Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive and ignored human rights violations in the world. In the US, a woman is raped every 6 minutes; a woman is battered every 15 seconds. In Africa, 6,000 women are genitally mutilated each day. This year, more than 15,000 women will be sold into sexual slavery in China. 200 women in Bangladesh will be horribly disfigured when their spurned husbands or suitors burn them with acid. More than 7,000 women in India will be murdered by their families and in-laws in disputes over dowries.
Amnesty International (the 1.8 million member worldwide human rights organization) launched a 6-year long Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women (SVAW) on March 5, 2004 with a report ("It’s in our hands: Stop Violence against Women"), appeal cases and an activated grassroots membership in the USA and around the world. AI’s SVAW campaign has two major themes: violence during armed conflict and after, and violence in the home/community. Amnesty International is calling on all governments as well as non-governmental actors, institutions and individuals to take immediate steps to put an end to violence against women and to redress the suffering it causes. This column is the first in a series on the forms of violence and what AI s doing about them.
Violence against Women in the Community
All the forms of violence discussed above and many others are happening as you read this column. In the December, 2003 UN Declaration to Eliminate Violence against Women, governments agreed that they are obligated to take immediate steps to prevent, investigate and punish all forms of violence against women whether by the government, by family members or by people living in the community. When governments do not properly investigate violence and bring perpetrators to justice, they are not fulfilling their obligation to protect women’s human rights. Without full transparent investigations and prosecutions, the climate of impunity for horrendous attacks on women and girls in the community will continue.
Killings and disappearances of young women and girls of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico
It is almost 12 years since the brutal cycle of abductions and murders of young women began in Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico. Almost 400 women and girls have been murdered and more than 70 remain missing in the cities of Juarez and Chihuahua since 1993. Police and government officials consistently failed to adequately investigate the growing number of deaths.
In 2003, the Federal Government announced a program of measures to prevent and prosecute acts of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez. Despite the positive steps that have been taken, Amnesty International had serious concerns on a number of key issues. Of particular concern is the failure to fully incorporate cases from the city of Chihuahua into a program of special measures, the absence of any judicial review of abuses such as torture, resulting in the apparent miscarriage of justice and impunity, and insufficient action to integrate a gender perspective into every element of preventive and investigative measures to combat violence against women.
According to the AI report, “Intolerable Killings: Ten years of abductions and murders in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua”, released in August 2003, over 370 young women have been murdered or abducted in these cities since 1993. Sadly, new bodies have recently been found on the outskirts of Chihuahua, and there have been new reports of missing women.
As a result of intense national and international pressure, including the publication of AI’s report, the Mexican Federal Government finally acknowledged the gravity of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez and promised to take action. The Federal government named a special Prosecutor to review all case files in Ciudad Juarez and make recommendations for continued action by State Authorities. The Federal government also named a special Commissioner to coordinate the government’s response to the murders.
In 2004, Special prosecutor Maria Lopez Urbina had reviewed 150 cases and found evidence of negligence in more than 100 of these. She recommended that the Chihuahua State Attorney General begin proceedings against 81 state officials for their role in the flawed investigations.
However, charges against officials have been dropped on the grounds that the statute of limitations has already expired in relation to charges of negligence and other lesser crimes. Also senior officials accused of negligence have initiated slander actions against the Prosecutor to protect their reputation, but also to deter the investigations.
AI continued to be concerned that no transparent and accountable mechanism has been put in place to bring perpetrators to justice. In addition, there is a failure to consider the murder of young women and girls as part of a pattern of violence against women, rather than as individual criminal acts. The failure to take account of gender issues, social background and the full nature of the violence suffered by the victims, has resulted in limited response by the state. AI believes that forensic services should be made administratively independent of Prosecutors’ offices at federal and state level in order to ensure impartiality and transparency.
AI found there were serious lapses by police investigators. In many cases, the police did not start searches for missing women and failed to interview people with possible knowledge of the crimes. Family members, reporting their daughters missing, were often told to wait a few days before the case is opened. The father of Maria Isabel Nava, for example, reported his daughter missing to the Special Prosecutor’s Office handling the Juarez murders on January 4, 2000. According to him, instead of taking action, the Special Prosecutor said, “It’s only Tuesday” and insinuated that his daughter had gone off with her boyfriend. Her body was found 23 days later. According to an autopsy, she had apparently been held in captivity for two weeks before being killed.
This tragedy is made worse when on several occasions local officials publicly blamed the young women for exposing themselves to the violence. Authorities have faulted victims for the type of dress they used, for being out late (even when returning late at night from jobs), for spending time in bars, or accused them of working as prostitutes.
Mexican authorities must fully review all cases, including those in the city of Chihuahua not covered by the Special Prosecutors’ review; fully review "solved" cases where individuals have been jailed based on forced confessions; and prosecute all authorities who have in some way been negligent in investigating or are complicit in these horrible crimes.
Pressure from the US Congress will help push Mexican officials to take these steps. Rep. Hilda Solis and Senator Jeff Bingaman have re-introduced resolutions on March 9th that will help raise awareness of the tragic violence, express Congressional concern, and propose a set of actions to deal with the murders and abductions of these young women. You can help by contacting your own Members of Congress asking them to become cosponsors of House Concurrent Resolution 90/Senate Concurrent Resolution 16. Visit www.amnestyusa.org/juarez to find the action.
Update on Killings and disappearances of young women and girls of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico
At a meeting with Chihuahua Governor Reyes Baeza and Prosecutor Patricia Gonzalez, AI’s Secretary General Irene Khan (with a delegation includes AI sections in the US, Netherlands, Switzerland and Mexico) welcomed the more positive attitude of the State government to address the killings of women, but expressed disappointment at the limited advances in many cases and the lack of action to build the confidence of the families in the process. Despite the initiatives taken, more than 20 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua in the last six months.
While the intervention of the Special Federal Prosecutor for Ciudad Juarez is a step in the right direction, it has had very limited impact. There have been only 24 cases taken up under federal jurisdiction and there appears to be a deeply worrying lack of attention to the continuing abductions and killings of women in Chihuahua City.
At the local level, there has been a change of leadership in the government and a project has been undertaken by the Argentina Forensic Anthropology Team to clarify the identity of unidentified bodies. The government must rebuild confidence with the families of victims, take measures to end all harassment and ensure that the cases with confessions that were obtained under torture are seriously reviewed.
After the meeting with the governor, the Amnesty International delegation joined the mothers of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua to pay tribute to Minerva Torres, whose body was hidden for more than two years in the forensic facilities of the Prosecutor’s Office in Chihuahua, despite clear evidence of her identity.
Amnesty International USA is the US section of AI - the international worldwide human rights organization with 1.8 million members in 100 countries. AIUSA has over 350,000 members organized into professional networks, and student and community chapters. You can find out which of our administrative regions you live in and contact our offices if you wish to join a local chapter visit www.amnestyusa.org. You can join the SVAW campaign, get our monthly women’s human rights online bulletin and join the Women's Human Rights Action Network by visiting www.amnestyusa.org/women. We look forward to working with you.