Was 2016 a wake up call for the normalization of gender violence across the Americas?
From Canada to Argentina, social movements this year targeted the persistence of gender-based violence. Now we need action to establish new norms.
Assistant Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
A girl in her teens — her body smeared with dirt from the floor where she sits crouching in a corner of her house, her face streaked by tears, bearing bruises and tangled hair; the signs of a recent beating — leans her head against the wall and tries to steady her hand from shaking as she writes in her notebook: “Lord, what have I done? What am I paying for? Forgive me.” This is her prayer of sorts, looking to God for answers to her pain.
Margarita was kidnapped, raped and imprisoned for seven years — not in a dark cell where no one could find her, but in the midst of her family in a poor neighbourhood of Medellin, Colombia. The perpetrator was a man who took her by force and made her his wife and mother of the children who were the result of his repeatedly raping.
This is the true story of Margarita Gomez, as told by Colombian movie director Víctor Gaviria in his new feature film, The Animal’s Wife. In September, I moderated a discussion on stage with Gaviria following the world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. As a director, he is well known in Latin America for tackling issues that affect some of the most invisible people in society. He films in neighbourhoods where the real stories take place and with actors who have direct knowledge of the realities he narrates. He does this by working in some of the most marginalized barrios in Colombia and casting only untrained actors. In the case of the The Animal’s Wife, he had the ongoing advice of the real victim, Margarita.
One of the most important commentaries of his recent film is the pivotal role of passive witnesses who, through their silence, normalize situations of abuse. The man in this particular Colombian neighbourhood that everyone called “el animal” was an unexceptional delinquent. True, he was brutal — a real animal — but it was the family, neighbours and friends surrounding Margarita that allowed his violence to continue.
The normalization of violence against women is common across this hemisphere. The Americas — from North to South — provide comparative case studies as evidence.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that “communities of judgment” create norms and standards of acceptable behaviour. Feminist scholars in North America have taken this further by stating that feminism depends not just on the state, who should provide legal rights, protections and enforcement, but also on having “communities of judgment” that condemn violence against women and create an irrefutable standard of normal that empowers women rather than victimizes them.
With this in mind, how are states in the Americas fairing when it comes to creating “communities of judgment” and ensuring accountability?
Canada faces a national tragedy with thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. A stretch of highway in northern British Columbia has been dubbed the Highway of Tears because of the dozens of women murdered along or near this road. Most of them were Indigenous.
Who demands accountability for these women and girls? The previous federal governments long ignored calls for a national inquiry and a plan of action. When asked about an investigation into these murders, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied, “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” Then, last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people said that Canada was failing its indigenous women.
Now, after decades of the issue being ignored, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government finally appointed a special commission, launched three months ago, to investigate the disappearances and murders. Hearings are expected to begin in 2017.
The questions that the Canadian example raises are what did citizens, who have been witnesses to this femicide for decades, do to finally make the issue a national priority? What responsibility do Canadians feel to stop and prevent such epidemics of violence? How does that responsibility manifest itself in their actions?
At the opposite end of our continent, in Argentina, this past year a woman was murdered every 30 hours as a result of domestic violence. There are 50 sexual attacks per day on women, and 97 percent of women polled nationally said they have been sexually harassed in public or private spaces at some point in their lives. This year, women and men started marching in the streets to launch a movement that brought national and international media attention to the wave of gender-based violence that has grown in the region in the last few years.
In June, hundreds of thousands in Argentina marched carrying signs with messages like “Sorry to bother you but we are being killed,” “I don’t want to be brave, I want to be free,” and “Machismo kills.” This had ripple effects throughout Latin America, and similar demonstrations have swept the region in the second half of this year.
The digital square has also been lighting up with hashtags like #NiUnaMenos (meaning, ‘not one less’), which started in Argentina in 2015 and #MiPrimerAcoso (‘my first harassment’) which was launched from Mexico earlier this year. This call for action not only created a vast archive of cases of sexual harassment, but also helped women reflect on their everyday experiences with violence, and the relationships of abuse that are taken for granted simply because they are women.
This past weekend, we commemorated International Human Rights Day, which symbolically marked the end of the global campaign “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.”
But as we know, violence is not subject to calendars. Neither is activism. Norms will change with collective beliefs of what is right, and what is unacceptable. To address this crisis of violence, we need to establish new expectations of conduct in all our public and private spaces. Whereas 2016 was the year of protests in many Latin American countries — raising public attention on this epidemic — 2017 needs to be the year of action.
In Canada, this means staying connected using social media tags like #MMAW or joining national campaigns to keep up pressure for answers on the hundreds of still missing Indigenous women; listening and acting in solidarity with their families as the hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls unfold; and most importantly demanding a plan of action that is appropriately funded and includes mechanisms of accountability directly to indigenous communities for effective policing and law enforcement.
We will only know if 2016 saw a real wake up call on gender violence if in 2017 we find ourselves acting to bring an end to that violence.
An earlier version of this article was published with Latin America Goes Global.