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SPECIAL REPORTS -  Friday 26 November 2004 
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Women - the Invisible Victims

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY,  (IPS) - Latin America and the Caribbean have up-to-date statistics on inflation, trade, GDP growth and other economic indicators. But there are few to no hard figures on violence against women, a problem that reportedly affects as many as four or five women out of 10 in the region.

With a few exceptions like Mexico and Chile, there is a ”blackout” surrounding the issue, Sonia Montaño, the head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean's (ECLAC) Women and Development Unit, told IPS.

That is because ”violence against women is hidden, and is not a priority for the public and political agendas, except on days like today,” she said, referring to the fact that Nov. 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

According to the few official statistics available, based on different methodologies, around 70 women are killed as a result of domestic violence in Chile every year, while there are roughly 300 fatalities in Colombia. In the cities of Mexico City and Sao Paulo, Brazil, the annual average is 100 and 80, respectively.

In Colombia, United Nations officials reported that the number of complaints of domestic violence against women rose from 50,000 a year to 60,000 between 2000 and 2003, although the number of court cases involving spousal abuse actually declined, from 8,000 to 4,000.

Next year's Global Summit of Women will be held in Mexico City in June.

Also known as the ”Davos of Women”, in allusion to the World Economic Forum held every year in that Swiss resort town, the gathering brings together female business, professional and governmental leaders from around the globe with the aim of advancing ”women's economic and entrepreneurial progress worldwide,” and ”accelerating women's economic development through the effective use of technology, and maximising the benefit of cross-border business alliances.”

In most of the countries of Latin America, there were official ceremonies held to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, with government officials repeating tired scripts and once again pledging to work harder on behalf of women.

Meanwhile, the media reported on cases of domestic violence against women.

”I wish there were more days for the elimination of violence against women in the year,” said Montaño by telephone from her ECLAC office in the Chilean capital.

”Battered women have no public voice, nor do they form part of unions or associations that can apply pressure or that they can turn to in order to file their complaints, except for on an occasion like this,” she said.

And during the rest of the year, the female victims of domestic violence are newsworthy ”only when they die,” added Montaño.

The few available statistics on violence against women, some of which are old, indicate that 40 percent of girls and women in Latin America and the Caribbean are the victims of some sort of aggression, according to the ECLAC official.

But the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) puts the proportion at 50 percent or higher.

Whatever the actual numbers, activists, governments and international agencies agree that the problem remains a serious one, despite the broad slate of international conventions, national laws, special commissions and other instruments designed since the 1970s to tackle domestic violence.

There are many laws and international treaties on the issue, but governments have yet to translate them into actual institutions and funding, said Montaño.

According to the United Nations, violence against women refers to ”any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

Montaño said the most serious cases of violence against women in Latin America are in Guatemala and Mexico, where hundreds of women have been murdered by unidentified assailants.

But she added that violence against women is also a problem in other countries, where it is suffered in silence.

In many cases, the violence does not lead to death, but ”destroys the will and vitality” of the victims, leaving ”survivors who cannot get on with their lives,” she said.

Little is known about these women, because their cases do not figure in the official statistics or make the news, unlike the gender-related murders known as ”femicide”.

In Guatemala, an average of one woman a day has been murdered since 2001, mainly from the lower-income strata. They are strangled, shot or stabbed, and often mutilated.

In Ciudad Juárez, on the border between Mexico and the United States, at least 300 women have been killed and more than 500 have gone missing over the past 10 years, and the murders still remain unsolved.

Many of the Ciudad Juárez victims were stabbed and their bodies found in remote isolated areas. A large number showed signs of torture and rape.

Montaño said the cases of Guatemala and Mexico ”show what happens in society when violence becomes a way of life and other elements, like unfettered modernisation, are factored in.”

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