Picture this: Gorgeous women dressed in sequin gowns line up on stage. One by one, they step up to the microphone and introduce themselves.
“My name is Camila Canicoba, and I represent the department of Lima. My measurements are: 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country,” says the first.
“My name is Karen Cueto, and I represent Lima and my measurements are 82 femicides and 156 attempted femicides so far this year,” says the second.
No, this isn’t a UN Women gala. It’s the 2017 Miss Peru pageant. In a surprising twist, the 23 contestants broke the tradition of revealing their measurements (bust, waist, and hip) to announce far more important numbers: the statistics on violence against women in their homeland.
The numbers are easy to gloss over. (How many more women die in car crashes each year, you might ask.) True, statistics can come across as meaningless without the stories behind them, which is why the faces of battered women flashed behind the contestants as they spoke. But they didn’t end there. Each woman finished by answering the following: which law would they change to end violence against women?
Latin America's 'Woman' Problem
Pageant organizer Jessica Newton’s brilliant idea put women’s rights center stage and turned an old fashioned competition into a moment of solidarity. But why in Peru? And why now?
Violence against women occurs everywhere in world, but it's especially prevelant in Latin America. Up to 40% of women in the region have been victims of violence, and in Peru, that number rises to 47 percent, according to a 2009 Economic Commission of Latin America (ECLAC) report. And these acts of violence sometimes end in murder. Of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide, 14 are in Latin American and the Caribbean.
While the Peruvian contestants are right to challenge the law, sometimes law enforcement itself is the problem. In Guatemala, for example, 2,920 femicides were reports over a five year period, but only 184 arrests were made, leaving 94 percent of the cases unsolved. Until violence against women is taken seriously –and is successfully prosecuted, new legislation will do little to protect women. Police, judges, and social services must learn to recognize the impact of violence on women, and how it can (and often does) escalate to femicide.
This isn’t to say Latin American legislatures have ignored the problem. Countries throughout the region have passed harsher sentences for those convicted of domestic violence and femicide, but it will require societies as a whole to make it unacceptable.
Uruguay’s Innovative Answer
Uruguay launched a successful program that allows judges to order the abuser to wear an electronic band connected to an electronic device that the woman at risk carries. If the abuser comes closer, it automatically alerts the police. Both the victim and the abuser receive counseling. As of February 2017, not a single woman in the program has been killed. If this program continues to succeed, and can be replicated, it can drastically improve the lives of women escaping abuse, and help reform men who’ve been charged with abuse. But it would still be only one small step toward solving a long-standing problem.
There’s no quick and easy way to end violence against women in Latin America (or worldwide). It will take a combination of criminal legislation, the expansion of women’s rights, and societies’ views on the role of women. However, the Miss Peru contestants did the seemingly impossible: they turned participating in a beauty pageant into a feminist act, and spoke up about what needs to change. And it’s indicatives like these that can help keep women’s issue in the spotlight.