Paraguay's justice system is seeking to address a major pending issue: eliminating the hurdles and inequalities in cases of violence against women. When victims turn to the police and the courts, instead of finding a solution, they are often only revictimised.
One of the chief obstacles that gender violence victims face in terms of access to justice is scarce awareness of or sensitivity to women's issues and the lack of gender-centred training and knowledge of women's rights evidenced by law enforcement personnel.
One woman's ordeal is representative of thousands of other cases. When Blanca,* a mother of two, showed up at the police station to file a domestic violence complaint against her husband, the bruises from his latest beating were still visible.
The police officers took down her complaint and informed her that she would need an order from a justice of the peace to retrieve her belongings from the home she shared with her husband and which she was trying to flee with her children.
But when she arrived at the justice of the peace court they told her that she had to stay away from her home for three days before they could even process her complaint. Blanca felt so ill-treated by the court officers that she turned to the non-governmental Kuña Aty ("meeting of women," in the Guarani language) Foundation, where she received psychological and legal counselling.
It was only after the foundation stepped in that the justice of the peace agreed to admit her complaint.
"Court officers are fed up because many women report their husbands repeatedly but then decide to go back home. They don't understand the depth of the problem, and they handle these cases as they would any other," Clara Rosa Gagliardone, president of Kuña Aty, told IPS.
Gagliardone says that the men and women in Paraguay's justice system are conditioned by the biases, education and social baggage of a sexist society.
Institutions and studies agree that there is a prevailing ignorance among justice system workers regarding the effects of violence on the lives of women and those around them. Moreover, only recently have efforts begun to be made to ensure the implementation of the international human rights instruments ratified by Paraguay.
A project to shake the system into action
"Just filing a complaint in court is seen by women as an obstacle, because they always fear they won't find a response," Nimia Guanes, a criminal court judge in the country's north and eastern provinces of San Pedro and Caaguazú, told IPS.
"Women who are victims of violence have very low self-esteem, and when they turn to the justice system they run into a hostile environment," she added.
Guanes is part of a team of women facilitators that work under the Monitoring and Training Project to Improve Access to Justice for Female Victims of Violence in Paraguay. The project, MAJUVI, is part of one of the four strategic areas of Paraguay's Human Rights Office created in the year 2000 as a specialised technical body of the Supreme Court.
The project began in 2007, promoted by the Paraguayan chapter of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women's Rights (CLADEM), and in addition to the Supreme Court, it is backed by the Attorney General's Office.
"Our aim is to tackle the limitations and obstacles identified in the assessment of domestic violence and the justice system carried out by CLADEM," MAJUVI project coordinator Elba Núñez explained to IPS.
That assessment "revealed that the men and women that work in the justice system have little sensitivity towards gender issues and the human rights of women, and lack training in that area," she said.
It also evidenced that justice system workers have little knowledge of international human rights conventions, and fail to apply them in their rulings and orders, Núñez said.
In 2005, two United Nations expert bodies, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - established in 1982 to monitor progress on the implementation of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Paraguay in 1987 - and the Human Rights Committee - created to monitor the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its protocols - expressed their concern to the Paraguayan government over the extent of sexist violence in the country.
They also criticised the inadequacy of laws and administrative provisions for combating gender violence, protecting victims, and punishing perpetrators.
According to Guanes, there are judges, both male and female, who have an excellent approach to cases of gender violence. But many others fall short, which means that access to justice depends on the person who happens to be in charge of the case, she said.
In Paraguay, justice of the peace courts are judicial bodies with minor civil and criminal jurisdiction in each of the 223 municipalities distributed throughout the 17 provinces that make up this landlocked South American nation. One of the main functions of these courts is solving family disputes.
"A great hurdle is the deeply-entrenched mentality that leads court officers to perceive these cases as a ‘women's thing,' disregarding them as not worthy of consideration because ‘women will just withdraw their complaints as easily as they filed them.' That's the attitude that still prevails," Guanes said.
The numbers behind the victims
In Paraguay as elsewhere, women and girls are the leading victims of domestic violence. According to the last National Population and Sexual and Reproductive Health Survey, one out of every seven adolescent girls under 15 has suffered physical violence, and one in every five has heard or witnessed acts of physical violence.
The governmental Women's Aid Service received 2,035 complaints in 2008 and 1,298 in the first five months of this year.
Although all sources agree that the victims who seek help are still a minority, a breakdown of the 2009 figures gives a good idea of the range of cases. A total of 253 cases of physical violence were reported, 523 of the complaints were for psychological violence, 386 for economic violence, 71 for sexual violence, four for sexual coercion, and 61 were death threats.
Sixteen women were murdered by their partners or exes last year, according to the incomplete records kept by the Office for Women's Issues, based on information published in the press.
Against that backdrop, the MAJUVI project focuses on providing support for the enforcement of laws and the implementation of policies and action plans in the administration of justice.
"Our priority is to sensitise and train court officers in order to educate them on the application of gender standards in the justice system, and to commit them to guarantee the full observance of the human rights of women in their legal decisions and orders," Núñez explained.
The aim is for them to "act diligently, change revictimising practices, and remove obstacles that prevent victims from obtaining fast and effective justice," the project's coordinator said.
Greater training and awareness
For Julio César Cabañas, a member of the Appeals Court of the northern province of Concepción, two factors conspire to prevent these women from receiving a proper response from the justice system: a lack of infrastructure, and ignorance.
"People living in rural areas know very little or nothing about their rights. That is why it is so important to educate both officers and the population," he told IPS.
Cabañas is one of the judges that have participated in the workshops, and he admits that when he was first invited he knew very little about domestic violence and its social and legal implications.
Now, he said, he has a more comprehensive perspective of gender violence in the country, he is better prepared to enforce applicable laws, and, more importantly, he has gained a greater sensitivity to deal with criminal cases involving aggression against women.
In its first two years, the project trained around 1,000 justice officers through workshops held in Asunción and seven provinces. The workshops included court, prosecution and defence officers, 608 of whom were women and 399 men.
The project has also published a guide, with the title "Gender, Access to Justice, and Violence Against Women", based on the experiences, lessons and insights gained through the initiative.
Over the second half of 2009, the project plans to take its workshops to other judicial jurisdictions and expand its monitoring and surveillance plan. The aim of this strategy is to multiply efforts to apply the standards guaranteed by international human rights instruments in the country's judicial decisions.
But the MAJUVI project is not alone in the justice system's efforts to improve the response to gender violence. The new Strategic Plan for the Administration of Justice aims to have a gender approach that cuts across all its areas of action.
This plan will also make it possible to strengthen the Human Rights Office's Gender Division.
Lastly, the efforts to promote ‘a more just justice' for abused women have another, more ambitious aim. The MAJUVI project calls for an amendment of the Domestic Violence Act, which it considers inadequate and partially unenforceable. Both the prevailing situation and judicial practice make this amendment necessary, project members say.