence against women legislation.9 Augmenting funds, particularly in order to educate police officers, prosecutors and judges, would improve the effectiveness of LGAMVLV.

One of the major sources of failure in LGAMVLV is the lack of financial support in its implementation. When it comes to funding, Ortega stated that, “the topic of women is the one that has the least money.” Adequate financing would represent a significant contribution toward advancing the prospects of legislation relating to violence against women. Members of the U.S. Congress agree on the significance of sufficient funding contributing to the success of LGAMVLV. A public letter sent to Mexican president Felipe Calderón by members of the U.S. House of Representatives on August 8, 2007 urged that he “include adequate funding to implement this law [LGAMVLV] in his country’s budget for the next fiscal year, particularly for the portion of the law creating a National System to Prevent, Attend to, Sanction and Eradicate Violence Against Women.”10

The significance of funding anti-violence against women legislation is displayed through VAWA-sponsored grant programs. For instance, the VAWA created a program titled “Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies and Enforcement of Protection Orders (Arrest Programs)” which administers judicial training on domestic violence to improve court response and sentencing similar to Article 38, § III of the LGAMVLV. This article states that personnel in charge of prosecution as well as policemen must be educated in human rights in order to prevent, sanction and eliminate violence against women that, in effect, will guarantee their access to a life free of violence. The VAWA Arrest Programs are meant to encourage state governments and courts to treat domestic violence as a serious violation of the criminal code requiring the coordinated involvement of the entire criminal justice system. In the 2006 Biennial Report to Congress on the Effectiveness of Grant Programs Under the Violence Against Women Act, the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women stated that OVAW-funded grantee recipients experienced “increased arrest and prosecution of perpetrators both through new programs and the extensive training of law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, magistrates, and related court personnel.”11 OVAW states that its grant programs promote the aggressive prosecution of alleged perpetrators and that prosecutors funded under the grants had “filed charges in more than 134,235 cases,” reflecting a charging rate of 89 percent.”12

The significant improvements in combating violence against women through VAWA’s Arrest Programs would not have been possible without the personnel, training and technical aid funded through the grant program created by VAWA.13 According to an article from the Mexico City daily El Universal, the National Fund for Gender Alertness, a system under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, has yet to be put in place and has not received its designated 15 million pesos in funds.14 Without a doubt, it is imperative for both the Violence Against Women Act and LGAMVLV to receive adequate funding in order to fulfill their respective potential legislative capacities.

Culture Clash

Many scholars agree that culture and the engrained ideas of female inferiority can be a factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of anti-violence against women legislation such as LGAMVLV. Education programs geared toward reforming socio-cultural beliefs that limit a women’s ability to live a life free of violence is yet another form of decreasing violence against women. Violence against women is a social problem that must be attacked at its core through education, reforming the established social conditions that allow such violence to exist, regardless of culture. For example, Ortega explained that Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas believes that the education of Mexican youth—through plays in high school about dating violence—currently contributes the most towards diminishing gender-based violence. In Policy Makers, Practitioners, Citizens: Perceptions of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Nancy Meyer-Emerick also agrees that violence against women will not be eradicated until “the sociocultural system in place that allows such violence to exist is addressed.”15 Meyer-Emerick adds that this may entail discovering ways to formulate policies that combat violence against women at its roots in the sociocultural system instead of solely relying on the state.16

LGAMVLV already contains provisions to reform societal beliefs that allow violence against women to occur in Mexico. One of the ways in which the law seeks to do this is through bringing specialized “free services to the aggressor[s] to eradicate violent conduct through an education to eliminate the stereotypes of masculine supremacy and the machista bosses who generate their violence.”17 However, the Mexican government must also tackle socio-cultural beliefs that allow violence against women to exist so aggressively in society. Ortega believes that although there has been an increasingly sustained initiative to educate police officers and justice officials, it is not enough because “It is the culture, it’s an exceedingly difficult matter to change the mentality of a gender… The culture sees us as inferior and it is not convinced that women are demonstrably worth the respect … or simply that they deserve to live.” At the time when former U.S. Senator Joe Biden was still in office, he stated, while discussing VAWA, that, “More than any other factor, the attitude of our society that this violence is not serious, stands in the way of reducing this violence,” exemplifying the need for societal reform.18 The In-depth study of all of its forms of violence against women by the Secretary-General also has emphasized that in the case of Juárez “a social and cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in the consciousness and customs of the population … requires a global and integrated response … aimed at transforming existing sociocultural patterns” and “eradicating the notion that gender violence is inevitable.”19

The incapacity of Mexican law to prevent, sanction and eradicate violence against women calls into question the ability of LGAMVLV to operate. There are many other causes as to why LGAMVLV and other legislation like it have stopped short of successfully combating the issue. An additional problem that significantly obstructs the ability of LGAMVLV’s to function is the idea that the sole passage of a law remedies the problem. In Nancy Meyer-Emerick’s Policy Makers, Practitioners, Citizens: Perceptions of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, she finds that the sole use of law as a solution to reduce violence against women may not be the most helpful route. She explains that, because of minimal state action to enforce legislation to an effective level, “it appears highly probable that the state performs a role in reinforcing gender inequality, albeit secondarily by not addressing the problem.”20 Meyer-Emerick believes that gendered violence towards women will not be eradicated if it is simply addressed reactively. In Congress, Symbolic Politics and the Evolution of 1994 “Violence Against Women Act” Barbara Ann Stolz observes the limits of carelessly enacting legislation through the perspective of symbolic politics—in which political acts are seen as symbols—to examine the Violence Against Women Act. Stolz states that these so-called political acts—in this case the passage of Law for General Access of Women to a Life Free from Violence—are geared towards an audience where the substance of the act is trivial in comparison to the audience’s perception of and reaction to the act.21

Conclusion

Law enforcement officials, such as police officers, judges and prosecutors, are key in the anti-violence battle against women. Their capacity to implement the law ranges from answering calls for help from the society they vow to protect, to arresting and sanctioning violators of the law, to maintain the balance of social order. According to an article run by El Mañana titled “Urgen reformar la ley promujeres” (Urging to reform the pro-women law) civic organizations in Mexico City that have promoted the Mexican law against the femicides have urged the government to modify the LGAMVLV due to its ineffectiveness.22 As the murders of innocent women continue to rock Juárez and elsewhere throughout Mexico, the inability of the Mexican government to effectively address the issue is largely because law enforcement has failed to put LGAMVLV into practice. Ortega, believes that LGAMVLV is currently “dead words, the law is there but it does not operate.”

Stolz analysis finds that “much federal criminal justice legislation, has been introduced or enacted primarily in response to public outcries of concern about a specific crime problem and are not in reaction to an effective interest group’s tireless lobbying.”23 By passing VAWA the U.S. Congress informed the public that such violent behavior towards women would not be tolerated. The article, Congress, Symbolic Politics and the Evolution of 1994, “Violence Against Women Act,” establishes that criminal justice legislation, such as VAWA, perform an educative function for the offender and the law-abiding citizen by establishing the line between what is morally right and what is morally wrong behavior. Ortega, in regards to Mexico, states that “[The government] has not put enough interest in preparing its people and sanctioning its people that do not obey the law.” Although notable for its educative function, anti-violence against women legislation should not end there.

As the United States Congress considers investing time and foreign aid in passing the IVAWA, representatives should really consider the realistic impact it would have abroad. Among its many remedies, IVAWA would provide the Secretary of State and the USAID Administrator with the authority to provide assistance to foreign countries for program activities intended to reduce international violence against women. Speaking on the IVAWA in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senator John Kerry stated, “This historic vote sends a powerful message to the world that the United States stands in opposition to violence against women and girls, anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”24 However, Ortega believes otherwise. The General Coordinator of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas stated that, “every promising action to resolve and eradicate violence against women…finally concludes in a bunch of papers and propositions, stories and events, but there are no concrete beneficial actions that are useful to the cases or to women in particular.” Although a political message might have an impact, it is important to address legislation already in place and to enforce justice into most serious manner.

References for this article can be found here.