CENTRAL AMERICA: Sharing Ideas to Stem Violence Against Women

Friday, July 27, 2012
The Seattle Times
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

It's a crime that's rising in Seattle and across the country, and it is even more profound in places like El Salvador.

On Thursday, a group of women's-rights advocates from Central America met with Lt. Deborah King in the tightly packed offices of the Seattle Police Department's Domestic Violence and Elder Crimes Unit to learn about programs that deal with violence against women.

King has been with the division since 1984, and she says the number of cases that reach her unit has grown recently.

"Our domestic-violence cases have soared over the last year-and-a-half," fueled in part by the bad economy, King said, adding that it's a phenomenon not unique to Seattle. "It's across the country," she said.

There's a similarly unfortunate trend in the Central American countries from which the delegates hailed. And there, the scale of the problem is more severe.

According to the Seattle International Foundation — the group sponsoring the delegation along with the U.S. State Department — Central America has seen a huge rise in the number of women slain over the past 10 years.

These are not simply street crimes irrespective of gender, said Michele Frix, program officer for the Seattle International Foundation. "They are crimes that are directed at women because of their gender."

Insight Crime, an organization that studies violence in Latin America, with a focus on drug-related activities, said the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are among the 10 nations with the world's highest rates in the killing of women. El Salvador has the highest female homicide rate, according to that group.

Juana Gricelda Lorenzo Ventura, a social worker from Guatemala and one of the visiting delegates, works with indigenous women in her country. The problem there is twofold, she said: machismo and a bad economy.

"Violence is increasing because of the machismo culture," she said through a translator. "Many times, men still have the idea that they have to have power over women."

Lorenzo Ventura added that a worsening economy, particularly in Guatemala's indigenous communities, has left victims with few alternatives than to remain in abusive households.

"Women don't have any other options because they depend on their husbands (for money)," she said.

King said a depressed economy has presented similar challenges to victims of domestic violence in Seattle, where many women stay in abusive relationships because of financial concerns.

King says, however, there are alternatives. The problem? Many victims aren't aware of these.

"People just don't see the options," King said.

She also emphasized not all domestic-violence cases involve a man abusing a woman — although those do constitute the majority. According to the city attorney's website, 92 percent of domestic-violence crimes follow that pattern.

The Police Department is working to publicize the city's domestic-violence-support system through its Domestic Violence Victim Support Team, a volunteer group that visits victims and provides them with provisions like blankets and clothing. They also help navigate the city's complex network of support groups and legal processes.

"What our team provides beyond basic necessities is crisis intervention, and we explain the system," said Sarah Sorensen, a volunteer supervisor for the team.

During their tour of the Domestic Violence Unit's offices, the women from Central America questioned how effective this support system was in Seattle's immigrant communities. Sorensen acknowledged that one of her challenges is recruiting enough bilingual volunteers.

The delegation will fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with the State Department's Ambassador for Global Women's Issues and representatives of the Department of Justice.

Michele Frix said it's part of a campaign to bring attention to a growing problem.

"(We're) focused on a region of the world that is violent, that is impoverished, and that is ignored by many philanthropic institutions," Frix said.