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Women’s Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean

by Human Rights Watch Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 at 8:39 AM

In every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, women suffer acute discrimination. Often, the discrimination women face is related to social prejudices regarding appropriate patterns of conduct for men and women.

In every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, women suffer acute discrimination. Often, the discrimination women face is related to social prejudices regarding appropriate patterns of conduct for men and women. This entrenched sex inequality provides the backdrop for the pervasive and widespread human rights violations women face in the region, with little chance of justice. The most pernicious types of women's human rights abuses in the Americas occur in the areas of women's reproductive and sexual health and rights, discrimination and violence against women in the workplace, and violence against women in the home. After decades of dictatorships in some countries, democracy has not meant an end to impunity for violations of women rights. In fact, despite the formal acceptance of international human rights instruments that explicitly define women's rights as human rights, many people challenge this proposition.

This challenge to women's rights is particularly prevalent in the area of sexual rights and reproductive health. Women struggle daily to gain even minimal autonomy over their intimate lives. Women may be subjected to rape, including by their husbands, while many more are denied access to contraceptives and reproductive health services, and refused the possibility to decide to terminate unwanted pregnancies with safe and legal abortions. Across the region, millions of abortions are performed every year, most of them under unsafe, clandestine conditions, and thousands of women die as a result. For example, in Argentina, women face multiple obstacles to obtaining contraceptives and risk their lives through unsafe abortions due to legal restrictions and a failure to implement even their minimal rights under existing law. As an urgent human rights matter, governments in the region must ensure women's access to safe abortions where abortion is already decriminalized, repeal laws that criminalize abortion, work toward explicit legalization of abortion, and ensure women's voluntary access to safe contraceptive methods of their choice.

Women's right to the highest attainable standard of health is also compromised by the manner in which some countries address the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. Latin America and the Caribbean is the region with the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa. Women increasingly constitute the majority of those newly infected. Even so, governments have failed to incorporate respect for women's human rights into their central responses to the epidemic. In the Dominican Republic, for example, women are subjected to illegal HIV testing without informed consent when they seek employment or health care, and those who test positive are routinely fired from their jobs and sometimes denied public healthcare. In addition, public health professionals often reveal confidential HIV test results to women's families without the tested individuals' knowledge or consent, exposing them to a heightened risk of violence and stigma. Other countries in the region, such as Peru, require as a matter of law that all pregnant women test for HIV without ensuring women's confidentiality or consent, and without linking HIV tests and counseling to the pervasive problem of domestic violence.

Women's inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is reflected in the discrimination they face in the workplace. Since the 1960s, the number of economically active women in the region has more than tripled. Though more than half of these economically active women have entered the informal sector, as domestic workers, street vendors, or other informal employment, women now also occupy positions in the formal workforce in larger numbers, in particular in export-generating industries. With the entry into the formal workforce, abuse suffered by women in the workplace is surfacing as a central obstacle to women achieving economic independence. Sexual harassment, pregnancy-based discrimination, and gender-based violence in the workplace are common and constant threats to working women's lives and livelihoods. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to abuse, including trafficking and forced labor. In countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, the laws fail to adequately protect women workers' rights and governments are turning a blind eye to the abuses perpetrated by private-sector employers. Trading partners with Latin America are also ignoring the widespread abuses. To remedy these violations, governments must act immediately to ensure that labor and other laws adequately protect women's rights, and international trade agreements should specifically prohibit discrimination based on sex.

Despite recent legal reforms, domestic and sexual violence are still rampant in all countries in the region, affecting an estimated 40 percent of women. In most countries, legislation classifies domestic violence as a misdemeanor rather than as a serious crime (felony), and does not explicitly protect women from marital rape and stalking. Discriminatory attitudes of law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges, who often consider domestic violence a "private" matter beyond the reach of the law, reinforce the batterer's attempts to demean and control his victim. Few governments offer battered women a real alternative to staying in an abusive relationship, as shelters either are few or do not allow women to bring their children. Some countries issue restraining orders against abusive partners, but few effectively enforce them, leaving women with little protection against their aggressors after they file a complaint with the police. Journalists and women's groups in several countries have gathered information to suggest that up to 80 percent of female murder victims are killed by their intimate partners or ex-partners. For example, in Peru and Brazil, women have faced and in many cases continue to face multiple barriers in overcoming pervasive impunity with regard to domestic violence, including de facto obligatory conciliation sessions between women and their abusers, and lack of training of police officers, doctors, judges, and prosecutors. International human rights law defines violence against women as one of the most basic and reprehensible forms of sex-based discrimination and governments must do much more to eradicate it.

Despite continued entrenched sex inequality and women's human rights violations, governments in the region have for the most part formally embraced the concept of international women's rights through the ratification of international human rights instruments directed at eliminating and punishing women's rights abuses. This was achieved mostly as the result of pressure from women's groups and organizations. Latin America is the home to prominent women's organizations, advocates and intellectuals with international reputation. Women are active and prominent members of many social movements in the region, including the Movimento Sem Terra (landless peasants' movement) in Brazil and the Piqueteros (unemployed movement) in Argentina. Women also remain the central actors and agents for change in the many organizations of families of the "disappeared" in South and Central America-organizations that continue to be pivotal in the fight for justice for past human rights abuses in the region.

Moreover, organizations that focus specifically on women's rights have been instrumental in generating public debate about women's rights abuses as human rights violations. As a significant achievement for the women's movement in the Americas, every country in the Americas -with the notable exception of the United States-has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the most important international human rights instrument on women's rights. A number of countries-Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela-have also ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. This Protocol enables individual women to file complaints with the United Nations when violations of their rights are not adequately redressed in domestic courts, and also empowers the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to investigate situations of systematic or grave violations of women's rights.

In 1994, the Organization of American States adopted the only international treaty specifically focused on the prevention and punishment of violence against women: the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, the Convention of Belém do Pará. This convention has been ratified by all countries in the Americas, except Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States.

The overwhelming governmental support-on paper-for women's rights has not yet translated into reality for the vast majority of women in the region. The full implementation of this promise of equality is long overdue.

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