People attend a wake for Silvia Dinora Rivera in the market stall where she used to work, in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 22, 2013. Rivera was 37 when her husband tied her to a chair, poured gasoline over her and set fire to the house. She later died in hospital. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez
SAN SALVADOR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For nearly a decade, Flor Cornet endured the almost weekly beatings on her face and arms by her husband in their rural home outside El Salvador’s capital city.
He also threatened to take their two children away and forbade her from leaving the house. Then the death threats came.
“I knew my life was in danger when during one of his attacks of rage he put a machete to my neck that left a line of cuts. He thought he owned me. He told me I was worthless, that I wouldn’t be able to survive without him as I had no money or job,” Cornet, 40, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I finally left him. On the news, I’d hear about women being killed by their husbands. I didn’t want to be one of them.”
Cornet’s ordeal of years of abuse is a scourge faced by many women in the Central American nation of six million.
Riven by gang warfare, El Salvador is one of the world’s most violent countries. Rights group say its macho culture, which views women as child-bearers and mothers, along with a justice system that too often fails to punish perpetrators of crimes against women, fuels widespread gender-based violence.
Last year, nearly 4,000 El Salvadoran women ended up in hospital because of domestic and or sexual abuse in the home. Rights group say gender-based crimes are massively under-reported because fear prevents more women from coming forward.
Cornet said she left her husband just in time. But for thousands of El Salvadoran women, domestic violence has ended with their death.
DISCARDED LIKE RUBBISH
Until recently, El Salvador was known as the world’s capital for femicide — defined as the killing of a girl or woman by a man because of her gender.
At least 2,250 femicides have been reported in El Salvador from 2010 to September 2014, according to the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), a local rights group. The victims’ former or current boyfriends, husbands or family members or friends are often the perpetrators.
Scenes of women and girls murdered and then discarded like rubbish in alleyways, city streets and dumpsters continue to hit local headlines. The victims often show signs of torture, rape, or breast and genital mutilation and dismembered body parts.
UN Women says femicide is a growing phenomenon across Latin America. Half of the countries worldwide with very high femicide rates are in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey.
To tackle the violence, Costa Rica in 2007 became the first country in Latin America to pass a law which defines and punishes femicide as a specific crime. Seven other countries in the region have followed, most recently El Salvador where a law on femicide came into effect in 2012.
The law was part of landmark legislation to address gender-based violence by former president Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) that was formed by ex-guerrillas from the country’s civil war.
“Femicide is the most extreme expression of violence against a woman. This is a product of misogyny and machismo, based on the view that a man owns and controls a women’s body and that a woman’s body doesn’t belong to them,” said Yanira Argueta, a former FMLN fighter and now the head of the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU), a government agency.
JUDGES FAILING TO CONVICT
El Salvador’s femicide rates have fallen from a peak of 923 in 2010 to 175 femicides in 2013, Argueta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office in downtown San Salvador. So far this year, 136 cases of femicide have been reported.
But experts say the fall in the number of reported femicides coincides with the 2012 gang truce, which has since ended, and could be due to fewer convictions rather than fewer femicides.
El Salvador’s law on femicide, which carries a prison sentence of 20 to 50 years, requires judges to prove the death of a woman is motivated by hatred or contempt based on gender.
“There are still judges who don’t take femicide seriously and don’t want to deal with this crime and apply the law correctly,” said judge Silvia de Bonilla, who also runs Legal Woman Foundation, organisation to help women seek justice.
“The excuse some judges give is that hatred towards a woman can’t be proven. So the murder of a woman is classed as a homicide when, in fact, it was a femicide. In cases where a woman’s vulva and breasts have been cut up, it’s clear hatred exists. It can be proven,” she said.
While women and girls are still more likely to victims of domestic and sexual abuse in the home, street gangs are also behind the extreme violence against women. Some are even killed because they have spurned the sexual advances of gang members.
The government blames much of the violence on turf wars between Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18.
“The way violence against women is expressed mutates and women are becoming vulnerable in new ways,” said Argueta.
“Today we have more female victims of violence as part of a cycle of revenge and territorial control by gangs. One gang member can get to a rival gang member through raping or killing his girlfriend or sister.”
One strategy to prevent femicide is to help women in abusive relationships identify and measure the level of danger they face and report abuse before it escalates to murder, said Argueta.
Public awareness campaigns and a national violence hotline use the analogy of a thermometer to show, notch by notch, the incremental scale of verbal, emotional and physical violence women face before femicide occurs.
The thermometer starts at notch 1 with hurtful jokes, to 17 with slapping and spitting, and then 30 with femicide.
“I reached number 24 on the thermometer, the one that refers to death threats. I didn’t realise how close I came to my death,” Cornet said.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ros Russell)