"And it wasn't my fault": Dangerous social norms and the urgent need to reimagine our world


The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was celebrated on November 25th kicking off 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which come to a close today. This is an important campaign to raise awareness about gender-related violence issues—which manifest in a range of physical, sexual, and psychological forms. Gender-related violence is a leading cause of women’s deaths around the world. According to a recent UNODC report,  almost 60 percent of all female homicides in 2017 were committed by an intimate partner or family member—meaning that the home is the most likely place for women to be killed. This notion of gender-related killing is broadly referred to as “femicide” or “feminicide—and it is a key challenge facing Latin American countries. Indeed, out of the 25 countries in the world with the highest number of femicides – 14 of them are in LAC.

Living free of violence is not only a human right, but a fundamental functioning that allows women to pursue the lives they have reason to value. From a capabilities approach, where human freedom and access to opportunities are the tenets of human development, women who are vulnerable to violence within the household experience a lack of bodily integrity as a fundamental capability deprivation. As Martha Nussbaum’s work on women and human development argues, bodily integrity is the capability of freely circulating from place to place, being safe from assault and sexual violence, and enjoying reproductive rights. In other words, it is imperative for human development to enable the social conditions (laws, policies, and interventions) that ensure the bodily integrity of women and lift this capability deprivation.

Countries across the region have been working to respond to this critical challenge by revising or expanding their legislation to criminalize femicide as an offense. Eighteen countries in the region have adopted laws in recent years—outlining national definitions of the concept and creating frameworks for prosecuting it. As the graph below shows, Costa Rica and Venezuela were among the first countries to adopt laws in 2006. This was followed by a cascade of other countries—with Uruguay most recently adopting legislation in 2017.

However, it is important to note that while formal laws are an important step toward eliminating violence against women, they are insufficient on their own. There is a call for state action that goes beyond criminalizing femicide and strengthening sentences—to actually enacting laws focused on prevention and protection, investigation and reparation. Moreover, as Jeni Klugman notes, “Dealing with only the consequences of violence has obvious weaknesses, not least that the causes of violence can go unaddressed. This points to the importance of changing the norms that cause or at least sanction or tolerate violence, and how understanding laws and legal reforms can serve to change norms.” Indeed, social norms are a key part of this addressing this challenge.

Social norms about the acceptability of violence against women in the home can be extremely dangerous—and, as this #GraphForThought shows using to data from the OECD, these norms remain very prevalent in many LAC countries. For example, in countries such as Haiti and Peru, the share of women who agree with the statement that "a husband/partner is justified in beating his wife/partner under certain circumstances reached as high as 59% and 32% respectively in 2019. While social norms can be slow to change, it is important to note that in many LAC countries these norms are either remaining stagnant or “worsening” (meaning that the share of women who agree with that statement is increasing) over the past five years. Indeed, out of the 15 countries that had data available for 2014 and for 2019, these norms “improved” in 6 countries, did not change in 5 countries, and “worsened” in 4 countries. This means that in the past 5 years, social norms against intimate partner violence have only improved in 40% of the LAC countries with available data.

While these facts are not encouraging, I believe that we are living in a moment in which the tides are turning. Millions of women around the world are daring to speak out and taking to the streets to demand an end to gender-related violence and harassment. In LAC in 2018 alone, marches against gender violence took place in Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru and Argentina. The call to action to ensure #NiUnaMenos (“Not One Woman Less”) has spread rapidly across the region. International actors are also working to promote change. For example, the EU and the UN have recently joined together to launch the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In LAC, Spotlight will be implemented in Argentina, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and will support laws that promote gender-equality, strengthen institutions, change cultural norms and support the research on this topic.

We need to work across all of the different fronts in order to enact meaningful change. In the words of Cecilia Suarez, a Mexican actress who delivered a beautiful and thoughtful speech (“Harta”) at the launch of the Spotlight Initiative last year, “Al patriarcado hay que oponerle el corazón de cada ser humano, la inteligencia y la capacidad de imaginar las cosas de otra manera / In order to fight the patriarchy, we need the power of each person’s heart, intellect, and capacity to imagine things in a different way.” Our imaginations are fundamental in seeing the world from the point of view of others—and thus laying the foundation upon which to construct a more equitable world.  As Cecilia explained (citing the words of  Grace Paley), “Necesitamos la imaginación para comprender lo que les ocurre a las personas que nos rodean, para intentar comprender las vidas de los demáses seguramente el acto más importante de la imaginación, y además puede ser de provecho para el mundo/ We need our imaginations to understand what is happening to other people around us, to try to understand the lives of others…. This probably one of the most important acts of the imagination that you can try and that can be useful to the world.”