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Seeking justice: Women's police stations in Latin America

24 de Enero de 2011
On April 20, 2009, in the small town of Diriomo, Nicaragua, Luz Marina Lezama Suazo, aged 47, was shot dead, allegedly by her husband. According to her sister, “She’d been having problems with him for a while and we had told her to leave him, that that man wasn’t any good for her.”
 
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Such reports of domestic violence are far too common. What makes this story unusual, however, is the poignant detail that Luz Marina Lezama Suazo was chief of the local women’s police station — an institution created to help women gain better access to justice and protection. Her killing only highlighted the everyday risks that many women face and the difficulty they have in finding safety.

In Latin America, violence against women, especially domestic violence, is a deeply rooted problem. The desperate need to ensure access to justice has led several countries to establish specialized women’s police stations (WPS). The units are usually located apart from regular stations and are staffed by specially trained officers, most of them women. Many offer services such as coordination with other institutions that provide legal or psychological assistance, for example, for dealing with issues like child custody.

Safety for the poor

The WPS are a response to the demands of women, but also to the obligations set out in various laws and conventions, particularly the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará). This landmark instrument imposes upon states an obligation to “adopt appropriate administrative measures” that will allow women to exercise their rights.

The first WPS opened in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1985. Since then the stations have gained popularity throughout Latin America, especially among poor or marginalized women who have fewer resources to help them escape violence in the home. More governments have launched these services, and more WPS are being opened in countries where they already exist.

What works, and why?

Although the WPS are popular, many of the same cultural barriers that spurred their creation continue to impede their effectiveness. Entrenched stereotypes about “family values” often take priority over women’s rights — for example when women are pressured to “think of the children” and withdraw charges against an abusive husband. Such attitudes persist even among some WPS operators and among the survivors of violence who come to them for help.

Furthermore, the stations often lack adequate financial, human, and administrative resources, and their concentration in urban areas means that rural women have limited access to the protection they offer. Women also suffer when the WPS are unable to refer them to the external agencies that provide additional legal and medical aid.

Despite close to a quarter-century of experience operating in varied models in over a dozen countries in Latin America, there has been little sharing of knowledge or coordination of policy, laws, and services. In the interest of women’s safety, research is needed to find out what works best, and why.

Women’s perspectives

IDRC is the principal donor supporting a two-year comparative study on how best to improve the WPS. Research is being conducted in four communities in countries with long and diverse experience in this area: Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, and Brazil (where over 400 WPS have been opened). Ecuador’s Centre for Planning and Social Studies, or CEPLAES, leads the project.

The researchers have chosen to adopt the perspective of women in situations of violence rather than the perspective of the WPS. Instead of seeking statistics about, say, the number of formal complaints or the rate at which cases are resolved, the researchers strive to understand how the procedures and services of the WPS and other bodies help women gain access to justice, thus enabling these women to live free of violence and to participate fully as citizens.

Justice versus safety

Preliminary results indicate that the WPS are well known in their communities, and have helped draw attention to the criminal nature of violence against women. For instance, whenever another women’s station is opened, complaints of offences usually increase in that district. This is not necessarily because the rate of offences has changed — many women take months or even years to decide to press charges — but more likely because the WPS and other actors have made women more aware of their rights.

The women studied hold diverse conceptions of access to justice. These include “non-institutional” models that may not always insist on legal sanctions, such as those based on family values or mediation. Women seeking justice rarely follow the full judicial process; some just want to scare their husbands or to seek immediate protection. When asked, “If your partner/husband abused you, what type of support would you seek?” the most common response has been psychological counselling.

While the women’s stations are the most popular point of entry into the criminal justice system for victims of domestic violence, they are not always the ideal vehicle for safeguarding women’s rights. The researchers found, for example, that WPS operators sometimes underestimate the danger women face. Some women reported that operators blamed or humiliated them. Others perceived a bias against psychological violence because operators don’t see physical evidence that a crime has been committed.

These findings underscore the crucial distinction between access to justice and a halt to the violence. While WPS operators often see the services they provide as being an end in themselves, women typically go to these facilities for support to help stop the brutality without necessarily seeking to pursue a full range of legal options.

Next steps

The research winds up in late 2009. Meanwhile, some recommendations are taking shape. They include: 

 

  • women should have greater access to information about laws, rights, judicial procedures, and social services; 
  • both the regular police and WPS staff need more specialized training; 
  • there should be better coordination among institutions providing follow-up services; 
  • more communities should have these women’s police stations; 
  • and, of course, governments need to allocate sufficient funds.

 

Patrick Kavanagh is a senior writer in IDRC’s Communications Division in Ottawa.​