As in many other parts of the world, violence against women and girls occurs at incredibly high rates throughout Central America, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Gender-Based Violence in the Region
According to a 2011 study, El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide, or gender-motivated killing of women, in the world. Guatemala is third, and Honduras is close behind at sixth. These rates have been increasing precipitously in recent years. In El Salvador, the rate of femicide has increased from fewer than 200 reported cases in the year 2000 to over 600 cases in 2011. Similarly, reported cases of domestic violence in El Salvador have increased, from around 1,500 cases in 2000 to over 6,000 cases each year in 2009 and 2010. Guatemala and Honduras have also experienced significant increases in the past decade.
Not only are these murders widespread, but they are carried out with horrific brutality. According to one news report in El Salvador, bodies generally appear burned, with hands and feet bound. Some have been beheaded, and autopsies reveal that the majority of the victims suffer torture and sexual abuse before dying.
Despite heroic efforts by women’s right activists and some government officials in these countries, widespread impunity remains the norm. Available statistics demonstrate that fewer than 3% of reported femicide cases are resolved by the courts. Impunity persists despite progressive legislative and policy actions to address violence against women. The institutions involved in investigating and prosecuting cases remain underfunded and ineffective. Violent aggressors are emboldened by knowing that the chance of being convicted for these horrendous crimes is virtually nonexistent, a fact that only further normalizes the violence.
Many Central American countries are plagued by alarmingly high levels of child abuse, that is related to patriarchal systems that undergird gender-based violence. In Honduras, children face an especially dire situation. Recently, the number of extrajudicial killings (illegal government-sponsored executions) of minors has risen dramatically, from 447 in 2009 to 802 in 2010 and 1068 in 2011. The Honduran government does not fund any dedicated shelters for the country’s significant number of child trafficking victims. And, despite having some of the most comprehensive child protection laws in Latin America, these laws often go unenforced, keeping Honduras a very dangerous place for minors.
CGRS Work in Central America
CGRS is committed to combating femicide and other forms of gender-based violence in Central America. CGRS also seeks to secure a pathway to protection for women and girls fleeing violence when their own governments cannot or will not.
We became involved in the region after representing Rody Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who came to the United States fleeing severe domestic violence. While representing Ms. Alvarado, CGRS Director Karen Musalo began researching gender-based violence in Guatemala in 1996. Subsequently, CGRS conducted several fact-finding missions to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in collaboration with the Hastings Refugee and Human Rights Clinic to investigate and report on femicide and other gender-based violence. Our fact-finding efforts are on-going.
CGRS has built strong partnerships with human rights advocates working on the ground in Guatemala as well as El Salvador and Honduras. On our fact-finding trips, delegations have met with a wide range of groups and individuals, governmental and non-governmental, working on issues related to women’s human rights and violence against women and children.
CGRS has published several articles documenting the prevalence of femicides in Guatemala, the continued rise in these killings and other related violence, and the limited impact of the 2008 Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women. El Salvador has also recently passed laws to address violence and discrimination against women, but our research has shown that these laws have not effectively reduced violence or impunity to date. CGRS will continue to monitor and report on implementation of these laws.
Experts in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have worked with CGRS to develop declarations regarding gender-based violence and implementation of relevant laws. These declarations are available to attorneys representing women and children who have suffered domestic and sexual violence, and they have been invaluable in helping asylum seekers establish eligibility for relief. CGRS is now working with an expert in Honduras to develop materials related to violence against children.
Our expertise on Guatemala has been recognized by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, an entity that sets the standards in Canada for who will be provided refugee protection. The Canadian Board solicited CGRS’s opinion on the effectiveness and enforcement of domestic violence legislation in Guatemala. Information that CGRS provided the Canadian Board is cited throughout the Canadian Board's report on violence against women in Guatemala. Our report serves as official country conditions information informing Canadian refugee policy.
CGRS has also educated policymakers in the United States about femicides in order to encourage concrete action to end impunity for violence committed against women and children. Ensuring that legislators understand gender-based violence has led Congress to pass resolutions condemning the femicides in Guatemala (House Resolution 100 in 2007 and Senate Resolution 178 in 2008).
In addition, CGRS Director Karen Musalo was called to present expert testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in April 2015 on behalf of Guatemalan femicide victim Claudina Valasquez Paiz. Karen's testimony provided expertise on conditions for women in the country and offered recommendations for improving government intervention. For more information on Claudina’s story and other femicide cases, we recommend watching the BBC documentary, Killer's Paradise.
Karen Musalo and Blaine Bookey, "Crimes Without Punishment: An Update on Violence Against Women and Impunity in Guatemala" 10 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 265, UC Hastings Research Paper No. 47, 2013.
Katherine Ruhl, Guatemala’s Femicides and the Ongoing Struggle for Women’s Human Rights: Update to CGRS’s 2005 Report Getting Away with Murder, 18 Hastings Women’s L.J. 199 (2006)
Angélica Chàzaro and Jennifer Casey, Getting Away with Murder: Guatemala’s Failure to Protect Women and Rodi Alvarado’s Quest for Safety, Hastings Women’s L.J. 141 (2005)
“House Passes Rep. Solis Resolution on Murders,” US Fed News, May 1, 2007
William Fisher, “House Tackles ‘Femicide’ in Latin America,” Truthout, April 4, 2007
“Insiste en investigar muerte de mujeres,” Prensa Libre, January 26, 2007
Karen Musalo and Felecia Bartow “Guatemalan Women Are Being Murdered in the Thousands — Who Will Put an End to the Violence?” Bay Area Businesswoman, October 2006
“Guatamala's Murdered Women,” New York Times, October 21, 2005