Why do they flee? Lack of protection for survivors of violence against women and girls in Central America

August 11, 2018

Desperate for help after enduring a severe beating by her partner, 36-year-old Jaqueline went to a police station in Guatemala City on June 22, 2018 to file a report against her partner. She left the police station without having received any form of immediate protection. Her partner was waiting for her outside of the station, where he shot and killed her.

Jaqueline’s tragic story illustrates the lack of protection available to survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence against women and girls in the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Research by KIND and other organizations documents the struggles they face in accessing protection and justice.

The violence Jacqueline suffered at the hands of her partner is not unusual. In Guatemala, three of every ten women who are murdered had reported being victims of violence or had restraining orders issued for their protection. In El Salvador, nearly 67.4 percent of women report having experienced gender-based violence at some point in their lives, and 40 percent report having experienced sexual violence. The National Emergency System in Honduras receives approximately 4,000 calls reporting domestic violence each month.

While Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have progressive laws on the books addressing violence against women and girls, in reality the governments of these countries rarely enforce the laws. Few victims report violence, and those who do receive no real protection or assistance from their governments. Nor are they able to obtain justice– across the region, impunity rates for violent crimes against girls and women are at or over 90 percent.

Jaqueline’s story is unusual, however, because she attempted to report abuse by her partner. The vast majority of victims of domestic and other forms of gender-based violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras do not report these crimes to the authorities due to lack of confidence in the judicial system and fear of retribution, as well as stigma against survivors of gender-based violence and economic dependency on the perpetrator.

When a women tries to report violence

Those women and girls who do report violence face a barrage of obstacles within the policing and judicial systems. For example, a young woman like Jaqueline who is a victim of domestic violence and decides to make a report to authorities may have to travel hours to reach a police station or prosecutor’s office, especially if she lives in a rural area or in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of a city. When she gets there, the official charged with helping her may refuse to take her report, telling her to come back another day. He might question her story, tell her that the abuse she endured is normal, or tell her that it was probably her fault for not following her husband’s orders. He might even suggest that she go home, cook her husband a nice meal and dress up to appease her husband.

If she’s lucky, the official may fill out a form to at least acknowledge that she made a report; regardless, the official will instruct her to go home and wait to be contacted. She will leave having received no meaningful protection or assistance, even if she tells the official that she is afraid that her husband will harm or even kill her and their children if he finds out she has made a report. It is very likely that the police or other officials from the office will never investigate the case because it does not prioritize crimes considered to be “private matters” such as domestic violence, or because the office is understaffed and overwhelmed with cases.

After receiving no follow-up on her report, the woman will likely give up and drop her case, deciding that the burden and risk involved are too great given the minuscule possibility of obtaining justice or assistance. If she decides to continue, she will have to return multiple times to the office to follow up on her case and pressure the public prosecutor to pursue it. Every time she does, she will have to take off work, losing income essential to her family’s survival, or find someone to care for her children.

If the police or public prosecutor issue a restraining order, they have no ability to enforce it. This will in fact put her in greater danger by alerting her husband that she made a report, but will provide her no additional layer of protection. She may even be told to deliver the restraining order to the abuser herself. Without options for shelter or assistance, she may be forced to abandon her case and return to live with her husband because she and her children have no other place to go.

Unfortunately, women and girls in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are very familiar with these obstacles. When Jacqueline decided to go to the police station to report her partner’s abuse she was almost certainly aware of them. She came forward anyway, daring to challenge a form of violence that is extremely widespread and normalized in her country.

With no protection and impunity for perpetrators, women and girls forced to flee

In the face of severe and widespread violence and with nowhere to turn, it is no wonder that women and girls from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are fleeing for their lives and turning to countries like the United States to protect them.

Attorney General Sessions’ recent decision in Matter of A-B-aims to undermine access to asylum for those fleeing sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence, gang violence, and human trafficking. According to KIND’s President Wendy Young, “The decision fails completely to understand domestic violence characterizing it as a “private” act that d­­oes not deserve asylum protection, when in fact domestic violence is rampant El Salvador precisely because it is widely accepted by society, police, and the justice system.” The same is true of Honduras and Guatemala.

Instead of rejecting these women and girls, the United States must uphold its commitment to international protection by providing them with safe haven. To do any less would be to force these women and girls to return to countries where their fate could very well be similar to that of Jacqueline.