Domestic violence: Colombian women’s worst enemy

May 1, 2012


What’s the biggest threat in Colombia?

Outsiders would probably say the armed conflict that has dragged   on for nearly five decades.

But for the country’s women, it’s the violence that takes place in homes, behind closed doors, Cristina Plazas, Colombia’s chief advisor on gender equality tells me.

“I understand that there are other enemies like paramilitary and guerrilla groups, drug trafficking and gangs,” Plazas said during a recent interview. “But really there’s no enemy greater than domestic violence.”

Plazas puts much of the blame on Colombia’s macho culture which tends to justify and condone violence against women.

There’s a prevailing attitude in much of Colombian society, even among some women, that violence against women somehow happens because it is a woman’s fault and because she deserved it.

“One of the main reasons behind violence against women in Colombia, and the rest of Latin America, is machismo. Some men think that to be a man they have to control women and believe women have to be at home looking after the children and doing the housework,” Plazas says.

Her office at the presidential palace in downtown Bogota is just four doors away from the president’s office –  its proximity perhaps recognition of the rising importance of women’s rights in a county where domestic and sexual violence is widespread and where nearly 20 percent of teenage girls aged between 15 and 19 are, or have been, pregnant.

A passionate advocate for raising awareness about women’s rights among lawmakers and the wider society, she explains how the Colombian government aims to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies to 15 percent of teenage girls over the next three years.

She says lawmakers must understand that tackling violence against women and improving women’s rights cannot be pigeonholed as a separate or even minority issue.

“Don’t tell me it’s a minority issue when we (women) make up half of the country’s population,” Plazas says, recalling a conversation she once had with a male colleague, a former minister of mines.

“I introduced myself and he said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong number’. I replied, ‘No, I’ve got the right number. I want to speak to you about how the mining boom is affecting women because it brings with it more prostitution and teenage pregnancies and how we can work together on these issues’.”

The minister was cooperative in the end, Plazas says.

Plazas and her team of 20 people work with government officials offering them advice on how to implement existing laws protecting women’s rights.

She says it’s a relentless exercise in lobbying lawmakers – from government ministers to judicial officials, to local mayors and governors in remote towns across Colombia.

“My job is about building up allies,” Plazas says.

Since taking the job nine months ago, Plazas has put the spotlight on domestic violence and the issue of women’s rights has become more visible in the national media.

But there’s a long way to go. Many cases of domestic violence in Colombia go unreported because women face threats and fear reprisals from their attackers.

And still too many Colombians believe a women is asking for trouble when she wears a short skirt and that it’s OK for a man to beat his wife and or girlfriend because she refuses sex and neglects the housework.

Photo caption: Performers from Pilobolus Dance Theatre rehearse in Bogota Sept. 22, 2010. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

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