A woman looks at an "empty shoe" femicide exhibit

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–Fifty-two Chilean women have been killed by their husbands or boyfriends through October and the Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Chile wants the world to know about it.

The advocacy network, a Santiago-based association of 50 nongovernmental organizations around Chile, is planning a series of nighttime marches in 12 cities on Nov. 22 to draw citizens into the streets to denounce femicide.

Even though Chile’s femicide numbers are far lower than some countries–580 Guatemalan women were murdered in 2006 in what Amnesty International describes as femicides–the advocacy group is already alarmed by what happened last year, when 51 Chilean women were killed in murders designated by both police authorities and human rights groups as femicides.

Under growing pressure from activists and a group of Chilean legislators, President Michelle Bachelet submitted a women’s rights bill to the Chilean congress in the last week of October.

The bill, to be debated in the next few weeks, recommends that femicide be distinguished from homicide in Chilean law and that nine new safe houses for domestic violence be constructed, raising the country’s total number to 25.

Bachelet also calls for streamlining police investigations into domestic violence cases and for creating a special police division designed to identify and quickly react to high-risk domestic abuse cases.

"There are times to speak, to criticize, to discuss and to analyze. But the truth is that this is the time to act. Victims can no longer wait," said Bachelet.

Stronger Measures Urged

Earlier in October, a group of Chilean legislators, led by Rep. Adriana Munoz, a member of the center-left Party for Democracy, called on the government to take more vigorous measures against femicide.

These legislators say Bachelet’s proposal is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough.

"I think that this plan is a good effort," said Munoz. "But it is insufficient. The president still needs to take more drastic measures. She forgot to include plans to reform Chile’s courts. She could have strengthened the prosecution of these crimes even more . . . I believe that her plan is too superficial and lacks concrete measures."

Munoz’s group outlined a 10-point plan. In addition to incorporating femicide into Chile’s legal code, it includes creating prosecutors’ offices specialized in domestic violence and a nationwide database of domestic-violence perpetrators.

"We are facing a potential catastrophe for our country’s families and social life," the group said in a statement. "This type of violence requires direct intervention by national authorities."

Intimate Partners Were Killers

According to police reports, 23 of the 52 murders were committed in Santiago. Nearly 80 percent of the victims had had an intimate relationship with their aggressor, either through dating or marriage.

Network organizers are calling attention to a weak response to such violence and are stoking concerns about a legal system where critics say complaints about domestic violence are not given adequate attention and where femicide is not codified as a crime.

The concept of femicide refers to the killing of women because of their gender and has often been brought about by domestic–as opposed to stranger–violence. Criminologists consider femicide an expression of male domination, power and control over women. It is a problem that in its most extreme form results in murder, and may be accompanied by torture, mutilation, cruelty and sexual violence.

Currently in Chile, women can report domestic violence at local police stations or family tribunals, which are courts aimed at resolving domestic disputes. Critics say that these courts often take two to three months to process complaints.

"The country’s laws urgently have to be adjusted to the situations (of violence) that many women are facing today," said Soledad Granados, a lawyer for Amnesty International Chile who specializes in women’s rights. "Domestic violence and femicide should be codified in Chilean law as specific crimes, and not just lumped together with other crimes. Additionally, there should be more severe punishments for people who perpetrate this type of violence."

The activists initiated their awareness campaign "Careful! Machismo Kills!" three months ago with solemn memorial services dedicated to victims of femicide. It used empty pairs of shoes to represent the more than 300 women they estimate have been murdered because of their gender since 2001.

Sparking National Debate

The services took place simultaneously in six Chilean cities, sparking a national debate on TV, in newspapers and in community forums on how to confront and end the violence.

Since July the advocacy network has been distributing informative flyers and holding round-table discussions in community centers around Santiago. Volunteers have been active in five of Chile’s 14 regions–which are the equivalent of states–in order to raise awareness.

An October study by the Santiago-based Faculty of Latin American Social Studies identified five main contributing factors to Chilean femicides: the young age of both the victims and their aggressors; a paucity of organizations to help victims of domestic violence; cultural norms that encourage men to control women’s actions; the secretiveness of the violence, which often takes place behind closed doors; and the lack of legal norms set in place to both protect women and prosecute their assailants.

Maria Lenina del Canto, who heads both the Movement for the Emancipation of Chilean Women, a Santiago-based group that promotes gender equality and the anti-femicide initiative, sees two main advances since the start of the campaign in July.

"The first one is that many women, who before did not have anyone to turn to for help, are now getting involved with the network. They are denouncing and rejecting femicide."

She says the second advance is far greater awareness of the crime. "There is a lot more discussion about femicide than there was before. There is more coverage in the media . . . the media is picking up on our efforts. If news stories about femicide get on the radio or on television, then more people are aware."

Del Canto says that while the group attracted hundreds to their July event, she expects that between 10,000 and 12,000 women will participate in the marches later this month.

Despite the public and legislative attention the campaign has spurred, she says the campaign is far from over. "We will be finishing the bulk of our work this year with the November march," she says. "But we have to prepare to continue this campaign next year."

Matt Malinowski is the editor of the Santiago Times, Chile’s only English language daily, and contributes to the Christian Science Monitor.

For more information:

Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Chile
(in Spanish):

Amnesty International:

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