Women in Latin American cities face higher rates of sexual assault, and the number is growing

(Credit: Gabriel Porras/Flickr)

Half of women in cities in Latin America have faced at least one sexual assault in their lifetime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these women also report feeling unsafe in common city spaces such as streets, public buildings and public transportation.

These are the biggest findings from the third Woman and City summit in Santiago, Chile, last Monday. The three-day meeting, which brought together Ibero-American officials from all over the continent, sought to promote new practical visions for the future of cities that promote justice and gender equity.

“The most basic foundations of our society are challenged when about 50 percent of women, in 15 countries across our region, said they had been victims of at least one sexual assault in their lives,” said Chilean President Michelle Bachelet during the opening ceremony.

Women are victims of crimes like sexual harassment and domestic violence worldwide, but these findings that are specific to Latin America are striking. Going by these statistics, every other woman who walks by on the streets of cities like São Paulo, Lima and Bogotá has, at some point in their lives, been a victim of sexual assault.

To put this in perspective, this ratio was 1 in 3 women just four years ago, according to a study by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) that analyzed data across 12 Latin American countries. This ratio is similar (roughly 35 percent) in the World Health Organization’s recent global prevalence figures, although in some countries, the ratio was even higher.

But despite the rise in physical and sexual violence against women in these Latin American cities, few victims  report the incidents to authorities. One study found that only 14 percent of female victims of domestic violence in Colombia actually reported the crimes committed against them. There are many reasons why women would choose not to report such an incident, shame, fear of retaliation, disillusionment with the judicial system among them, but rather than reflect a mistake on behalf of these women, what the missing reports indicate is that the rate of violence is even higher than we have data to prove.

One of many explanations for the rise in violence against women is that public transportation is becoming increasingly necessary for women, especially when they come from low socio-cultural environments and live in the peripheries of sprawling Latin American cities; and a recurring theme at the Santiago summit was that public transit, among other public spaces, are becoming increasingly threatening environments.

Some have called for countries to provide financial support for such organizations that aim to reduce the rate of violence against women, and improve the structure of cities where these crimes are most prevalent.

Another proposition, by Chilean minister representing the nation’s National Women’s Service Claudia Pascaul, is to get more women into positions of electoral power who will promote gender equality and curb violence.

But others say the problem may run deeper in Latin American societies than what modern laws and policies may be able to quickly fix.

“Problems in relation to women aren’t just from the here and now,” said Argentine author Selva Almada to BBC. Almada has written about her own experience in relation to violence against women, also known as femicide. “It’s not a 20th century issue, it’s something which has a historic and cultural roots in our society.”

“Previously it was almost ‘naturalized’ or made invisible as it wasn’t seen as a problem, we didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t published by the media: nowadays, it (violence) is covered by the media every so often and it is more visible and therefore made to appear more natural,” Almada said, believing that some media coverage “leaves a lot to be desired and further contributes to prejudice.”

Until stigma can be set aside and society appears more open to accept violence committed against women as a serious and pervasive issue, explains Latin Correspondent, these acts of violence will remain largely unchecked. To really stem violence against women in these countries, though, the problem must also be more fully understood. These acts of violence against women need to be more widely documented, systematically and with sound data, not only to bear witness to the trauma these women suffer but to more fully understand it and, ultimately, to reverse the trend.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering health, inequality and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.