Monday, September 21, 2015, marked the one year anniversary of the death of Paola Acosta, a woman who suffered her fate at the hands of her ex-partner1, Gonzalo Lizarralde. She was raped, killed and dumped in a sewer together with her one-year-old daughter, Martina, who she had in common with her attacker. Remarkably, Martina survived. Wednesday, September 23, Gonzalo Lizarralde, marked the first day of the prosecution for the murder of Paola2. This is only one of the stories that has marked Latin American society to the point of awakening in the last few months. And even Paola is but one of the thousands of women who is a victim of femicide3, her story hopefully marks the beginning of an era that recognizes gendered killings and seeks to hold perpetrators accountable.
Homicide is one of the oldest moral and legal prohibitions known to mankind. Cain killing Abel is, traditionally, the first example of such an act of man on man killing. But homicide is not always a crime. Justified killings are still homicides, although they are not criminalized. Homicide is an umbrella under which some crimes may fall; manslaughter and murder are the prime examples. Femicide, certainly falls under this same umbrella of homicide, and it has now found its place in the criminal codes of Latin American society and is well on its way to find its place in the modern dictionaries of our time, but cultural norms, prevail. The term was first coined in 1976 by Dr. Diana E.H. Russell, PhD, who during her testimony in front of the International Tribunal posited: "From the burning of witches in the past, to the more recent widespread custom of female infanticide in many societies, to the killing of women for so-called honor, we realize that femicide has been going on a long time."4
Still, this term is given much less import in society. This may be because of the value society has placed on the role of a man versus the role of a woman. Expectations also play a big role in this development in that because a woman is expected to act a certain way, when she does not, she must have somehow deserved whatever consequences come to her. Far too often, these killings are also justified as crimes of passion5, which skillfully shifts the guilt from the perpetrator to the victim. Coalitions against domestic violence and domestic violence scholars warn that such common practise of victim-blaming, ignores the criminal act of the violence6.
Latin America has the highest rates of femicide in the world7. It is estimated that one woman is killed every 30 hours in Argentina8, and in Mexico, an average of six women per day9 fall to the hands of their perpetrators. A woman is killed every two hours in Brazil10. Sexual violence and slicing of breasts are distinct characteristics attributable to femicide11. The common link in these killings is that they are motivated by gender and are an expression of male dominance over the opposite sex. Certainly worth noting is that young boys are also perpetrators of acts of femicide and that infants and girls are also victims of this horrendous crime12, but such discussion merits another article.
Although homicide contemporarily references all killings, recognizing femicide as a distinct category not only permits pointed conversation on an already distinct topic, but also removes the stigma associated with acknowledging that gender remains distinct in society. Such acknowledgement and pursuant conversation could lead to better efforts of accountability, not only against an individual, but also the State. For too many are the stories that get away with impunity. And too many are the excuses that justify these perverse killings -- “she shouldn’t have been wearing a mini skirt,” or even, “she deserved it,” “he was only jealous,” are some examples.
Femicide is deserving of its own category, or labeling for it goes beyond providing a definition of a crime committed against a woman because of her gender; it exposes a truth that had been lying underneath the private sphere of the patriarchal system. That men kill women just because they can and because it somehow reflects power, not just over the women -- as it can be witnessed in the context of domestic violence -- but also over rival opponents -- as it can be witnessed in the context of gang and cartel rivalries. Femicide reveals a call for change and intervention that can only be accomplished by, first, acknowledging its existence through social awareness and codification in the legal systems, and secondly, by enforcement and accountability mechanisms.
The driving force of the enactment of these laws, are the many stories of horror and impunity. Stories of women, who meet their fate at the hands of a man; often one she loved and trusted in are far too common. For example, behind Brazil’s femicide law -- also known as, Maria da Penha Law -- is the story of Maria da Penha, who inspired its name. Maria is a woman who survived over 14 years of abuse and two attempted murders by her partner and was left paraplegic13. Behind Colombia’s femicide law is the story of Rosa Elvira Cely, a woman who was attacked, raped and knifed to death at a park in Bogotá by her colleague from school14. As noted, not all the acts of femicide are perpetrated by partners or ex partners. For example, in Mexico, according to the Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio, “[m]aybe a third or half of the cases involved sexual partners. The balance—abductions, rapes and discarding the bodies like garbage — are probably linked to the generalized drug violence that is tearing Mexico apart.” Furthermore, abductions and rape are linked to the trafficking of women -- a fact that only begins to touch at the surface of the deep entrenched machismo that drives femicide in Latin American culture15.
But it takes more than signing a law. The signature enacting femicide into law is but a vehicle. Issues of accountability and law enforcement have given no real sign of hope for women and their families in latin america. So far, it all looks like a little smoke, without a fire. Following Argentina’s #NiUnaMenos campaign16, which spread virally around Latin America, similar marches were inspired in Chile, Uruguay, and Mexico. Now, with the prosecution of Gonzalo Lizarralde, we can hope that Argentina can model the enforcement mechanisms for the other Latin American countries to follow. For the toughest battle ahead is the cultural one...