Thursday, July 27, 2006

Peru confronts escalating violence against women

Mon Jul 24, 8:33 AM ET

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - Marlin Mata has awakened from a coma she suffered after throwing herself from a moving bus to escape two men trying to rape her, but Peru is still deep in the nightmare of spiraling violence against women.
More than half of all Peruvian women over the age of 15 say they have suffered sexual or physical violence by men during their lifetime -- one of the world's highest rates.

"I want justice for my sister. We can't let this kind of thing happen again and again," said Judith Mata, standing next to Marlin, 21, who still bears a bite mark in her bruised cheek from the recent attack.

Sexual violence against women in Peru is now so bad that Peru's President-elect Alan Garcia, who takes office on Friday, made it one of his central campaign issues and has vowed to tackle the problem and give women a greater say in government.

Male frustration at high unemployment in Peru despite the country' unprecedented economic growth since 2002 and a corrupt justice system that rarely makes convictions are exacerbating violence against women in an already macho society.

"The violence is a direct consequence of poverty," Peru's Women's Minister Ana Maria Romero told Reuters.

According to the United Nations, Peru is one of the most dangerous places for women in Latin America, a region that had the world's highest number of sexual assaults last year.

Cases like Mata's are reported almost daily basis by the local tabloid media, with incidents ranging from rape to murder.

"Jealous Man Strangles Wife!" and "Man Kills Wife After She Asked For Divorce!" are just two of the hundreds of headlines compiled in a study by Amnesty International and Peruvian organization Flora Tristan, which works to protect women.

The study found that more than 300 women have been killed by men committing sexual violence in Peru since 2003, even in cases when victims asked for police protection.


Some 51 percent of women in Lima and 69 percent of women in the southern Andean city of Cuzco said they have been victims of sexual or physical violence, the study added.

Indeed, the level of violence surges dramatically in Peru's impoverished rural areas.

In the southern Huancavelica province where 90 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, the rate of sexual and physical violence against women is ranked as one of the world's worst in a recent study by the
World Health Organization.

Half of Peru's 13 million workers are underemployed, meaning they are forced into badly paid positions below their qualifications.

That stress of not having a decent job is unleashed onto female partners. More than 60 percent of women who reported being victims of domestic violence in Peru consider the economic crisis at home as the main trigger of violence, according to Amnesty International.

But according to the WHO study, violence against women in Peru is worse than in countries with lower economic development such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh or Namibia.

That is partly because of a corrupt judicial system and because violence against women has become almost the norm in Peruvian society.

"Violence against women is part of our culture and the judicial system is no help," said Doris Blas, a lawyer representing Mata and a member of Lima-based foundation Manuela Ramos, which works to uphold women's rights.


In rape cases, the responsibility of the crime falls on the victim's shoulders in Peru, as police and judges require women to prove their innocence before prosecuting the aggressor.

"Were you dressing sexy? Why you were walking alone so late at night?," are the kind of questions raped women face when they file a report with the police, says Carolina Ruiz, a lawyer at Flora Tristan.

Government doctors are also unwilling to confirm that a woman has been raped to avoid participation in often tedious judicial processes that can last more than two years.

"In most of the cases, doctors decline to issue a certificate of rape, arguing the woman has previously had sexual relations," Ruiz said.

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