The following text is an abridged, edited republication of Kurtural's “The Epidemic of Violence Against Women in Paraguay,” an article that forms part of the series #PorSerMujer (#ForBeingWoman), which describes and denounces the crisis of violence against women in Paraguay. The majority of the names were changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
A police commissioner told Ada Báez that she could do nothing to Luis Balbuena, her former partner who was violent toward her while they were dating. Time had passed since their relationship ended, and the police said her testimony would go on the record, but that was about it. When another woman came forward accusing Balbuena of abuse, the record of Báez's complaint didn't make any difference. A few days later, the second woman withdrew her complaint altogether.
Breaking the cycle of violence against women is difficult. Generally speaking, when women actually do file a complaint, they do not receive support from the state. In many instances, women are also financially dependent on the men abusing them, which helps explain why only 20 percent of women who say they endure violence actually come forward to law enforcement.
Sexist punches and the epidemic's statistics
It's not easy to determine exactly how many women are being abused, says Myrian González, a researcher specialized in gender issues at the Center of Documentation and Studies, a social sciences research institute. “There are various data and records that don't allow for even an approximation of the extent of the gender violence against women in Paraguay,” she states.
The figures that are available, however, are startling. In 2015, 70 percent of the 9,600 domestic-violence reports that came before the District Attorney dealt with violence against women. Of reports filed with the police, 86 percent were brought by women. There were more than 5,000 domestic-violence reports filed with the Peace Court — again, 86 percent were made by women. In those reports, 40 percent of women said they'd suffered physical abuse, and 55 percent of women said they'd been subjected to psychological abuse.
These statistics, however, fail to capture fully the scale of violence against women in Paraguay. According to the country's minister for women, Ana Baiardi, these crimes go widely under-reported. “For each woman who reports psychological abuse in Paraguay, there are nine who do not. For each woman who reports physical abuse, there are two who do not,” she said in late 2014.
The lack of a penal category specifying femicide impedes law enforcement from recording properly how many Paraguayans are murdered annually by their current or former romantic partners. Until August, journalists recorded at least 12 different femicides in Paraguay. The coordinator of human rights in Paraguay documented at least 37 women murdered by partners, past and present. She estimates sexist violence claims the life of one woman in Paraguay every ten days.
Invisible aggression acting in the face of evasive justice
Before Mariana Brítez could become Carlos Vera's girlfriend, he insisted that she tell him everyone she'd ever dated previously. She wasn't too keen on the idea, but she eventually gave in, and lived to regret it. Twenty-eight years old today, Mariana isn't dating Carlos anymore, but for two years she endured his psychological abuse — one of the most common types of violence against women, and one of the hardest to detect:
Nunca pensé que yo pudiera ser una víctima de violencia. Cuando leía sobre eso, pensaba que les pasaba a algunas mujeres por sumisas, por dejarse engañar por hombres violentos. Estaba convencida de que eso nunca me iba a pasar.
I never thought I could be a victim of abuse. When I would read about it, I would think that this happens to some women because of their submissiveness — because they let themselves be fooled by violent men. I was convinced that this would never happen to me.
Mariana used social media to report Carlos Vera's abuse. Without giving names or surnames, she wrote on Facebook, describing his insults, the isolation he subjected her to, and his various attacks throughout their two-year relationship. Plenty of people responded to her Facebook posts, including Carlos himself, who asked her rhetorically if he'd ever raised his hand against her, refusing to accept that his treatment of her amounted to abuse.
Others on Facebook asked Mariana why she put up with Carlos and didn't leave him sooner. Victims of abuse must bear at least some responsibility for their abuse, these people seemed to imply.
Victoria Santos, a foreigner in Paraguay, spent some eight years battling the Paraguayan authorities to prove that her ex-partner abused her. Victoria is a member of the Yo te creo (“I Believe You”) network, which is made up of women who have suffered different kinds of abuse. In the group, they share their experiences, and listen to and support one another. They do what others will not: they take each others’ testimonies seriously.
For Victoria, it all began with psychological abuse. Her partner — a man of means — eventually convinced her that she was worthless. Afterwards, he started beating her. Victoria's complaints to the authorities went unanswered, and she received no support from her relatives, who were living abroad. She carried on with a judicial process against her ex-partner — a labyrinthine legal battle between Paraguay and her home country, in which the main obstacle was money, power, and the influence of her aggressor.
Paraguayan laws: Good composition, poor execution
“Paraguay has many laws that are very good, but they are not executed. To report abuse is a journey of resistance and fighting against corruption in the judicial sphere,” Victoria Santos says Victoria. Carmen Echauri, a program official for UN Women in Paraguay, agrees that the difficulty of applying the laws in Paraguay is immense.
This August 10, Paraguayan legislators discussed the so-called #PorEllas (#ForThem) law. This hashtag, along with #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess), is part of a Twitter campaign supported by Amnesty International. The original bill proposes making femicide a new kind of criminal offense with stricter penalties — a concept that's already been adopted by regional neighbors like Argentina and Bolivia.
The bill was passed by the legislators, but with amendments to win over those who feared the new law would open the door to the decriminalization of abortion, currently illegal in Paraguay in all cases and punishable by up to five years in prison.
The law's original draft made the state responsible for many of the procedural costs (economic and bureaucratic) victims of violence currently have to pay, just in order to file a police report and reach safe haven. Echauri says this legislation will be ineffective if lawmakers can not fund it properly:
En Paraguay, la violencia se ve como un ingrediente más de las relaciones interpersonales. Necesitamos un cambio de mentalidad para desnaturalizar la violencia. Callar ante estos hechos es ser cómplice de la impunidad de los agresores. Hay que denunciar hasta lograr que la violencia ya no se vea como normal.
In Paraguay, abuse is seen more as an element of interpersonal relationships. We need a change in mentality in order to denaturalize the violence. To keep silent in the face of these facts is to be complicit in the impunity of the aggressors. We must continue reporting until we succeed in getting abuse to no longer be seen as normal.
On November 10, Paraguay's Senate approved the legislation — again with amendments, including the removal of a proposal calling for reconciliation between a couple in cases of domestic violence. There are mixed opinions about the amendments. The reconciliation clause was seen as an opportunity for the abuser to attack his victim, so women's rights advocates welcomed the prohibition. Nevertheless, the elimination of the word “gender” from the text and the removal of “political violence” and “sexual harassment” from the specifics of the law is seen as a major setback.