Maria Victoria Torres

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–For 25 years, Maria Victoria Torres put up with daily physical and emotional abuse from her husband. He would punch and kick her, pull her hair, call her names and even lock her in a dark room for days on end.

"I took it, I endured, I forgave too much until, one day, I crashed," says the soft-spoken mother of two. "In Chile, domestic abuse is so common, it’s seen as a normal part of marital problems. People assume a husband has the right to do whatever he wants with his wife. I even had people tell me I probably like being hit."

But Torres says Chile’s new law criminalizing domestic abuse–which took effect Oct. 1 after legislators’ unanimous approval–gives her hope that women won’t face the obstacles she did.

In Chile, only 1 in 3 women work outside the home and divorce was legalized just over a year ago, in 2004.

But on Jan. 16, hundreds of thousands of Chileans took to the streets of Santiago to celebrate the election of Michelle Bachelet, their first female president.

Entire families cheered and waved banners, and grandmothers could be seen throwing confetti. One cluster of ecstatic women cried out, "Go Michelle! With a woman in power we’re gonna clean up this mess men have left in our country. We’re gonna clean house."

As a country known for its male-dominated traditionalism starts retooling that identity, women’s rights advocates say the domestic-violence law is a major sign of that shift.

‘New Page’ in Justice for Women

"We’re turning a new page in justice for women in Chile," said Cecilia Perez, the Socialist cabinet minister responsible for the National Service for Women, which actively pushed the passage of the new law.

Perez said the new law includes 12 major reforms, which will make protective measures mandatory for judges and give police greater tools to arrest and prevent abuse.

She said that in the past, most of the women who had been killed by their spouses in Chile–46 in 2005–had filed civil complaints. Many, said Perez, had some form of restraining orders in place before their deaths.

The new law might have saved their lives because it obliges the state to guarantee the security of victims. It speeds up the procedures for prosecutors and judges to order protection measures and allows police to enter private homes based on suspicion, even when no obvious crime is taking place. Police can now also arrest people they suspect of threatening their partners with bodily harm.

Ten years ago, Chile made domestic abuse an infraction under the country’s civil code. But judges were unable to punish offenders beyond imposing fines and requiring participation in family-orientation programs. They could jail aggressors who committed serious abuse but this option–while considered in some cases of attempted murder–was rarely applied beyond actual murders.

Of the 106,000 complaints of abuse documented by the justice system in 2004, only 780 ended in convictions of some sort.

Now that domestic abuse has been clearly criminalized by the new law, judges can punish offenders and use the power of legal sanctions to prevent an escalation of abuse.

An Avalanche of Cases

The government publicized the new law by distributing flyers to citizens. That publicity, along with plaintiffs’ new ease in accessing the courts–no lawyer is required–has led to an avalanche of cases.

The new tribunals received 1,000 petitions a day during the first week after the law was put into effect. The most common petitions related to lapsed child-support payments, followed by complaints of domestic violence. Petitions for divorce ranked third.

By Jan. 4, the tribunals had received 97,000 cases, exceeding initial projections by 110 percent.

The system is practically flooded, according to lawyers. More lawyers and judges are gradually being implemented, with full and final staffing levels expected by October 2006.

According to statistics released on International Women’s Day on Nov. 25 by the Chilean government’s National Service for Women, 1 in 4 Chilean women has been physically abused by her partner at some point in her life, and 1 in 3 suffers psychological abuse at some point.

Wendy Murphy, a law professor at Boston’s New England School of Law, hails Chile’s criminalization of psychological violence–not even illegal in the United States–as extremely progressive.

Under the new law, physical abuse leading to serious injury can be punished with penalties of 10 to 15 years in prison. Abuse is defined as mistreatment affecting either physical or psychological integrity.

The law has made repeated psychological violence a crime, defined as habitual verbal or emotional violence that by its repetition makes criminal a combination of acts not otherwise considered crimes. Punishment ranges from fines, to between 61 and 541 days in prison.

Chile’s Law Stands Out in Latin America

Chile’s law stands out in the region. While most countries in Latin America have outlawed some forms of domestic abuse only a few countries–including Panama, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic–have actually made it a criminal offence, said Sonia Montano, director of the Santiago-based Women and Development division of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Some countries defend their reluctance to criminalize domestic violence.

Maria Lucila Colombo, president of Argentina’s National Council for Women, a government body based in Buenos Aires, says Argentine legislators decided to classify domestic abuse as a civil offense because it makes reporting it easier for victims that are reluctant to bring criminal charges.

"We see a grave problem because women put up with abuse, holding out six years on average, before reporting it," said Colombo.

Before Chile made domestic abuse a civil infraction in 1994, police received a mere 3,000 reports of domestic violence a year.

Those numbers skyrocketed to 25,000, after it became a civil offense in 1994. A decade later, police were receiving an average of 100,000 reports. Chilean officials argue that now that women have gained the courage to come forward, the state must follow up by giving them the tools to escape their situation.

Still, more resources are needed to back up the new law, which Bachelet, during the campaign, promised to deliver.

"We have a new law with severe penalties for domestic violence, and new resources for the justice system to protect women," Bachelet said in a speech. "But we still have a ways to go. We need to strengthen our efforts in prevention, educating our children in nonviolent conflict resolution."

She promised to increase funding for victim-support centers and create a network of women’s shelters that is coordinated with the public prosecutor’s office. Bachelet also pledged to create housing subsidies and job training programs for victims.

Jen Ross is a Chile-based freelance journalist who delves into social issues affecting women across the Americas.


For more information:

"Chile’s Michelle Bachelet Poised for Presidency":

Gobierno de Chile–Servicio Nacional del la Mujer
[in Spanish]:

Centre for Studies on Women’s Affairs
"How domestic violence came to be viewed as a public issue and policy object":