With rates of gender-based violence dramatically rising on a global scale during Covid-19 lockdowns and the nature of violence often intensifying, long-standing flaws in governmental approaches to protecting women and girls have been laid bare.
The White House recognized the rise—and intersectionality—of gender-based violence, vowing in November to issue the first National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, and to update its strategy for preventing and responding to gender-based violence on a global scale.
In Latin America, feminist academics and activists have been at the forefront of defining femicide (killing women because their gender) and in lobbying for it to be defined as a crime. Although 18 countries in Latin America currently classify femicide as a crime, this refers only to murder and excludes the multiple forms of direct and indirect violence experienced by women and girls, including impunity from prosecution. Many women do not report violent encounters due to fear and the belief that they will not be taken seriously. What is clear is that for policy to deliver real change, governments must cooperate with specialist groups experienced in working with survivors and perpetrators of gendered violence and providing increased resources to support this work.
Women around the world are leading the charge in addressing gendered violence by creating programs, campaigns and policies to help survivors and prevent new cases. In a new podcast, co-produced by the Latin America Bureau and King's College London, Latin American women’s groups in Brazil, Guatemala, and the UK share their experiences of transforming their communities. The three-part series titled “Women Resisting Violence” builds on collaborative research which has been ongoing since 2016 with women’s organizations between London and Rio de Janeiro. Released during the Global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, Women Resisting Violence champions the innovative work of Latin American women, with the goal of positively influencing broader policies around violence against women, both within and beyond Latin America.
Transformative Women’s Networks in Brazil
One of the initiatives featured in the podcast is Casa das Mulheres, or Women’s House, in the neighbourhood of Maré, the largest and most populous set of slums in the Rio de Janeiro municipality. Part of the NGO, Redes da Mare, Casa das Mulheres was created in order to improve the lives and living conditions of women and their families, many of whom are survivors of gendered violence.
Women comprise just over half of the population of Maré and around 45 percent of them are heads of household with numerous responsibilities to juggle. Many have limited education and end up in informal activities, working as street vendors and domestic workers. While the informal sector is vibrant in Maré, earnings are not always sufficient to allow women to leave abusive relationships or deal effectively with wider urban violence.
Two research projects conducted in Maré —the first outlining the nature of gender-based violence and the second focusing on women’s resistance to it through everyday coping mechanisms and engagement with the arts—showed that at least 41 percent of women in these favelas have experienced gender-based violence. This is likely to be an underestimate given that emotional violence in particular is not usually identified as a form of abuse. As one woman from Maré explains, “the majority of women in Maré only see violence as something physical. And it’s often trivialised.”
Acting as a haven for women leaving abusive relationships, Casa das Mulheres runs various projects like vocational training courses where women can learn cookery, advanced gastronomy, and hairdressing assistance. They can also access services from lawyers, social workers, and a psychologist.
Their projects are designed to be combined, and women are also required to take classes on their rights as women in order to participate.
“Isolated actions are not enough to tackle the complex needs the women have,” says Julia Leal, the coordinator of the Women’s House. “The idea is that a woman who arrives at the Women’s House has a whole range of options and services to tap into.”
For many women, these programs are their main source of support.
“The state’s response to gender issues is very weak—I would say almost non-existent—in the sense of reaching those who need them,” said Eliana Sousa Silva, the founder of Redes da Maré. “Women suffer generally from the patriarchal power structure, [...] Black and Indigenous women have very specific historical demands and we are very, very far from public policies coming anywhere near helping these women.”
The Women’s House steps up to the challenge. During the pandemic, the Maré Network and Women’s House rapidly adapted to address the changing needs of the women. The Buffet Maré de Sabores, a catering company trained and run by the Women’s House, turned their attention to the community over lockdown and, rather than catering for people outside of the favelas, they fed the people of Maré. This gave women opportunities to be away from the home—and the rising cases of domestic violence—and earn some money.
“We started providing food for the most vulnerable people in Maré, and in doing this we also managed to maintain our salaries. It was very rewarding,” Michele Gandra, a Sabores chef and instructor on the cookery course, explains.
Julia sees the changes they made as having permanently revolutionized their services, as well as filling a major gap in access to public services. But change is also needed on an institutional level. She says that “if Black women in Brazil are the ones who suffer the most from gender-based violence, it is these women that have to be there drawing up public policy, instead of the way it is currently being done.”
Migrant Women’s Support Groups in London
In London, Brazilian and other migrant women are also standing in for the dearth of public policy supporting them and even challenging legislation. In the UK, “if you do not speak English, look ‘different’, or have irregular immigration status, you will receive completely different treatment from the police,” explains Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS).
Elizabeth coordinates the Step Up Migrant Women Campaign, a coalition of more than 50 organizations that support and advocate for migrant women with insecure immigration status who have experienced gender-based violence.
One of the spokespeople for the campaign is herself a survivor of abuse. Gilmara (Gil) Garcia fled home and approached UK police for emergency help, but she was met with hostility because of her immigration status. Gil had been told by her partner, who had dual status, that she could enter the country as a tourist and later acquire the correct papers. But time passed, and at some point she became undocumented.
“He used my lack of status to be abusive, basically,” Gil explains in the third episode of the podcast. The Home Office refused to help Gil, and she was left homeless with a child in midwinter. Thankfully, someone pointed her in the direction of LAWRS.
After experiencing the support of LAWRS’ frontline services—like counselling, integration activities, confidence building exercises, and legal advice for housing, debt, and employment rights—Gil now works with the organization and has become a key campaigner with Step Up Migrant Women, giving evidence in UK Parliament during a debate on the new Domestic Violence Act 2021.
Like Redes da Maré’s projects in Brazil, LAWRS’ work is informed by women’s needs as well as academic research adapted to support migrant women like Gil and prevent her story from repeating.
LAWRS also works with Migrants in Action (MinA), a community theatre group in London established by and for Brazilian women who have experienced gender-based violence. The group uses theatre techniques to help women build confidence to share their experiences, identify different forms of violence, and collectively heal.
“Only after that [do we] focus on fighting the system,” Carolina Cal Angrisini, the artistic director explains. It is clear that this work is vital for Brazilian women in London: research by Cathy McIlwaine found that 82 percent have experienced gendered violence in their lives, and half of them experienced violence in London.
Mourning the Dead, Caring for the Living in Guatemala
One of the three Women Resisting Violence podcasts highlights the work of 8 Tijax, a civil society organization set up in 2017 to support the families of the 56 girls who were abused in a children’s home just outside Guatemala City.
The girls living in the institution were there to escape violent situations at home—either in their own families or from local gangs. But at the overcrowded shelter, many girls were physically and sexually abused. When the girls protested the ongoing abuse, the shelter’s staff, supported by security personnel and with the knowledge of the police, locked the girls into a classroom. When a fire broke out in the classroom, the girls were not released. Forty-one girls died in the fire, and fifteen survived with severe burns.
Four and a half years after the fire, the families are left devastated without their daughters and still with no answers or justice in sight. The judicial process has been littered with obstructions and delays, as well as outright threats towards the families. Some relatives have been forbidden to enter the courtroom wearing t-shirts bearing photos of the girls, and others were banned from crying in the courtroom. The surviving girls have been accused of crimes including murder, grievous bodily harm, armed robbery, arson, and public disorder.
The all-female collective 8 Tijax has been there with the families since the beginning. Seeing the tragedy unfolding on the news, the group of friends with day jobs in graphic design, journalism, sociology, and dentistry headed straight to the site to see how they could help. They accompanied families to hospital and the morgue that evening and since then, they've accompanied the families in the courts, coordinated with lawyers to offer them legal support, helped finance their case, and arranged counseling and therapy for them.
The girls’ families, lawyers, and members of 8 Tijax have also been intimidated, followed, and received armed death threats. Since the massacre, three relatives of the victims have been murdered, yet the state has offered no protection.
But 8 Tijax continues to fight alongside these families. Outside of the courts, the collective has helped generate national attention and constructed a memorial in the Plaza de la Constitución, Guatemala City’s central square, where relatives of the deceased gathered every Friday to honour the girls’ memory and demand justice, despite continued public defacement of the memorial.
Global Lessons from Latin American Women
Although Latin American women are often faced with severe challenges, they are transforming lives in their communities through direct support, international campaigns, and clear policy recommendations drawn from women’s lived experiences and collaborative research carried out by women’s groups and researchers. Their activities often entail challenging the state in countries that do not always acknowledge intersectional gendered violence as a major threat in women’s lives.
The three case studies covered in the podcast demonstrate how fundamental women are for social change and how local initiatives made by and for women can transform communities.
“We don’t change from outside in; we change from inside out,” says Michele, an instructor and service user from Maré de Sabores. “The seed I plant here in my home, I hope that it multiplies, among my neighbours, among my community.”
Rebecca Wilson is managing editor at Latin America Bureau, an online and print publisher of independent news and analysis about Latin America, focusing on struggles for social and environmental justice and conveying the voices of frontline partners in the region.
Cathy McIlwaine is Professor of Development Geography in the Department of Geography, King’s College London. Her research focuses on gender and development issues in the global South, and on transnational migration in London with a specific focus on the Latin American community from the perspective of livelihoods, citizenship and gender-based violence against women.
Jelke Boesten is Professor in Gender and Development in the Department of International Development at King's College London. Her main focus is gender and development, with a particular interest in gender violence in Peru, Latin America, and beyond, and how such violence shapes gender inequality on the one hand, and broader social and political processes on the other.
The podcast project is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) held at King’s College London. The research conducted in Rio de Janeiro and among Brazilian migrant women in London is funded by the ESRC and Newton Fund under grant ES/N013247/1 and by the British Academy and the Global Challenges Research Fund under grant HDV190030. The project with Step Up Migrant Women is funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation via the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, and the work with MinA through another Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) grant held at King’s College London. All four research projects are directed by Cathy McIlwaine. You can follow the project here: wrv.org.uk.