The Juarez Femicide
What is femicide?
In the Caribbean and Latin America, the killing of young girls and women has intensified in the past few years. Since the early 1990s, the killing of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico has drawn a lot of attention since such cases affect all countries in the region. According to the UNFPA paper, Advancing Human Rights and Eliminating Violence against Women: Femicide/Feminicide (2006), violence against women is an issue of great concern in the region, a problem that when most severe ends up in the murder of many young girls and women, and may include mutilation, cruelty, sexual violence and torture. This type of violence has been particularly defined in some countries as femicide or feminicide. The term femicide was coined by Jill Radford and Diane Russell in their book, Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing (1992). The idea of femicide refers to the murder of women because of their gender and it works as a form of power, control and domination over women.
According to the UNFPA (2006), gender-based killings can happen in times of peace or times of war. It may be carried out by individuals known to the victim (boyfriends, husbands, friends, family members) or unknown (murderers, criminal groups, rapists). What all murders share in common is their roots in the imbalanced power relations between women and men, which put women in a place of greater vulnerability, hence hinder their ability to take pleasure in their rights to life, self respect and due process.
Femicide/Feminicide is said to exist when the State does not give assurance on women’s safety or allows an environment where the relevant authorities do not execute their tasks effectively.
Prevalence Of Femicide
According to the Minnesota Advocated for Human Rights (2003), femicide happens all over the world at shocking rates and is perpetrated by close partners, family members and criminal groups of men. Girls and women are murdered because of their gender in clinics, homes, in the streets and in war time. Girls and women are kidnapped, disappear, starved, tortured, raped and sexually enslaved. Therefore femicide, like all violence against women, is influenced by male domination and control.
Femicide is perpetrated by family members, as is the case with honor killings. According to Human Rights Watch (1998), male family members normally murder their female kin who they perceive has brought disgrace to the family. This may mean divorcing abusive husbands, committing adultery, choosing a husband, refusing to enter an arranged marriage or even being raped. Women are often killed by stabbing, burning or shooting. In some cases, women are driven into committing suicide.
The UNICEF report Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (2002) notes female infanticide, the murder of a baby girl and female feticide, abortion of a female fetus, as issues of concern. The report documents that 12% of all female fetuses were aborted in China in 2002, mainly as a result of ultrasound scans. Even if not aborted, baby girls have a low chance of survival in countries like China, where the policy is one child per family with a strong bias for male children. The report estimates that about 60 million girls’ lives would have been saved if female infanticide and sex selection were not committed.
According to Amnesty International (2008), the form of femicide committed in Latin America and Mexico has captures the attention of human rights bodies. Women have been kidnapped and viciously killed by men linked to criminal groups and activities. Amnesty International reports that these victims were murdered after being mutilated, tortured and sexually assaulted. In some cases, the victims were cut in pieces and dumped in waste grounds.
Causes And Risk Factors
There are several factors responsible for the prevalence of femicide, including poverty, the presence of a culture of violence, discrimination, among other factors. Violence against women and discrimination are interlinked. According to Amnesty International’s 2004 Turkey report, discrimination is evident in the way girls and boys are treated from birth, girls’ level of education, and the treatment they get as women in their home, work and community. Discrimination may be evident in the machismo culture, which relegates women to a subordinate role in their community and family. Women are defined based on their association with the men in their life. A woman is referred to as someone’s wife, mother or daughter.
Femicide has a high likelihood of occurring in countries which have a culture of violence, for example after armed conflict or a civil war, or where daily acts of violence are accepted as normal occurrences. In 2005, Amnesty International reported that in Afghanistan, the culture of violence against women was adopted from the violent acts of the Taliban regime. Even after the regime was overthrown, rape, stoning and strangulation of women continued.
Impunity, or the failure to mete justice on human rights violators, perpetuates the continuation of discrimination and violence which results in femicide. The general lack of awareness of crimes of femicide also contribute to impunity. An Amnesty International (2005) report shows that Afghanistan women were not willing to report the crimes committed against them, as they had no confidence in the authorities. The report highlighted the reluctance of Afghan police to investigate crimes committed within the family, including violent death of women. As a result of these failures, the brutal killing of women continues since their lives are seen as expendable.
Though femicide can manifest in various ways and affect different kinds of victims, there are several characteristics that are common with most victims including: youth, poverty or/and not being economically dependent upon a man. The Special Rapporteur Report (2005) shows that poor women and women living in highly populated areas stood a higher risk of being murdered as a consequence of femicide.
Another group of women at risk are those who are household heads and economically independent. According to the Mexico Special Rapporteur Report (2005), victims may have a number of children to raise and be single mother household heads. The report also noted that women who are economically independent may be labeled ‘witches’ by their communities, and thus risk being victims of femicide. Murder and violence in these instances have been seen as a reaction against women’s empowerment, with the violence intended to deter women who have moved out of their traditional domestic sphere.
Migrant women also face a higher risk of being victims of femicide. The rise in cases of femicide in 1993 coincided with the entry of large numbers of migrant workers to newly established factories in the north (Mexico Special Rapporteur Report, 2005).
The Juarez Femicide
Since 1993, about 400 girls and women have been murdered and more than 70 are still missing in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. All evidence indicates that these women are selected by their murderers because they are women who are powerless in the Chihuahuan society. This is a society which is characterized by escalating crime rates and general insecurity due to organized crime and drug trafficking in the area (Mexico Special Rapporteur Report, 2005).
The victims are mainly workers from maquiladoras or export factories set up by multinational corporations, with almost 90 percent of the products exported to the U.S. Others are waitresses, students or workers in the informal sector. Most of them live in penury, often with families to support. They are women who don’t have a choice but to take long bus trips from the poor suburbs around Juarez to their places of study or work (Mexico Special Rapporteur Report, 2005).
Why Is The Juarez Femicide Different?
While the situation for women in Juarez shares many similarities with other cities in the region, it is unique in different aspects. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2003) documents that the murder rate of women rose sharply in Juarez in 1993, and the rate has remained high since then. In addition, the rate of murders of women compared to those of men is much higher than for other cities. The extremely vicious situations of many of the murders has focused more attention to Juarez.
A significant number of the victims were aged between 15 and 25, and many were physically beaten and/or sexually assaulted before being stabbed or strangled to death. The killings which fit this pattern have been categorized as serial or multiple killings. Finally, the crimes have been met with a poor response from authorities. On one hand, most of the murders remain in impunity; only 20% of the cases have been the subject of conviction or prosecution. On the other hand, as the rate of murders rose, some officials responsible began indirectly blaming the victims for the crime. According to statements of certain senior officials, the victims went dancing, wore short skirts and were promiscuous. Reports show that the officials responded in hostility and indifference to the victims’ family members (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2003)
These horrific crimes in which girls and women are abducted and later found dead with marks of sexual torture and assault are basically one of the very graphic examples of the violence committed against women in Juarez, where sexual harassment in the workplace and in the community are also serious concerns. However, despite the rising number of cases, domestic violence was not considered a criminal offence by the state until the year 2000. As of 2003, there was no record of convictions for domestic violence, showing the government’s response to violence against women is very limited and slow. Corruption and impunity has allowed the perpetrators, whoever they are, to persist in these acts knowing no consequences will be forthcoming (National Organization for Women, 2008).
The position of the state has been that most of the murders-including cases of domestic and other kinds of violence-have been ‘solved’. Though government figures show that 79 individuals have been convicted in connection to the Juarez killings, in the majority of these cases justice has not been accomplished. Impunity has reigned in the serial murders, but only one person has been convicted and 18 detained awaiting the result of the judicial process. Some of the cases have taken years to conclude. In addition, poor investigations and failure to guarantee guilt during trials cast doubt on the reliability of the criminal proceedings against the crime suspects. Subsequently, the killings continue on year after year (National Organization for Women, 2008).
Recent years have witnessed intense national and international campaigns to end violent crimes against women and to stop the impunity with which these crimes are being committed. The Mexican Federal Government in 2003 finally began implementation of a program to prosecute and prevent violent acts against women in Juarez.
Despite the positive strides made, Amnesty International (2008) has expressed concern on several key issues. A specific concern is the inability to take account of cases from the city in the program of measures and the lack of any judicial review of abuses, such as torture of detainees, resulting in miscarriage of impunity and justice. Amnesty International also laments the insufficient action to incorporate gender perspective into all elements of investigative and preventive measures to counter violence against women. Another concern is failure to stop harassment and smear campaigns against victim’s families and organizations laboring on their behalf.
Obstacles To Preventing Violence Against Women
Whereas the rising level of violence against women and men is a source of concern, efforts to sanction past murders of women and prevent such future killings have been inhibited by major obstacles, such as prejudice based on gender. According to the Inter-American Convention on the Eradication, Punishment, Prevention of Violence against Women (2001), violence against women is a sign of the historically uneven power relations between women and men. Gender-based violence has its source in and encourages those negative power imbalances. The Beijing Platform for Action and Beijing Declaration established by the UN Fourth World Conference states that such violence is one of the vital social mechanisms which force women into a subordinate position in comparison to men. The lack of urgency in punishing such crimes, and in preventing their repetition shows that they are not seen as a serious problem. The impunity with which such crimes are committed sends the message that such violence is hence encouraging its perpetuation.
Improvements In Government Response To Femicide
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2003) recognizes that there have been notable improvements in the response of officials towards these crimes, improvements that usher in further progress towards accountability and clarification. The Mexican State has set aside additional material and human resources to addressing the killings, especially the 1998 founding of a Special Prosecutor’s Office responsible for investigating these murders, followed by measures to strengthen its capacity.
More importantly, officials tasked with addressing the situation have stopped openly dismissing it like in the past. Rather, in dealing with the commission and its special rapporteur, officials at all levels have shown a commitment to fight the prevalent impunity and stop the killings. It is notable that there is widespread consensus among all sectors in Mexico that the circumstances in Juarez are unusual and require special measures. As a result, authorities at both local and national levels are embracing new initiatives, such as the establishment of panels focused on incorporating the State and non state representatives in an attempt to resolve the killings. This openness to establishing new cross-cutting methods is vital, because the situation calls for active involvement of all levels of government, as well as the civil society.
Recommendations For Eradicating Femicide
According to the Amnesty International (2008) report, the eradication of violence against women and discrimination, in particular femicide, means first recognizing it in order to take needful and effective steps towards its prosecution and prevention. At state level, there needs to be efforts to collect data in an organized manner, ensuring urgent investigation and solving of murders of women, and promoting gender sensitivity programs.
At civil society level, the report adds, there should be continuous monitoring of compliance with existing obligations, such as those documented on international agreements for protection of women rights. At community level, publicity and education campaigns should be launched to campaign for a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on discrimination and violence against women. Finally, at legislative levels, terms like ‘murder by violent emotion’ and ‘crime of passion’ should be eliminated from the penal code. These terms have been responsible for reduced sentences for men who kill their partners.
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