What is the problem, and what is the impact on women and girls?
Sexual violence against women and girls in the Americas is pervasive and widespread, with high rates being reported across the Americas region:
- Data released by the World Health Organization in 2021 comparing global and regional prevalence estimates of sexual violence demonstrate that prevalence of sexual violence is higher in the Americas region as compared to global estimates.
- Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. Country-level surveys in a number of countries have indicated high rates of sexual violence against girls and adolescents, most often perpetrated by persons known to the victims, often trusted caregivers.
- The particular vulnerability of children, including adolescents, combined with patriarchal household structures and the subordination of women and girls within the family, help perpetuate a culture of incest.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the incidence of sexual violence against women and girls worldwide, including in the Americas. Data show that since the outbreak of COVID-19, violence against women and girls has intensified.
Equality Now’s research has found that gaps in laws in the region, as well as problems with the way they are implemented, inhibit access to justice for survivors, perpetuate discrimination, and fail to protect women and girls from sexual violence. The experiences of survivors like Brisa, Stephanie, Mandi, and Paola speak powerfully to the deep and lasting harms caused by sexual violence and by denial of justice.
What does the law say?
International legal human rights frameworks guarantee the right of all women and girls to live a life free from violence, including sexual violence, and there are several which apply in the Americas:
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by all States in the Americas region except the United States, together with General Recommendations 19 and 35 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) requires all States to “repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against women.’’ This principle also applies to repealing any discriminatory definitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as to the laws related to the prosecution and punishment of sexual violence. With regard to the definition of sexual violence, General Recommendation 35 of the CEDAW Committee provides that the definition of sexual crimes, including rape, should be based on lack of freely given consent, and take account of coercive circumstances.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by all States in the Americas region except Cuba, St. Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia, read with General Comments 20, 28 and 32 requires all States to repeal discriminatory laws as well as ensure effective access to justice for victims whose rights have been violated (including victims of sexual violence).
- Governments must also ensure their people are able to live a life free from sexual violence in order to meet the obligations set out in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Achieving Gender Equality, and SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
- In the Americas region specifically, the two main instruments applicable for ending violence against women and girls are the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (the Belém do Pará Convention). The Belém do Pará Convention was the first regional treaty specifically aimed at eliminating violence against women and girls, and has been ratified by all of the OAS member States, except Canada, Cuba, and the United States. All States which have ratified the Belém do Pará Convention have the obligation to adopt policies to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women, and to act with all due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish violence against women. Further, States are required to ensure that all laws, practices, and policies relating to violence against women follow principles of equality and non-discrimination.
All countries in the Americas region have a law or public policy to protect against or punish violence against women. However, there are still serious failings in laws aimed at preventing and addressing sexual violence. The laws on sexual violence in many of the jurisdictions in the Americas are badly worded, insufficient, inconsistent, and sometimes even promote violence.
Read more about sexual violence laws in the Americas in our 2021 report, Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas
What is Equality Now doing?
Equality Now has long advocated at the regional level for improved access to justice for sexual violence survivors in the Americas, supporting partner organizations and survivors of sexual violence in Bolivia and Argentina to tell the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about the problem, and what needs to change. We are also part of the legal team arguing a case against Bolivia in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
In 2020 and 2021, Equality Now undertook an analysis of laws, policies, and practices related to sexual violence, alongside in-depth discussions with survivors, activists, and lawyers actively engaging with survivors of sexual violence.
The resulting report, Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas, was published in September 2021, and calls for comprehensive action from governments to holistically address sexual violence and intersecting discrimination faced by women and girls across the region to live up to their commitments to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls. Specifically, the governments of the Americas must:
- Improve protections in the law
- improve access to justice under the law
- Improve implementation, practice, and accountability
- Challenge negative stereotypes and improve public understanding of sexual violence
At the national level, Equality Now has worked, and continues to work with partner organizations and coalitions different countries to push for systemic legal change as well as improving access to justice for survivors:
- In 2015, we worked with partners in Paraguay to obtain protectionary measures for an adolescent rape survivor who also confronted forced pregnancy.
- In addition to supporting Bolivian survivors at the regional level as mentioned above, in 2019 Equality Now facilitated a convening of eight different organizations from all parts of Bolivia to discuss the most urgent issues facing child and adolescent survivors of sexual violence, and the best ways to confront them as a coalition. This coalition has continued to work together on coordinated advocacy efforts ever since.
- Equality Now also works with a coalition of organizations in Mexico to advocate for improved policies and laws to protect women and girls from sexual violence, including pushing for a gender-focused federal budget and working with legislators to draft an updated federal law on sexual violence.