Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gender Issues: Armed Societies, Another Tragedy for Women

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Armed Societies, Another Tragedy for Women

By Humberto Márquez *

CARACAS, Dec 9, 2011 (IPS) - Kairobis Arcia, 25, died from a bullet to her head shot by her husband, Oswaldo Mendoza, 32, who said he was blinded by jealousy in an argument fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

Her murder was just one of the more than 468,000 homicides a year that occur worldwide, 42 percent of which are committed with firearms. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the global murder rate is 6.9 per 100,000 people – 11.9 per 100,000 among men and 2.6 per 100,000 among women.

IPS discussed the impact on women of the proliferation of small arms with experts from three countries with high levels of violence that have different causes: Mexico, which is overrun by drug cartels; Pakistan, a hotbed of political and religious struggles; and Venezuela, where violent crime and police corruption are rampant.

Arcia's murder happened in a prison; Mendoza is an inmate who in theory should have no access to liquor, drugs, weapons or ammunition.

She was there on a "visit" – outside of visiting hours – and the two were taking part in a free-for-all among prisoners, complete with weapons, with the complicity of the guards.

If incidents like this one, which took place on Nov. 27 in a police station lockup in Ciudad Guayana in southeast Venezuela, happen behind bars, imagine the danger faced on the streets and in the homes of this South American country of 29 million people, where according to the estimates of different organisations there are anywhere between three and 10 million illegal firearms.

"Ninety percent of the 17,000 to 19,000 homicides that occur annually in Venezuela are committed with firearms, and one out of 10 victims is a woman," says sociologist Luis Cedeño with Paz Activa, a local NGO.

And the threat is growing because "in the lowest-income and least educated segments of the population, and in the most violent urban areas, the illegal possession of weapons is increasing, while Pan-American Health Organisation studies indicate that there is intra-family violence of some kind in 30 percent of all homes," he added.

Venezuela's attorney general, Luisa Ortega, said 96,145 complaints of gender violence were filed in 2010. But women's organisations point out that many cases of domestic violence are not reported because of feelings of fear, shame or helplessness.

The danger is increased "by the strong link between the concept of masculinity and guns. For men, carrying a gun is a way to look tough and lord it over others, especially women," said human rights activist África Matute.

Saturday Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, culminates the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign, which began Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

In parts of the world where political and religious battles are waged with guns, like Pakistan, "the increasing gun culture has put the entire society on a razor’s edge, particularly the women at the receiving end," said Shabina Ayaz of the Aurat Foundation, a women's rights group based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The problem, she says, has been exacerbated by the fact that men want to have guns in their homes. "These guns are often used against women in the male-dominated society. It is generally regarded as a matter of honour by menfolk to beat women on small and petty issues," she told IPS.

Amina Khan of the Islam-based organisation Awaz told IPS by telephone that "most women are scared of weapons in their houses because they know that they might be used against them, but it is the men who decide to keep them or not.

"In some cases, the killings of women by their men are not even reported to police as people consider it a family matter if someone kills his wife, daughter or even mother in honour-related crimes," she said.

"The presence of firearms in the family and daily life always increases the chance of extreme violence, which tends to be taken out on defenceless persons who, in patriarchal structures, are women and children," the president of the Mexico City-based Latin American Circle of International Studies, Luis Gutiérrez, told IPS.

A legislative commission on "femicide" in Mexico found that 34,176 women were the victims of gender-based killings between 1985 and 2009, with over 40 percent of them killed by firearms.

Many of the millions of black market firearms circulating in Mexico, a country besieged by organised crime groups that traffic drugs and persons, came from the United States.

And although there are no precise statistics on the correlation between guns and femicides, "there are higher levels of violence against women in the areas where the most guns, registered or not, are concentrated," said Gutiérrez.

In Pakistan, the sprawling gun-manufacturing market in Darra Adamkhel, near Peshawar in the northwest, has made it increasingly convenient for people to buy all sorts of guns, according to women's rights activists.

One result, said Khan, is that "65 percent of murdered women happen to be victims of guns in Pakistan. The use of weapons against women is common everywhere in the country. Even in urban areas, women are being mercilessly killed."

Musarat Qadeem, the head of the Pakistan Women's Coalition against Extremism, said "a reduction and ban on small arms is possible if we sensitise women on the problems associated with guns. If we convince women that the presence of arms is lethal, they can pressure the male members of the household to shun guns."

The "2011 Global Study on Homicide" published by UNODC in October reported that in countries with high murder rates like El Salvador and Colombia, a larger proportion of murders occur in public places, due to higher levels of organised crime and street violence, while in nations with lower rates, like Australia or Norway, more homicides take place in homes.

This "implies the relatively increased significance of intimate partner/family-related homicides in those countries and, accordingly, a higher percentage of female homicide victims," the report adds.

In Australia, Canada, Israel and the United States, 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their partners or former partners, according to the World Health Organisation.

By contrast, only five percent of male murder victims were killed by their spouses or former spouses, and 10 percent by other family members.

UNODC says domestic violence-related murders of women have "been associated with levels of underlying tension in society…male partner unemployment, firearm ownership, drug and alcohol use, the threat of separation, sexual jealousy, extreme male dominance and other risk factors".

In countries like Venezuela, "the correlation between the increase in the number of firearms in the hands of the population and the rise in the number of homicides is clear," said Cedeño.

According to the Global Study on Homicide, the murder rate in Venezuela has increased to 49 per 100,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the region, behind Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica.

The average annual number of murders has increased from 5,000 in the late 1990s to more than 15,000 in the last few years.

Unlike countries suffering from civil or religious conflicts or caught up in the fight between organised crime groups, in Venezuela it is the spiralling violent crime – with more than 1.5 million crimes a year reported, or underreported – and impunity which have driven up gun ownership.

According to Cedeño, Venezuela's defence manufacturer CAVIM produces 36 million bullets a year. But it fails to meet demand, and imports even more ammunition, which is easily available: in many murders, victims are shot 10, 20, 30 or even more times.

"It is the state that imports more than 80 percent of the guns in Venezuela," he said. "There are 25,000 legally registered guns," while 30 percent of those surveyed said they would like to have a gun, "which gives an idea that there are perhaps millions of illegal firearms."

Between 60 and 80 percent of calls for help received by municipal and regional police in Venezuela involve gender violence, said Cedeño. And experts around the world say that in domestic abuse cases, women are three to six times more likely to die if there is a gun in the house.

* With reporting by Ashfaq Yusufzai in Peshawar and Emilio Godoy in Mexico City.