The International Violence Against Women Act: Could IVAWA Save Guatemala from Femicide?

In February, a bill entitled the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. A remarkably comprehensive and progressive piece of legislation, IVAWA would provide an unprecedented amount of aid to countries deemed to be among the most dangerous places in the world for women. The bill is truly a bipartisan effort, with sponsorship in the House by Representatives Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Ted Poe (R-TX), and in the Senate by Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

IVAWA was initially introduced in 2007 by then Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), and was drafted with the input and expert advice of over 100 NGOs, including Amnesty International and the Feminist Majority Foundation. Although the bill failed to go to a vote at the time three years ago, its reintroduction in 2010 has generated a significant amount of buzz on both sides of the aisle. Representative Delahunt has emphasized the bill’s importance, both on a moral level as well as a national security priority, noting that “the suffering and denial of the rights of women and the instability of nations are linked . . . They go hand in hand.” With the growing recognition of the importance of girls’ education and welfare as the keystone to achieving and maintaining peace, IVAWA represents an exceptional effort by Washington to support humanitarian efforts that focus strictly on protecting women in some of the world’s most violent and tumultuous societies.

Guatemala: “The Most Dangerous Place for Women in All of Latin America”

Crime and violence long have been prevalent throughout Guatemala, but in the fourteen years since the end of the country’s bloody internal conflict, violence against women and girls has escalated markedly. Between 2001 and 2006, the rate at which women and girls were murdered in Guatemala increased at a significantly higher rate than that of men during the same period. Among a population of less than 15 million, approximately two females are brutally murdered each day. The Central American Council of Human Rights Ombudsman (CCPDH) found that the mortality rate of women in Guatemala today is among the highest in the world.

One of the root causes of Guatemala’s culture of violence toward women stems from what happened during the country’s civil war, which lasted an unrelenting 36 years, from 1960 to 1996. As recognized in the 1999 United Nations-sponsored Commission for Clarification Report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” an entire generation of Guatemalan men came of age during the bloody conflict, and were taught to view rape as a “generalized and systematic practice carried out by State agents as a counterinsurgency strategy” and “a true weapon of terror.” During the conflict, thousands of men were trained to commit acts of gender-based violence. When peace was established in 1996, those same men effortlessly rejoined society. Today, violence against women in Guatemala continues to bear the mark of the civil war: common methods include rape, dismemberment, torture, and mutilation, acts reminiscent of tactics used during the war.

Perhaps even more disheartening, violence against women and girls in Guatemala carries a staggering 98% impunity rate. Anabella Noriega of the CCPDH reported that in 2004, only one case of femicide out of 500, or .002%, resulted in a conviction; between 2005 and 2007, only 2% of the 2,000 cases involving violent deaths of women were considered “resolved.” Dr. Carlos Castrasena, former Commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), identified this astounding impunity rate as the overwhelming factor perpetuating Guatemala’s gender-based violence crisis.

Under pressure from both the U.S. and CICIG, the Guatemalan Congress passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in April of 2008. The legislation recognizes femicide, the systematic, gender-based killing of women, as a punishable crime, and creates both a special investigative unit for handling cases involving violence against women and specialized judicial courts to hear those cases 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the law’s definition of “violence against women” encompasses a broad range of behavior, including psychological, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse.

Despite the law’s symbolic innovations, it has done virtually nothing to stem Guatemala’s rising femicide rates. During its first year on the books, only three perpetrators were convicted and sentenced under the law, while 26 women were murdered in the first two weeks of 2009 alone. Police and other government officials frequently accuse victims of gang associations, drug abuse, or prostitution; the female victims’ physical appearance or attire is often cited as cause for delay or for the failure to investigate and prosecute. Recently, the special police force created by the law was reduced from 20 officers to just 7. A 2010 report by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California-Hastings states that, despite the abstract advances the law represents, “there is general consensus in Guatemala that impunity for these crimes continues unabated and the number of femicides this year will exceed those of any previous year.”

Current U.S. Aid to Guatemala: Insufficient and Ineffective

In addition to providing basic economic assistance, recent U.S. aid to Guatemala has focused on strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions and advancing the legal rights of women. Through the Rule of Law Assistance Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has administered $38.5 million since 1992 for criminal justice reform, increased law enforcement capacity, and providing greater legal access for marginalized groups. Additionally, between 2001 and 2007, the U.S. government authorized a private firm to oversee the Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, which provided over $10 million to reinforce government ministries, universities, and NGOs that are working to improve women’s legal rights. These efforts, however, have produced no discernible impact on the Guatemalan government’s ability or willingness to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women.

In 2007, resolutions were passed in both the House and the Senate of the U.S. Congress regarding the increasingly common phenomenon of gender-based violence in Guatemala. House Resolution 100 is particularly potent: it recognizes that “gender based killings [in Guatemala involve] an extreme form of violence against women that can include torture, mutilation, and sexual violence,” and recommended specific actions on the part of the U.S. president, Secretary of State, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala to encourage Guatemala to properly investigate, resolve, and prevent these crimes. Just months later, in September of 2007, then Senator Biden (D-DE) and Senator Lugar (R-IN) introduced the first draft of IVAWA.

What Could IVAWA Do for Guatemala?

As it is currently written in the Senate, IVAWA directs the U.S. government to implement a comprehensive five-year strategy in 10 to 20 countries around the world that have demonstrated extreme levels of violence against women and girls. IVAWA allocates over $1 billion in aid over a five-year period to be spent on new creative projects involving both diplomacy and NGO support. The IVAWA strategy is a holistic one, addressing prevention, redressability, and recovery through social, employment, educational, judicial, and health reform efforts.

Like in many countries where rates of violence against women are particularly shocking, Guatemala is a country on the brink of lawlessness. Many crimes other than violence against women carry high rates of impunity, and victims, regardless of gender, often face an inefficient, ineffective, and corrupt criminal justice system. The drug trade that has set areas of Mexico ablaze has also taken a heavy toll on Guatemala, and gang activity runs rampant throughout the country. But Guatemala’s persistently misogynistic and brutalized view of women that is makes it unique among its Latin American neighbors.

In addition to having abysmal rates of violence against women and girls, one of the qualifications for countries receiving aid under IVAWA is that each targeted country has sufficient infrastructure and enforcement capacity to follow through with the aid program’s admittedly ambitious objectives. The combination of these two prerequisites makes Guatemala an ideal candidate for receiving aid through the prospective IVAWA program. Through its acceptance of foreign aid and intervention under the U.S.-sponsored Rule of Law Assistance Program and Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, as well as the efforts of the U.N.-backed CICIG, and its own more symbolic efforts with the 2008 anti-femicide law, Guatemala has proven, on occasion, to be a country willing to recognize its faults in order to begin to remedy them. When it comes to improving the legal status of women, perhaps the boost that Guatemala still badly needs may come in the form of IVAWA’s judicial, legal, and social reform, and its invaluable allocation of scarce resources.

Judicial and Police Training and Reform

Guatemala took a step in the right direction when it created a special police unit and judicial officials to deal specifically with cases involving violence against women under the terms of the 2008 anti-femicide law. Nevertheless, these reforms have fallen far short of the anticipated improvements in women’s legal rights. With IVAWA resources, investigators, first-responders, lawyers, and judicial personnel alike could be retrained to handle the unique complexities of cases involving violence against women. Even more so than legislators in Guatemala City, it is these individuals who wield the on-site power when it comes to protecting women from gender-based violence. Employing U.S. police and judicial staff as educators in a nationwide re-education effort could go a long way toward strengthening respect for the rule of law among those who deal directly with both victims and perpetrators.

Along with an extensive retraining effort, Guatemalan police forces could be provided with the resources necessary to generate a massive recruitment program. Only about 19,000 police officers make up the current Guatemalan force, while an estimated 50,000 are needed to adequately serve the general population and protect potential victims, their families, and NGO advocates. The Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, administered through private firms under USAID direction from 2001 to 2007, made modest yet important advances in enforcing existing laws for the protection of women and girls. Under the initiative, outside legal experts conducted training activities for 1,500 Guatemalan legal and justice sector employees. However, as previously discussed, U.S. aid efforts in Guatemala are severely underfunded and narrow in scope, and the Guatemalan justice system characteristically lacks the resources necessary to implement long-term changes. IVAWA would provide the necessary increases in funding for training and recruitment efforts in order to ensure that positive effects could be felt nationwide.

Education, Skill Training, and Shelter Programs

Reforming the enforcement system alone is not enough to change the deeply rooted misogyny and discrimination that allow an entire country to turn a blind eye when a woman is raped, tortured, or killed in broad daylight. Truly successful aid programs must also attempt to change the social norms that allow such crimes to be committed with impunity in order to empower women to stand up for their dignity and personal protection. These efforts lie at the heart of the IVAWA program. If passed, IVAWA would seek to challenge the traditional social structure through unprecedented support of local NGOs. It is these bodies that conduct educational programs, advocate for human rights, and empower women in Guatemalan communities throughout the country.

Obviously, an extensive social reform campaign requires a significant amount of resources that could be provided by an initiative like IVAWA, and must be accompanied by other substantive efforts, such as skill training for poor women and education for young girls. Shelters are another necessary component of such social reform. An estimated 61% of the 238 femicides committed between January and August of 2008 were products of domestic violence. Providing women with a safe place to escape violence in domestic settings will go a long way toward cutting back on gender-based violence at the national level. However, maintaining shelters requires an enormous amount of resources, particularly in countries like Guatemala where they are considered unwelcome by a large portion of the male population. IVAWA could provide those resources, in addition to encouraging the growth of a properly briefed and adequately trained national police force—thereby providing a level of protection to Guatemalan shelter employees and their associates.

Health Sector Training

Unfortunately, despite the shocking statistics on Guatemalan femicide, it is probable that the vast majority of gender-based violent crimes go unreported. As part of a comprehensive effort to reduce the levels of violence against women, medical personnel must be trained to recognize the telltale signs of domestic violence and rape. Furthermore, legislators should establish confidential reporting obligations for doctors, nurses, and counselors, which would require them to record incidents of violence and sexual assault. An integrative system—incorporating the resources of law enforcement, NGOs, and medical personnel—may be necessary to ensure the safety of women and girls in Guatemala and in other countries suffering from widespread femicide.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has experimented with just such an endeavor in 16 Central American and Andean countries over the last decade. The PAHO program is aimed at creating a multi-sector response to gender-based violence, and placed the health care system at the center of the effort. The PAHO experiment found that, unless health care providers are trained to ask about violence, they generally fail to do so, and they often are unaware of laws protecting women from violent crimes. IVAWA could provide Guatemalan hospitals and care facilities with the extensive resources needed to formulate a complete system for coping with violent crimes and their victims.

A Golden Opportunity for the U.S. and Guatemala

Between the culture of impunity that the Guatemalan government has fostered and the learned brutality of the men who came of age during the protracted civil war, violence against women is truly reaching epidemic proportions in Guatemala. The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California-Hastings has commented that “no woman is safe because the violence is widespread, cutting across class, age, and ethnicity.” Perpetrators of violent crimes against women currently have a 98-99% chance of never even being prosecuted, much less punished.
However, IVAWA represents a glimmer of hope for Guatemala. If IVAWA is passed, Guatemala should be among the top candidates to receive assistance in the form of funds, aid workers, and professional training programs. Humanitarian efforts to achieve the safety and security of Guatemalan women and girls would not be wasted: Guatemala already has demonstrated its willingness to make laws and accept foreign assistance for their protection. IVAWA’s comprehensive objectives of challenging social and cultural norms, invoking legal and professional reform, increasing employment opportunities for women, engaging men in the effort to protect women and girls, and integrating foreign aid with violent crime prevention, fit neatly with prior efforts made in Guatemala.

IVAWA is now in the best position it has ever been in to get passed, with over 114 supporters in the House and 28 in the Senate. In the U.S., opposition to the bill comes primarily from family values groups who fear gender equality’s effects on traditional family structures, as well as civil liberties watchdogs who are wary of the criminalization of behavior based strictly on gender alone. Ultimately, neither of these concerns should be allowed to prevent passage of IVAWA: the bill does not purport to criminalize any behavior, but rather to build upon and modernize existing criminal justice systems. Likewise, the violence facing women in Guatemala is a far bigger threat to traditional family structures than are gender equality and violence prevention methodology. IVAWA supporters and gender justice advocates claim that it is time for the U.S. to do the right thing: enact IVAWA, and quickly include Guatemala in the program, thereby making a lasting, positive impact on the region.