By Felivia Mejía
The rates of deaths of women at the hands of a current or former intimate partner remains staggeringly high in the Dominican Republic, despite that in the last three years official statistics show a slight drop in femicides.
In a country with nearly 10 million people, every 40 hours at least one woman dies violently. In the majority of cases, the killer was the victim’s husband or boyfriend — an act known as intimate femicide.
Between January and June of this year, the Attorney General documented the violent deaths of 140 women, of which 69 were deemed femicides in addition to 71 as homicides.
These figures make the Dominican Republic third among Latin American and the Caribbean countries — behind Grenada and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — in the rate of femicides per 100,000 people, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s Gender Equality Observatory. In 2011, 128 women were killed as a result of intimate partner violence in the country; in 2012, there were 103 such cases.
Attorney General Francisco Domínguez Brito has stated that 80 percent of femicide victims never reported previous acts of violence and abuse to the authorities. He said there is distrust of the judicial system despite efforts to improve services.
Dominican women face procedures requiring them to present to their accused abusers a summons from the judge. Because some aren’t willing to do it themselves and don’t have the money to pay for a law enforcement officer to do it for them, they back down from formal accusations. Moreover, convictions in such cases are rare, so impunity becomes one more reason women are discouraged from going through the long and costly process.
Femicide is not criminalized in the country’s Penal Code, so the deaths are labeled as homicides. Few sentences reach the 30-year maximum, and domestic violence is only punishable up to 15 years in prison.
Natividad López, a psychologist with the Ministry of Women, said authorities are concerned that cases of psychological violence are unreported, even though the abuse can cause irreparable damage to a victim.
“Many women will report because someone sees a hit and guide her to file a complaint. But the blows of psychological violence are to her self-esteem, her dignity, and are more difficult to prove. There are people who will say the woman is exaggerating and if she tolerates a bit, things would change, which is why those cases remain hidden,” López told Latinamerica Press.
She added that femicides would continue as long as women don’t get help to break the cycle and receive support when they go looking for it.
“We need to give support that is high-quality, fast, humanized, sensitive, responsible, because if a woman doesn’t get that service, she is going to give up,” López said.
From January to November, according to the Attorney General’s office there were 68,197 complaints of violence against women. From the beginning of the year until June, there were 24,265 formal complaints and 30,763 restraining orders filed.
Many issues factor into gender-based violence, but López points as fundamental reasons the cultural pattern in Dominican society — men feel superior to women, that the woman is his property and must obey him.
“Another factor is financial, as the woman depends on the man to survive. There is also a lack of family support and of attention from places that are supposed to help women,” López explained.
To that end, the country’s Vice President Margarita Cedeño has labeled gender-based violence as a “tragedy with a cultural dimension” that requires a shift in the population’s mentality to resolve.
United Nations Women Country Representative Clemencia Muñoz said there still hasn’t been a study on the economic cost of domestic violence in the country. Still, she added, reports from the Inter-American Development Bank estimate that for countries in the region, such violence chips away on average 1.5 percent to 2 percent of GDP annually—a figure greater than what the Dominican Republic invests in healthcare.
“I think the country has put in a lot of effort. It has made progress into raising social awareness, the state is legitimately concerned and there is civic mobilization,” Muñoz told Latinamerica Press.
Legislation and education
The country has signed several international agreements in which it commits to confronting violence against women. It was in 1997 that for the first time domestic violence and violence against women were criminalized, with the passage of Law 24-97 amending the Penal Code, and since the Constitution was modified in 2010, it now supports the fight against this scourge and promises State action to combat it.
The Senate this year approved the bill for the “Prevention, Attention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women,” which is now in the Chamber of Deputies.
Attorney General for Women’s Issues Roxanna Reyes said this legislation addresses every actor important to resolving the issue, not just the crime but also the realms of education, health, and culture. If passed, the law would also appropriate funds to the cause and impose stiffer sentencing guidelines.
The bill, she explained, touches on new issues as well like obstetric violence, cyber violence and psychological violence.
A group of 18 of the country’s civil society organizations signed a declaration Nov. 25, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which marks the killing of three Dominican sisters, Patria, Minerva y María Teresa Mirabal in 1960. The document highlights how men need to be included into programs to eliminate gender-based violence.
“The prevention of gender-based won’t be possible without an intervention that is conscientious, active and assertive toward [the role of] masculinity in this process, since this is a social problem that affects not only women but boys and girls, teens, the elderly, the environment, and even men, who as a result of machismo act improperly,” according to the document.
One of the groups that signed onto the declaration is the Mamá Tingó Women’s Association, which proposes educating schoolchildren about violence and gender equality.
Tomasina Batista, the organization’s general coordinator, demands better quality of life for women and wants them to know their rights.
“The State hasn’t dealt with this situation as required,” she said to Latinamerica Press. “Cases aren’t being followed up, so even though the number of femicides is dropping we can’t say it’s a victory.”