But changing attitudes among young people suggest a more positive trend
Washington, D.C., November 22, 2010 (PAHO) — Violence against women remains a major public health problem in Latin America and the Caribbean despite growing legal, social and public health efforts to reduce it, experts said today at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
In recent surveys, some 10-12 percent of women in most countries of Latin America and the Caribbean report that they have been victims of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, and between 5 percent and 15 percent say they have been forced to have sex with an intimate partner against their will.
But the proportion of women who report intimate-partner violence varies widely across countries, from 16 percent of women in the Dominican Republic, for example, to more than half of women in Bolivia. Much of the abuse takes place when women are still young.
These and other findings, based on surveys of more than 200,000 women in Latin America and the Caribbean, were presented during a panel discussion held at PAHO in observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
PAHO Director Mirta Roses noted that violence against women crosses social, cultural and geographical lines and is markedly higher in other regions of the world.
“Violence against women is a human rights violation, a social justice and a public health problem that touches every level of society in every part of the world,” she said. “From young girls to older women, one out of every three is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. WHO studies show that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women worldwide.”
In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in other regions, women’s own attitudes can be part of the problem. Surveys show that the proportion of women who believe that wives are obligated to have sex with their husbands, even when they don’t want to, ranges from 7.4 percent in the Dominican Republic to more than 30 percent in Jamaica. The proportion of women who believe men have the right to hit their wives ranges from 3 percent in Jamaica to 38 percent in Ecuador.
“We know that these data underestimate the problem,” said Mary Goodwin, an expert on reproductive health and violence against women at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Surveys of men show that some 24 percent of men in Brazil, about 30 percent of men in Chile, and a similar percentage of men in Mexico report ever having used violence against an intimate partner. Factors that seem to increase men’s violence against women include economic stress, rigid attitudes about gender roles, alcohol use, and having witnessed domestic violence as a child.
“Men who witness violence growing up think it’s normal and are much more likely to use it later in life,” said Gary Barker, of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C.
Barker added that a majority of men think that laws against domestic violence make it “too easy” to arrest men who use violence against their wives, something that is belied by low rates of arrest and prosecution.
“We have to go further than to say, ‘violence against women is against the law’,” said Barker. “We have to explain how the laws work and how they’re part of a human rights campaign that is not against men, but intended to protect women.”
Among the few positive findings of surveys in the region, Barker noted, is evidence that men are both happier and less likely to use violence against women it they are active participants in caring for their children or otherwise share home duties with their partners.
In addition, there is some evidence that programs that question gender norms and that “give men space to reflect on violence in their lives and childhood” can be effective in changing their attitudes about violence against women.
Mary Goodwin, of the CDC, noted that while there is no clear evidence of any decrease in violence against women in the Americas, there is evidence of a more positive trend in changing attitudes.
“Young people, especially, are more likely to see violence as unacceptable under any circumstances,” she said.
Elizabeth Rowley, of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, urged special attention to women in crisis situations, who are particularly vulnerable to violence. She noted that in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake, women have faced greater risk of sexual coercion and violence as a result of extreme need and vulnerability, general lawlessness, and insecure living conditions, particularly in tent camps for the internally displaced.
Rowley called for increased support to specialized health facilities in Haiti that have been working to provide treatment and referrals to women victims of violence since well before the earthquake.