At 24, it is already a struggle for Altagracia to carry on living. Each time she looks at herself in the mirror all she can see is deep scars on her face and belly. Inflicting grievous wounds, her machete brandishing former partner was adamant to finish her off. Seeing her bleed profusely he left for her dead and disappeared.
Behind the veneer of glorious sunshine and sandy beaches, the holiday resort nation of the Dominican Republic is grappling with brutal killings and violent attacks on young girls and women.
Every two days, sometimes each day, a woman is killed in an act of violence. For an island nation of nearly ten million, over a thousand women have been killed in the last five years. In the majority of cases the perpetrators were intimate partners of victims.
From plush urban enclaves to deprived rural counties, 'machismo' pervades all classes and is prevalent in every community in the Dominican Republic. A by-word for ultra-masculinity, 'machismo' has come to be regarded as a natural attribute of tough men who often dominate women with unprovoked aggression and violence as a way of life. From alcohol, drugs, anger to jealously, dispute or just a bad day – anything can serve as a trigger for some men to unleash violence on women.
For the majority of women escape can be very difficult. Their dependence on male partners for financial and emotional support often means they continue to suffer in silence. Those who dare face the spectre of being left on their own, often risking worse reprisals and backlash.
The national legislation against violence is in place, also the international human rights law is clear that the States have a duty to exercise due diligence to prevent, prosecute and punish violence against women. However, very little real protection exists for women in reality, as they continue to suffer violence on a daily basis as the majority of perpetrators go unpunished.
In 2010 an overwhelming number of 62,000 cases of violence against women were reported in the Dominican Republic. Just four per cent of these went on legal trial. The cases range from extreme sexual violence involving young girls to women being stabbed to death. Considering a vast number of cases are not even reported, a real estimate of the extent of the situation is hard to gauge. Fighting a lonely battle, women are often coerced into retracting their statements by their perpetrators, or they simply give up in frustration for getting no further.
The reality begins to sink in when the country's Deputy Attorney General Roxanna Reyes Acosta, a woman herself, says the police and the judges - even female judges, have cultural prejudices and myths around domestic violence. For women, starting from the perpetrator to family, community, police and the judiciary, there are multiple barriers and prejudices to reporting violence and seeking justice. At every level, the victims drop out to return to the cycle of violence that often continues, if they manage to survive.
“It takes on average 5 years for victims of violence to realise their status and up to 15 years for women to come out of the circle of domestic violence,” says Acosta. The woman with the highest office in government is trying to tackle the systemic culture of gender-bias head on, starting with sensitising key constituents of legislature, executive and the judiciary. “The majority of political leaders are male. They do not necessarily look at the female perspective. We need to revolutionise the system.”
It may well warrant efforts on the scale of a revolution to save Dominican Republic's women from violence as lack of funds and inherent gender discrimination means women are way down on the priority list.
In Barahona province, 17-year-old Orvis is at the frontline of taking the message straight to the communities and homes where violence occurs. He spends his after school hours in his nearby villages going door to door raising awareness on the issue of domestic violence. Like other provinces, alcoholism, drug-abuse and domestic violence is rife in Barahona's villages. “In my village there is a man who used to beat his wife with a stick. He thought it was his right to beat his wife and so did others in the village. I told him that he was committing a crime and that he could be jailed. It took some efforts and a few visits and he finally stopped,” he says.
Orvis is part of a small force of young people who volunteer for child rights organisation Plan and work relentlessly in their communities, raising awareness to stop the cycle of violence which also blights the lives of children in families where it is a routine. The violence has devastating consequences for the women who experience it, and a traumatic effect on those who witness it, particularly children. Experts believe children who grow up in families where there is violence may suffer a range of behavioural and emotional issues that can be associated with the perpetration or experiencing of violence later in life.
Organisations like Plan can only address limited aspects of the grave problem that runs very deep. The solution, like Acosta is trying to filter down from the top, also must start from the grassroots – from families and communities upwards. It means reaching people like 60-year-old Lourdes who have resigned to their fate. She says, “It is common in our community to hit women. It is a tradition.” After suffering 23 years of incessant violence, Lourdes had no other choice but to separate from her husband as she was certain she would be killed one day. “He used to attack me with a machete. He nearly slit my daughter's throat,” she adds.
The Dominican Republic may be on the higher end of the scale, but it is certainly not the only country where women face indiscriminate violence and death in their daily lives just because of their gender. Violence against women is a universal phenomenon and not just restricted to developing nations. It persists in all countries and cultures across the world with domestic violence, in particular, frighteningly common and accepted as “normal” within too many societies.
According to UN, in Australia, Canada and Israel 40 to 70 per cent of female murder victims were killed by their partners. In the United States, one-third of women murdered each year are killed by intimate partners. In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day. In South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner. In India, 22 women were killed each day in dowry-related murders in 2007.
According to the World Bank, women aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war or malaria. However, there is scant comparable data that documents the magnitude of violence against women to guide policy and monitor implementation. The often used reference point is a WHO multi-country study in 2005 that found that between 15 and 71 per cent of women reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. These forms of violence result in physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health problems among other issues.
Altagracia, for instance, is battling serious repercussions of the attack that nearly killed her. Physically and psychologically scarred, she contemplated suicide on a number of occasions but changed her mind thinking of her son. Pointing to her scarred face which has still not healed, she asks:”Who will ever love me?” Battling depression, she hopes a reconstructive surgery will help her face the world again. Her perpetrator, like many others, is still absconding justice.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity.)
This article was first published on Al Jazeera.
Davinder Kumar is an award-winning development journalist and global press officer for child rights organisation Plan International. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar.