Gender-Based Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: What Are the Real Numbers?

There is critical importance in documenting acts of violence against women—systematically, carefully, and over time.

(A Costa Rican police patch.) Despite the persistence of these abuses, the importance of documenting violence against women and collecting sound data remains. Official U.S. Navy Imagery / flickr

This piece is cross-posted from the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region.

If an act of violence is perpetrated, but is never reported or documented, did it happen at all?

Of course the answer is “yes.” There are many reasons why survivors may not report incidents of violence, including fear of retaliation, stigma, or disillusion with law enforcement. Surveys from Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Peru show that up to 20 percent of women experience sexual assault, yet few to none report it to police. And many survivors actually do report incidents of violence but are met with ineffective judicial systems that parlay impunity or data monitoring systems that act like black holes, swallowing up evidence of the tragedy they have endured. Either way, we know that whatever statistics we do have about gender-based violence represent just a fraction of the harsh reality.

It is critically important to document acts of violence against women, systematically, carefully, and over time, not only to bear witness to the human rights abuses that far too many women experience daily worldwide, but also to understand the prevalence, nature, and root causes of such abuses so that we may be more effective in stemming them—both through laws and policies and through prevention and response programs.

While numerous country-level studies on gender-based violence in Latin America and the Caribbean exist, there is a need for more up-to-date and comprehensive national prevalence data, as well as qualitative research into causes and risk and protection factors. In short, we need to do better at uncovering the full picture of gender-based violence in order to better address it. Further, a persistent lack of comparability between national studies in the region has hampered the ability to draw broader, meaningful conclusions. How do we zoom out to the bigger picture to understand violence regionally—its causes, what has been effective at preventing it, its costs, and more? How can we share successful prevention and response strategies across countries?

A new study released in January by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) attempts to do just this, re-analyzing studies from 12 countries in the region and, for the first time, revealing a broader and more in-depth picture of both the prevalence and nature of violence in that part of the world.

While globally it is estimated that one in three women will experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence in her lifetime, this rate is both higher and lower across different areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. For instance, more than half (53 percent) of ever-married women in Bolivia reported having experienced some type of violence by their intimate partner during their lifetime. The rate of intimate partner violence reported was lower, just 17 percent, in the Dominican Republic. Emotional abuse of women by intimate partners is also epidemic region-wide, and is closely linked to the incidence physically abuse. Nearly half (47.8 percent) of women in Nicaragua reported experiencing emotional abuse by a partner in their lifetime.

While more information is needed, we are just now beginning to uncover a picture of the complex root causes and risk factors for violence against women in the region. After controlling for a number of factors in the region, PAHO researchers found that the risk factors most closely associated with violence by a partner include being divorced or separated, having a high number of children, and if a woman’s father was abusive to her mother. This seems like an odd grouping, but it’s a key finding, because it can help direct our attention father up the causal chain of violence to focus our programming efforts on critical risk factors.

Documenting the stories of women who experience various forms of violence, qualitatively, is also important. Last year, the Nobel Women’s Initiative led a fact-finding mission to Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to document violence against women—in particular sexual violence perpetrated by the state and the mining industry against women’s human rights defenders.

Women from these countries stepped forward courageously to provide testimony, oftentimes at their own peril, of their experiences of violence—with their sisters bearing witness—enabling new, nuanced documentation of this epidemic.

There have also been other efforts across Latin America to support increased reporting of violence among survivors, such as through the increased establishment of all women police forces and courts specialized to address violence against women issues.

There are many reasons to be hopeful that increased data can help catalyze meaningful change, though there are reality checks left and right. While 97 percent of countries in the region have laws on domestic violence, fewer than half include explicit references to marital rape. In November, after decades of advocacy, the Law Against Violence Against Women was passed in Nicaragua. Yet the country recorded 85 femicides in 2012, and new instances of sexual violence across the region make the news every day.

Despite the persistence of these abuses, the importance of documenting violence against women and collecting sound data remains. As data collection improves and more studies are done documenting this epidemic at the country and regional level, we may actually see what seems like an uptick in violence against women. This may or may not be the case. Since gender-based violence is so often hidden and under-reported, the more we dig, the more we will find. But an accurate picture is essential to the achievement of our end-goal: eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in Latin America and the Caribbean.