Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean

Every year millions of women are victims of violence, with rights transgression being a constant issue around the globe. Even more developed countries are facing difficulties in completely eliminating violence against women. The Gender pay gap, genital mutilation and femicide are some of the challenges most developed countries have been facing lately, and gender based violence persists worldwide (affecting one third of women globally). In the underdeveloped world, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean, gender inequality has been a critical issue, with several countries struggling to reduce the unacceptable number of gender-related homicides and violent crimes. In order for this issue to be effectively addressed several social dimensions, such as the economy, politics, education and others, need to be improved.  

This article aims to describe the current situation of violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean, explore governmental efforts to address this issue and present some indicators that help illustrate this problem in the region. 

Historical Background and the Current Situation

Latin America’s efforts to reduce and eliminate women’s rights violations have been very substantial, especially considering its legislation. Governments have passed several laws in order to protect women’s rights over the past 20 years. The role assumed by international bodies has been fundamental to this, since the first landmark deal was reached by the Organization of American States (OAS) initiative (Belém do Pará 1994 Convention). The act, signed in Brazil, establishes the duties and objectives to be pursued by the Latin American states in order to prevent, punish, and eradicate violence against women. The treaty led to the first generation of legislation across countries, and in late 2016, 32 of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries ratified the agreement (only Cuba, did not sign, and Canada and the US were not considered).

Table 1. Signatory Countries to the Inter-American ‘Convention of Belém do Pará’ (1994). 

The Belém do Pará convention was an important step, it defined forms of violence against women, the states’ duties and mechanisms to protect victims of violence and prompted governments to take action by modifying their establishments. With the treaty (art. 7), countries began to recognize that “violence against women refers to any act or conduct based on gender, which causes death, harm or psychological suffering to women, both in the private and public domain” and compromised by adopting measures “to prevent, punish and end the fore-mentioned violence”.

In some countries, the convention was followed utilizing reforms and the matter was naturally regulated. But in others, such as Brazil and Mexico, authorities only took action after their nations became accountable and were penalized by a mechanism created by the convention. 

Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes vs. Brazil (2001) was the first time an American country was found responsible by the Inter-American Human Rights System for failing to prevent domestic violence. And in the case of Gonzáles et al vs Mexico (the Cotton field case) (2007), the Mexican state was found responsible for not taking measures to protect  victims and was considered negligent during the investigations. Additionally, the Mexican state was also found guilty for omitting high numbers of girls and women deaths in Juarez City (Ciudad Juárez). 

Both cases illustrate how the convention affected countries’ commitment in developing measures designed to regulate the matter and to take action. In this direction, the first generation of laws created focused on domestic violence, which consists of any form of violence inflicted in private, usually in the victim’s residence. Considering that all countries have adopted this kind of legislation, these first generation of laws were very important since it represented the government’s acknowledgment of this issue as a public one. As a result, countries developed a basic infrastructure to support victims, contributing to the development of public policies to protect women. Emergency lines, and the preparation of state agents to provide psychological or health treatment, as well as legal council, were some of the measures taken.

 Table 2. Legislation on domestic violence in Latin America and Caribbean

Source: UNDP, CEPAL 

The problem is that the majority of countries did not go any further, and only 8 out of 33  advanced and implemented what is known in the literature as second generation laws. The second generation is legislation that institutes a comprehensive approach in covering other forms of violence such as institutional, workplace, obstetric, media violence, violations of reproductive rights, sexual harassment, and property-related and symbolic violence. 

Table 3. Comprehensive Legislation on violence against women in Latin America and Caribbean

Source: UNDP, CEPAL, Sur – International Journal on Human Rights


Nonetheless, this does not mean countries did not advance. As a matter of fact, countries have advanced in different areas such as: political harassment (Bolivia), Sexual harassment in the workplace (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay), sexual violence and human trafficking (Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico), harassment on the street and in public transportation (Peru), reproductive rights (Argentina), obstetric violence (Venezuela, Argentina), domestic violence in schools (El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Panama), rehabilitation programs (Chile and Mexico), and others.

When considering femicide, the most extreme form of gender based violence, defined, by the United Nations, as the “end of a continuum of violence against women, set against general patterns of discrimination against women and tolerated impunity of perpetrators”, half of the countries have criminalized it. 

Table 4. Femicide legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean countries


In spite of these legislation, violence is persistent. The Central American countries El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala lead the ranking of women deaths in relative numbers and Brazil has the highest rate in absolute measures.

Femicides in Latin America and the Caribbean, absolute numbers and rates per 100,000 women


Femicides rates show us a critical reality for women in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some countries experiencing an increase in their numbers. Globally, 14 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean region have the highest rates of women deaths (rate per 100,000), and one out of every three women has experienced some form of gender violence at some point in her life. Indeed the region is the most dangerous continent for women in the world, which reveals how urgent and necessary women’s rights protection measures are. 


Femicide – rates per 100,000 women 2007-2012


Even though Latin America and the Caribbean region have a vast range of legislation, violence persists. 

Data and indicators show us that the problem will not be solved with law enforcement alone. The law is one important aspect, but it is not the only one. Legislative improvements have been implemented, and, undoubtedly, they were fundamental, because they forced states to recognize the problem, develop mechanisms, protocols and special institutions in order to reduce violence and gender discrimination. 

However, gender violence and gender inequalities require comprehensive approaches because they are ingrained in social structures, and many aspects of them are usually unchangeable only by the law. A path to a salutary political transformation should focus on reducing violence along with a strategy which deconstructs views, beliefs, and distorted perceptions  about gender, relationships, harassment and related topics. Changing social norms is important since it will affect people’s attitudes and behavior independently of the law. 

In this case it is worth noting that social pressure has had a big impact on this, and organized social movements from the civil society, NGOs, and other non-governmental initiatives are playing an important role in the region. Yet, efforts are necessary throughout society and changes need to be developed on several fronts, involving different ranges of complexity – from the most elementary, and obvious topics such as the gender pay gap or unconditional human rights for every women to the more problematical ones like rape culture and victim blaming, as well as the sexual division of domestic labor

As they are based on social inequalities they need to be addressed using a multi-pronged approach, which should cover the education of younger generations, as well as efforts to raise people’s awareness about the issue and how they can take action when necessary. It is thus about changing culture and values, which only can be effectively treated when working on the micro level.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Lincoln Telhado
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Lincoln Telhado is a government relations specialist based in Brasilia, Brazil. He received a master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Brasilia. His research interests include accountability and democratic institutions, and policy diffusion in Latin America, with a special focus on Brazil.

Categories: Law, Society & Culture

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