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Unlike for many health and development issues, the most important step that can be taken to combat violence is fairly clear: support the nascent initiatives already under way. Some of these are at the governmental level (see box 5 for examples), but most represent the untiring efforts of autonomous women’s organizations that have pushed this issue forward despite local and national resistance. To be effective, work to combat violence must be site-specific, emerging from the cultural and political realities of each country. A wealth of well organized NGOs are already working throughout the developing world on many of the programs outlined below. A recent directory published by ISIS International (1990) lists 379 separate organizations working on gender violence issues in Latin America alone. These groups, which function with little outside support, could easily be strengthened with a minimal investment of resources.
Justice system reform.
The gross inadequacy of most laws in protecting victims or sanctioning violent perpetrators has made legal reform an important priority for many groups working on violence against women. Clearly, amending laws on paper is not enough to ensure change, but strong laws can be a considerable asset in helping women protect themselves from violence. Three critical tasks in legal reform are changing laws that keep women trapped in abusive relationships, removing barriers to prosecution, and eliminating aspects of the law that are prejudicial to women.
A number of laws have worked to trap women in relationships. Article 114 of Guatemala’s Civil Code, for example, grants a woman’s husband the right to prohibit her from working outside the home; among other things, this drastically limits a woman’s ability to gain the financial independence needed to escape an abusive relationship (Garcia 1992). In Ecuador, until a 1989 legal reform, a husband had the right to force his wife to live with him no matter how abusive he may have been ( Fonce, Palan, and Jacome 1992). And in Chile divorce is illegal for any reason, even in cases of extreme violence (Valdez 1992). Such laws put women living in violent relationships at substantial risk.
Laws in other countries make it almost impossible to prosecute violence against women, especially violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. In Pakistan, for example, four male Moslim witnesses must testify before a man can be convicted and subjected to the hadd punishment (the most severe) for rape (Human Rights Watch 1992). It is extremely difficult in Pakistan to get any conviction of rape, even for the lesser tazir penalty (public flogging, rigorous imprisonment, or fines), because the Law of Evidence considers women “incompetent” as witnesses in cases of rape and grants their testimony only the status of corroborative evidence. In 1979 Pakistan passed the hudood ordinance, which made all forms of sex outside marriage-including fornication and adultery-crimes against the state. Women who have failed to meet Pakistan’s high standard of proof for rape have themselves been thrown in trial for adultery or fornication based on their admission of intercourse. Human rights activists estimate that up to 1,500 Pakistani women are in prison awaiting trial for hudood violations (Human Rights Watch 1992).
Rape laws that are prejudicial against women are not uncommon. The definition of rape is extremely narrow in most countries, and the law and judicial systems often treat rape as a crime against public morality, family honor, or-as in African customary law-property, rather than as a crime against the woman. In cases of sexual violence the justice system is almost universally biased against women who are not virgins. In some Latin American countries-for example, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala-the law defines certain sexual offenses as crimes only if they are committed against “honest”-that is, virginal-women or girls. Laws in Chile and Guatemala specifically exonerate a man who agrees to marry the girl he has raped; his marriage to the victim is perceived as restoring her honor and that of her family (Garcia 1992; Valdez 1992).
Box 5 Government initiatives against gender-based violence.
In February 1991 the government of Canada announced a new four-year Family Violence Initiative, a “call to action” intended to mobilize community action, strengthen Canada’s legal framework, establish services on Indian reserves and in Inuit communities, develop resources to help victims and stop offenders, and provide housing for abused women and their children (Government of Canada 1991).
In 1991 Chile’s Congress created El Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM) to advance the rights and opportunities of Chilean women. SERNAM has proposed a program to prevent family violence by promoting legal reform to criminalize domestic violence, documenting the dimensions of the problem, organizing community awareness campaigns to change public consciousness, and opening crisis centers to provide legal and psychological support (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer 1991).
Brazil’s new constitution, enacted in 1988, contains the following provision: The states should assist the family, in the person of each of its members, and should create mechanisms so as to impede violence in the sphere of its relationships (Americas Watch 1991). And Colombia’s 1989 constitution states that “any form of violence within the family is considered destructive to its harmony and unity and will be sanctioned by law” (ISIS International 1993).