Protestors marching

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–Four years ago, just before Christmas, Teresa Lobos was planning her suicide.

After 17 years of physical and emotional abuse by her husband, she says she had hit rock bottom.

"I went into a crisis that night and I wanted to kill myself," say Lobos, 40, her husky voice cracking. "I imagined tying the noose and everything. Death was on my doorstep." Domestic abuse is widespread across Latin America.

Women who report having been beaten by a spouse range from 22 percent in the Dominican Republic to 44 percent in Colombia, according to a June 2004 survey by Monitoring and Evaluation to Assess and Use Results, or MEASURE, a Maryland-based organization that collects data for The U.S. Agency for International Development. The 2002 U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey shows 1-in-5 crimes against women were violent incidents involving an intimate partner.

But in Chile–widely recognized as one of the most conservative and family-oriented countries in the region–it’s a problem that had long been obscured by a lack of reporting or national statistics.

First National Registry

This year, however, prompted by a growing tide of public concern over social issues, the first national registry of domestic violence was released by SERNAM, the Spanish acronym for the government’s National Service for Women.

The survey, which began in 2001, found that half of all women have suffered domestic violence. One-in-three adult women has been abused physically by a partner and 2-in-5 have suffered emotional abuse. And 70 women are killed by their partners every year.

In response, the government in November launched a campaign to raise awareness of the problem, including several new laws, which are awaiting approval in Congress and would make abuse of a spouse a crime.

Last month, as more than 2,000 people protested the lack of awareness about domestic violence in a Santiago march organized by SERNAM to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 36-year-old Magaly Jara Valenzuela was raped and killed by her husband in Santiago’s southern district of San Ramon.

Outpouring of Media Attention

The ugly coincidence launched an outpouring of media attention. Cecilia Perez, the cabinet member who heads SERNAM, says she was surprised by the increased interest and credits public involvement for pushing the issue out of the closet.

"There has been an institutionalized discrimination between men and women, even by the state," says Perez. "We have to admit it."

That is changing, however, and in a country that has never had a female head of state, the two most likely presidential contenders for the 2005 election are women. (See Women’s eNews Cheers and Jeers, Dec. 25)

Still, Perez says domestic violence advocates have an uphill battle: "Our social relations are based on gender inequality and are very historic and ingrained. So this gets reproduced culturally and is expressed sometimes in the most brutal and extreme forms of violence."

Problem Increases around Holidays

It’s a problem that, as in the rest of the world, increases around Christmas time, Lobos says, as substance abuse rises along with holiday celebrations involving alcohol.

But this holiday season Teresa Lobos is far from suicidal.

Today, she is separated and awaiting a divorce. She’s studying to become a social worker who specializes in addictions and abuse. And she volunteers as a counselor of families affected by domestic abuse at the Intra-Family Socio-Ecological Program run by the Barros Luco Hospital in Santiago. It’s the same grassroots intervention program that helped her regain control of her fate four years ago.

Paola Cabello is one of the women counseled by Lobos. Cabello describes how her partner would beat her in fits of jealousy. And how she started fighting back, sometimes hitting him before he’d hit her.

"I’ve been hit all my life," says Cabello. "I thought it was normal. But now I’m learning to say things. At least in the past three months that I’ve been in this program, I haven’t hit anyone and I haven’t been hit either. But I feel helpless and cry a lot because I don’t know how else to control situations now."

Court-Ordered Conciliation

Both Cabello and her husband arrived at the Barros Luco Hospital by court order and after domestic abuse conciliation. This kind of forced treatment is new and part of a wider government effort to curb domestic abuse. The effort includes a network of victim centers where women receive counselling and legal advice.

Perez says secrecy and the sanctity of the family space have been other barriers, which is why SERNAM has embarked on a new ad campaign launched last month. She points out that domestic violence has only been considered an infraction for the past 10 years in Chile. Currently, a judge can only scold offenders, through a process called conciliation, and order them into abuse prevention programs.

But Perez says that for real progress to be made, domestic violence needs to be made a crime punishable by jail. She points out that 2001 figures reveal that at least one-third of those who underwent conciliation hit their partners again.

This year the Chilean government tabled a new law to establish family tribunals which would provide police protection and yield convictions (although Congress has yet to define sentences). Perez says 92 percent of domestic violence cases do not reach the courtroom because abuse is not considered a crime. Only extreme cases, usually involving murder or attempted murder, get prosecuted.

"Conciliation doesn’t do anything to prevent them from re-offending," she says. "The family tribunals law will provide faster, yet more human treatment for victims, as well as more protection for those who are being threatened and a higher rate of convictions."

The law is currently before the Senate, and Perez expects it could be passed as early as March.

Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist who returned to her mother’s homeland a year ago, to tell its untold, or under-told, stories.

For more information:

Gobierno de Chile–
(in Spanish):

Profiling Domestic Violence
A Multi-Country Study

International Planned Parenthood–
Improving the Health Sector Response to Gender-Based Violence
A Resource Manual for Health Care Professionals in Developing Countries