Battling domestic violence in Peru

President-elect Alan Garcia vows to fight the escalating problem.

Published July 25, 2006 4:18PM (EDT)

A story today about the terrifying rate of domestic violence in Peru, an issue that the country's president-elect, Alan Garcia, who takes office on Friday, has vowed to address in his administration. Garcia made it a central issue in his campaign, and has promised to give Peruvian women a greater voice in national government.

According to Reuters, "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." The United Nations has named Peru one of the most dangerous places for women in Latin America, where the bar is already set high; according to Reuters, the region had the world's highest number of sexual assaults last year.

A recent study by Amnesty International and Flora Tristan, a Peruvian organization that works to protect women, found that more than 300 women have been killed in Peru by men committing sexual violence since 2003. It also found that 51 percent of women in Lima and 69 percent of women in Cuzco said they have been the victims of sexual or physical violence.

Officials blame the outrageous figures on male frustration about high unemployment and a corrupt justice system. Half of the country's 13 million workers are underemployed and more than 60 percent of women who report themselves victims of domestic violence say that the attacks were triggered by economic stress at home.

Peru's women's minister, Ana Maria Romero, told Reuters that "the violence is a direct consequence of poverty." And where the poverty is worse, the violence is worse. The World Health Organization ranks Peru's southern province of Huancavelica, where 90 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, as having one of the world's worst rates of sexual and physical violence.

Peru's warped judicial system and a cultural acceptance of violence against women don't help. Women who claim to be raped in Peru must prove their innocence before their alleged attackers can be prosecuted; they are asked to answer questions like "Were you dressing sexy?" and "Why you were walking alone so late at night?" And because rape cases take years to prosecute, doctors often decline to testify or confirm that a woman has been sexually attacked.

There are new laws that impose higher sentences on rapists, especially those who prey on young girls. But according to the office of Beatriz Merino, Peru's ombudswoman, "just a tiny proportion of those men responsible for sexual violence have been sentenced."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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