In the Americas, 30% of women have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner (WHO, 2013). Three out of the ten deadliest countries for girls and women are in Latin America (UNICEF, 2017). One in three women in the world has suffered physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their life. Less than 40% of these have sought some kind of help (UN).
These figures show a very alarming situation, which especially affects Latin America: women and girls face different types of violence throughout their lives. When we talk about different types of violence, we refer to: sexual or physical violence, violence in the context of armed conflicts, violence in schools, violence in the workplace and domestic violence, among many other forms.
democraciaAbierta spoke with Paola Silva, from the Colombian feminist collective SietePolas, about the scenarios in which women and girls in Latin America are at risk of experiencing violence.
demoAbierta: How is the landscape of domestic violence against women in Latin America today?
Paola Silva: Domestic violence is very difficult because the aggressor is someone you love, someone you respect. So, this makes it very difficult, first, for women to report it. I would say this without judging them: a woman decides whether or not to report and should not be judged for not doing so because in that situation you have to put yourself in the shoes of the other person and see how they live and what they do. Secondly, the aggressors are usually parents, uncles, and people do not believe them no matter how much they denounce.
With sexual violence towards minors, it’s often the case that girls denounce and say: "Mom, this happened to me", and they say: "I'm sorry, but that can't be true. You must be traumatized, you saw something on television”. That is a very serious problem.
And that’s only the beginning. This not only happens with women: there are also female partners who are violent. Violence within couples is a huge problem: in Colombia alone, we have 37,000 registered cases in 2019, not counting December when there is more violence often linked to the festive period.
demoAbierta: How can the issue of sexual violence against women in the midst of the armed conflict in Colombia be understood?
Paola Silva: From 2012 to 2019, more than 26,000 women were victims of sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict. This gives us some figures and shines a light on how women are used as objects in war zones. In Colombia, the woman's body is used as a weapon of war. This is according to the National Center for Historical Memory that in 2017 published a report about how many women had been sexually assaulted; both women victims of the armed conflict and women who are part of armed groups outwith the law were found to have been victims.
Many times we’ve been told that only true war victims are worthy of sympathy, because the rest are part of armed groups. That is a fallacy
This is important, because many times we’ve been told that only true war victims are worthy of sympathy, because the rest are part of armed groups. That is a fallacy. In one of our SietePolas columns I had the opportunity to interview Diana Gómez, a woman who was part of the paramilitary groups and was in charge of administrative operations in Bogotá.
She told us her story in a very brave way. She told us that she was sexually violated more than 13 times by the leaders of the armed conflict and by Colombian politicians, and that she does not dare to name her abusers because she knows that her life is in danger.
So, when we talk about sexual violence, we have to talk about all the women who are affected and also see the full context: how they are affected, why they were affected. It is a violence that we have to recognize, that we have to repair; We have examples of reparation of violence in the armed conflict with the women of Montes de María. These are experiences that we have to review, that we have to look at and that we have to learn from.
demoAbierta: How do you perceive the violence to which women protesters have been subject in the midst of the social mobilizations currently sweeping across Latin America?
Paola Silva: The mobilizations that have taken place in Latin America in recent months have shown us that many women who were co-opted by official forces suffered cases of sexual violence, particularly in the case of Chile.
In Colombia, we do not have such a clear picture, but I would dare say that there must be cases. In the mobilizations in Medellín on January 21 of this year, there was a specific physical aggression against a woman, where her face was practically disfigured by ESMAD agents.
One in four girls under 18 is getting married without being of legal age with people who already are.
The outcry was coming from Doris Saldarriaga of ‘Estamos Listas’, who in the Council of Medellín raised her voice and said: “They are violating us, they are there, waiting”. I think this is something that is very important: women in politics who defend women's rights will always be there to defend them, to give these cases attention. Without this, we would not even find out. She is one more victim, another case of violence, but here is the additional point that they are violating us all and we will not allow it.
demoAbierta: What is the outlook for girls born in Latin America today?
Paola Silva: In Latin America and in the world, girls are born into a society of stereotypes where we expect them to do certain things, take care of certain tasks and study certain subjects. Since childhood, they are instilling in us that our job is in the home, that you have to be aware that you have to do all the housework. All these stereotypes are already taking away time from our lives from the moment we are being born.
It happens inside the home, it happens in educational environments, where girls who like scientific subjects do not continue with their studies because during their primary education they are usually telling them that women do not work in these fields. That is a men's thing. This is very important and happens throughout Latin America.
In terms of physical violence, it is very common among boys and girls, but it does not make it less scandalous. Inside the home, 2 out of every 3 children are disciplined with violence in Latin America.
Another figure that is more related to girls, but we are not so aware of in Latin America, and that we say that only happens in African countries, is child marriage. One in four girls under 18 is getting married without being of legal age with people who already are. This is worrisome, but this is not visible, it is not something we talk about.
demoAbierta: What can we do to improve this discouraging situation?
Paola Silva: I think that every day we can carry out small actions that make a difference. The problem of micro-sexism is not taken seriously but has an important impact on everyday behaviours: all micro-sexisms become violence. Every man who has murdered a woman, surely carried out acts of micro-sexism with which he never corrected himself or was not corrected, and that society also accepts.
So the first thing is to question ourselves. To carry out the task of saying, is this ok? For example, in the work environment, in selection processes, it is necessary to ask if I am favoring men more, if I am making my resumes anonymous, without a photo, in order to actually hire the most suitable person, or if what I am really doing is not hiring a woman because she could get pregnant.
Another example is men in the WhatsApp groups: What are they sending? What are they saying? Are you sending photos of naked women without their permission?
This is a problem and it is a pandemic. Women are dying. The fact that every two hours a woman is killed because she is a woman cannot be something that one forgets or accepts.
You can find the full interview here: