My friend and I are standing in a square in the heart of Montevideo, Uruguay. We watch as a cluster of women act out some vaguely mortifying performance art. I catch a few references to witches, dark magic and bodies before swimming back into semi-consciousness. Then, a woman starts counting in a slow, hypnotic voice; "Uno...dos...tres...". My friend nudges me in the ribs and we join the chorus. We count up to thirty-four, then stop. End scene.
This snippet is from Wednesday 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The number thirty-four corresponds with the number of women killed in Uruguay this year, nearly all by their partners or ex-partners. Over the weekend, the number went up to thirty-five. Four of these women were murdered in the month of November alone.
The majority of them had reported domestic violence or mistreatment at the hands of their killers to the authorities. And they aren't alone. According to national statistics, 68.8 per cent of women aged fifteen and over in Uruguay have experienced gender based violence (GBV). That's seven out of ten women.
Official responsibility for recording and responding to cases of GBV falls into the lap of the Interior Ministry and police forces on the ground. There are special units across the country where people can report GBV. There is a dedicated inter-governmental body to ensure an adequate response on the legislative front. The powers that be are even discussing feminicide, the murder of a woman as a gender hate crime, being defined in Uruguay's criminal code.
Violence against women and feminicide are tragically common across Latin America, some of the highest levels being in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In contrast to Uruguay, the violence in many of these countries is met with impunity by the state, entangled as it is with other issues like drug trafficking and gang violence.
However, the fact that thirty-five women have been murdered in less than a year in a peaceful, progressive country of 3 million sets off a different alarm bell. Clearly, despite best efforts, Uruguay is falling short when it comes to reaching those hardest to reach, in particular women living in rural areas.
In the run-up to November 25th, I met with July Zabaleta, the director of the Interior Ministry's Gender Policies Division. The section's main responsibility is ensuring a clear policy on GBV in the police force and training police staff to handle and respond to cases.
Whilst the number of reported cases of domestic violence is at its highest in Montevideo and the nearby department of Canelones, July affirmed that women living in rural areas are those "who have been perpetually abandoned by the system. If you live in the countryside, all you'll find is one detachment with one police officer. Although we can train that police officer, this is totally insufficient."
Gabriela Silva and her friend Gabriel Etchebarne were shot dead by Gabriela's ex-partner on November 5th in Paso de los Toros, a small town in northern Uruguay. She had reported being mistreated by him several times to the police. The nearest place she could have gone to seek legal advice, psychological support, anything beyond local authorities recording her case, was 140km away in the city of Tacuarembó.
I spoke with Nadia Barreto, a social worker and member of Un Paso hacia la Igualdad, a nonprofit collective that is accompanying Gabriela's eleven-year-old daughter in the absence of any formal support from the state. She told me that "women who are victims [of violence] here don't have access to the necessary services. Cases are reported to the Interior Ministry's specialist GBV unit and then taken straight to court. There is no multidisciplinary team to deal with the different aspects of her case."
Multidisciplinary teams in this context refer to different services and institutions working together to respond more efficiently to victims of GBV. A woman suffering from domestic violence typically requires a number of different services in addition to police action, amongst them psychological support, legal advice and physical healthcare. Subsequently, the ideal scenario is that there is a good referral system and all implicated professionals work together in a coordinated manner rather than each dealing with their separate piece of the puzzle.
Nadia and Un Paso hacia la Igualdad believe that Gabriela's death could have been prevented had there been such a coordinated response in place. Their public statement issued after her death underscores the importance of multidisciplinary teams and the need for the state to, when devising public policies, "think in terms of the whole territory and not focus resources on departmental cities alone."
July Zabaleta signalled several challenges to making this vision a reality, amongst them funding restrictions and, more significantly, finding ways of motivating families in rural areas to participate in activities raising awareness of GBV:
"These are people who work long hours and who depend entirely on the work they do. So it isn't as easy as just creating a structure and people will automatically go there. It's also a question of the people being open to you being there."
"Change is not automatic", July continued, and "whilst we do a lot of work to empower women we have fallen short in the work we do with men".
Although the priority is responding to the immediate needs of women, July emphasised the need to keep promoting "new masculinities": relationships between the sexes based on "autonomy, freedom and tolerance". She also highlighted better reintegration of ex domestic violence offenders as something of paramount importance.
GBV is the ugliest, most demeaning manifestation of gender inequality. Uruguay is a country that proves case in point that responding effectively to an issue as complex and deeply rooted as this requires so much more than services. It is also a question of changing cultures and mindsets.