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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Luis Gómez Romero, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, Constitutional Law and Legal Theory, University of Wollongong

Fifty years ago, Australian feminist Anne Summers denounced “the ideology of sexism” governing over so many women’s lives. Unfortunately, sexism is as lethal today as it was then.

Thousands have rallied across Australia in recent weeks demanding greater action against the violent deaths of women. In response, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the country not only has change its legal system, but also its culture. These changes, he said, must be pursued in the long term, “year after year.”

In Latin America, governments have been doing exactly this for years. Nearly all countries in the region have passed laws that have criminalised either femicide or feminicide (the gendered killing of women and girls).

Latin America still has some of the highest overall homicide rates in the world due to entrenched inequality, organised crime and military involvement in law enforcement. And femicides, in particular, remain high compared to other parts of the world.

However, Central and South America experienced a modest decline in female homicides yearly from 2017 to 2022, by 10% and 8% respectively. Though much work remains to be done, many hope this is a step in the right direction.

So, why has the Latin American model been successful, and what can Australia learn from it?

What exactly is femicide and feminicide?

In 1801, the English writer John Corry first used the term “femicide” to describe any murder of a woman. The concept did not evolve to its current meaning, however, until the 1970s when the feminist author Diana Russell testified about misogynist murders at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Belgium.

Inspired by the unpublished work of fellow feminist Carol Orlock, Russell redefined femicide as the killing of women by men because they are women. She framed the violent killings of women as arising from the patriarchy – femicidal violence was the most extreme form of male violence and control over the female body.

In the 1990s, Marcela Lagarde, a Mexican feminist and anthropologist, translated Russell’s concept to Spanish. In doing so, she mutated “femicide” into “feminicide” (feminicidio).

This coincided with the disturbing appearances of young women’s bodies – many showing signs of beatings, rape and mutilation – in the desert outside Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The nature of the killings suggested the women had been punished for challenging gender stereotypes by achieving economic independence and enjoying sexual freedom.

Mexican civil servants were later found to be negligent in their investigations of the murders. The government was also indifferent to the crimes and failed to enforce policies to prevent more killings. The victims were frequently labelled as sex workers or involved in the drug trade.

In Lagarde’s view, the failure of the Mexican state to protect women’s lives made it ultimately complicit in reinforcing and normalising violence against women. She then redefined “feminicide” as a crime of the state if public officials fail to properly address gender discrimination and do not adequately punish offenders of sexual violence and other crimes.

Her work was hugely influential in the feminist movement in Latin America. It also led to the passing of the first Mexican law criminalising femicide in 2007. Today, the terms femicide and feminicide are used interchangeably in Latin American and international human rights law.

A societal change in Mexico

In Latin American countries, femicide is considered a hate crime that specifically requires a human rights based approach to enforcement.

In 2009, for example, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Mexico in violation of women’s rights to life and non-discrimination for failing to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish femicides in Ciudad Juárez. The government was required not only to implement stronger measures to prevent similar crimes from occurring, but also to offer the victims reparations.

This was not aimed purely at restitution for the victims. The ruling was also intended to begin rectifying the discrimination and systemic violence that has enabled countless other men to commit femicide in the country.

After the ruling, the Mexican government undertook a major institutional overhaul to align its laws and policies with its obligations to protect the rights of women under United Nations treaties and international law.

In doing this, Mexico adopted a broad gender-based perspective to all of its laws, examining the inequalities and discrimination women encounter in their everyday lives.

For example, in several cities, catcalling and other forms of public harassment have been outlawed. Public officials are required to undergo training to ensure they effectively apply gender equality in their work and policies.

The courts also have a legal duty to consider a gender perspective in deciding cases. Gender parity in government bodies is also ensured through a strict quota system at the federal and state level. Both leading candidates in next month’s presidential election are women – a first for anywhere in North America.

How other countries are following suit

Thanks to the work of activists, the criminalisation of femicide has spread from Mexico to other Latin American countries.

After femicide was defined as a distinct crime in Argentina in 2012, it sparked a grassroots feminist movement called “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Woman Less). Several years later, the discovery of a 14-year-old pregnant girl’s body in the patio of her boyfriend’s family home prompted nationwide protests. Argentina then created a national register of femicides that also includes trans women.

Responding to activists’ calls for further action, the Argentine Congress passed the Micaela Act (“Ley Micaela”) in 2019, which requires all levels of government to train officials on violence against women. The act was named after Micaela García, a “Ni Una Menos” member who was raped and killed in 2017.

The movement also called for a stronger gender perspective on media coverage of femicides and gender issues more broadly. As a result, the daily newspaper, Clarín, became the first mainstream news outlet in Argentina to create the role of gender editor.

“Ni Una Menos” has since grown into a regional movement. In Mexico, it inspired the musician Vivir Quintana to compose Canción sin Miedo (Fearless Song) to raise awareness of femicides in Mexico.

Vivir Quintana’s Canción sin Miedo.

These ideas are starting to spread beyond Latin America, too. Last year, the European Institute for Gender Equality recommended the adoption of femicide as a distinct crime to respond to gender-based violence in European Union countries. So far, only two countries have such a crime: Cyprus and Malta.

This concept, developed in the Global South, could provide hope now to Australian women – a shared path of sorority toward a life free from the fear of gender-based violence.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. What Australia can learn from Latin America when it comes to tackling violence against women –