Violence against women has become a focal concern for international organizations such as the United Nations (2005) and the World Health Organization (2005). Due to this international focus, cultural issues have taken a central role in understanding factors that contribute to violence against women in various countries. Violence against women has been shown to frequently occur in the home and/or be committed by someone closely known to the victim (Walker 1999). This phenomenon is one of the strongest common factors recognized among a wide range of cultures (Walker 1999). Within many Latin American cultures the occurrence of domestic violence has been shown to be fairly frequent (World Health Organization 2005). It has been found in almost thirty nations in this region of the world (Creel 2005). Despite the fact that many Latin American countries have passed laws against domestic violence, it would appear that the victims are not well served in this region of the world (Creel 2005). Likewise, a substantial amount of survey research has been conducted in various Latin American countries and it has been found that roughly 10 to 50 percent of women in Latin America report being physically assaulted by their male partner (Creel 2005). It is with this in mind that this research paper will provide an examination of the various cultural aspects specific to Latino families faced with domestic violence while at the same time providing a brief comparison of selected Latin American countries to demonstrate several common beliefs produced by the cultural underpinnings shared among these nations (Hanser 2001). Although each of these nations has its own distinct history of cultural development, there are several commonalities that exist among many Latin American countries (Hanser 2001).
Spanish is, of course, the commonly shared language among Latinos (except for Brazilians, who typically speak Portuguese), and most subscribe to the Roman Catholic Church (Garcia-Preto 1996a). There is also an emphasis on spiritual values and an expressed willingness to sacrifice material satisfactions for spiritual goals. Moreover, the concepts of machismo and marianismo are common social constructs in many Latin American cultures; these two constructs serve to organize gender roles for both males and females within a primarily patriarchal value system (Garcia-Preto 1996a, 1996b). In the United States, machismo has a negative connotation and is used to describe sexist behavior of Latino men (Garcia-Preto 1996a). Culturally, however, machismo emphasizes self-respect and responsibility for protecting and providing for the family (Garcia-Preto 1996a). But this value can become negative when it leads to possessive demands and expectations that absolute authority be given to the man. This machismo also holds that a man must always be ready for sex and must possess a great deal of sexual prowess (Garcia- Preto 1996a, 1996b). In many Latin American countries, the male head of the household is expected to protect the females of the house, while the female members are expected to play a subservient role in relation to the male family head (Shusta, Levine, Harris, and Wong 2005).
It should also be noted that in nations such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Colombia, citizens are frequently traumatized by guerilla warfare and political strife (Shusta et al. 2005). This has a significant impact on the behavior of both men (affecting their levels of aggressive response to environmental stressors) and women (who often present with symptoms of trauma, some profound enough to be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder) in these war-torn nations. Likewise, the violence associated with wartime rape and other atrocities have been reported in these countries, and this creates a landscape of violence that essentially minimizes the effects of internal family violence that may occur in these Latin American nations.
In addition, there is a social paradox in that female virginity is highly valued in many Latin cultures and it is up to the man to protect the honor of female family members (Garcia-Preto 1996b). Naturally, the effects of wartime rape have impacted this value system and the status of women in affected families. Traditionally, in many Latino cultures, if a woman has sex before marriage, she will lose the respect of others and bring dishonor to herself and to her family (Garcia-Preto 1996b). This cultural distinction between donas (ladies) and putas (whores) has been very concrete (Garcia-Preto 1996b). Thus again, the effects of wartime rape on girls and women living within the family systems of these countries lay the groundwork for blame and justification of abuse among the male figures of the family, while also bringing a sense of shame to the men who could not protect the female members of their families more adequately.
Perhaps the most significant value these nations share is the importance of family unity, welfare, and honor (Garcia-Preto 1996a, 1996b). In this respect, there is a strong emphasis on the group rather than the individual. In many Latin cultures, social interactions are guided by the concept of personalismo, which means that relationships are more important than accomplishments (Garcia- Preto 1996a, 1996b). This results in a deep sense of family commitment, obligation, and responsibility. In fact, the family is responsible for protection and caretaking for life, provided the person remains a member of the family system. The family is an extended system that includes not only blood and marriage relations, but even compadres (godparents) and hijos de crianza (adopted children); this is regardless of legal custody considerations by the godparents or legal adoption arrangements for the children (Garcia-Preto 1996b). Similarly, caring for hijos de crianza is a practice whereby children are transferred from one family system to another within the social network during times of crisis (Garcia-Preto 1996b). This practice is not considered neglectful and has been observed in cases where problems with family violence are experienced. Strong religious values that hold marital unions to be absolute, and Latino cultural values that hold family cohesion as paramount, have created great difficulty for many victims of domestic violence who might wish to leave abusive relationships. This has likewise provided a facade behind which the true nature and extent of such violence has remained hidden within many of these nations.
Domestic Violence in Chile
In Chile, domestic violence advocates contend that the country’s culture has fostered, even supported outright, domestic violence against women (McWhirter 1999). Machismo, alcoholism, and a prevailing social permissiveness toward family violence have perpetuated a virtual disintegration of relationships between spouses and other family members (McWhirter 1999). In the Chilean belief system, it is commonly held that a man may appropriately demonstrate expressions of love through violent acts (McWhirter 1999). Further, Chilean women typically define themselves in terms of their relationships to others, performing socially prescribed roles that often involve service to others (i.e., cooking and cleaning). Therefore, a woman’s self-worth is based on how well she fulfills her relationship role with others (McWhirter 1999). Because of the acceptance of male-initiated violence, and because a woman’s self-worth is so closely attached to her perceived success in maintaining domestic relationships, there remain few options by which women can evade domestic violence perpetrated against them.
These cultural factors were intensified during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973–1990), which began with the overthrow of the democratically elected government (McWhirter 1999). This regime was responsible for state-sponsored violence that often included the sexual abuse and exploitation of women (McWhirter 1999). Since women were seen as central to family cohesion, the torture of these women was intended to disjoint dissident families (McWhirter 1999). Brutal violence, including that against women, has been accommodated within the Chilean culture (McWhirter 1999). Due to this accommodation to violence, and since men are viewed as the authority figure within the home, women and children are at high risk for domestic violence within Chilean homes (McWhirter 1999).
Domestic Violence in Mexico
As is the case with many Latino cultures, norms in Mexican society tend to connect machismo with male identity. Affiliation and cooperation are stressed within Mexican families, and clear hierarchies are supported within the family system (Falicov 1996). This hierarchy is based on a patriarchal formation of gender roles, with gender double standards being replete throughout Mexican society (Falicov 1996; Carrillo and Goubaud-Reyna 1998). Social status for a woman rises when she becomes a mother, making a woman’s identity all the more dependent upon her family relationships (Falicov 1996). Another similarity between Mexican culture and other Latino cultures is the fact that Roman Catholicism provides continuity for the vast majority of families (Falicov 1996). For many of these followers, Catholicism is a private affair centered on marriage and fertility, the sanctity of mothers, etc., with guilt and shame about sinful acts or thoughts being common inner experiences (Falicov 1996). This results in a bonding agent that essentially glues women into the family structure. Mexican batterers, on the other hand, have been reported to frequently engage in excessive drinking that is highly correlated with abusive behavior (Carrillo and Goubaud-Reyna 1998).
The image of the Latino male as authoritarian, drunk, and womanizing is espoused through many Mexican cultural proverbs, songs, and the media, especially telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas) (Carrillo and Goubaud-Reyna 1998). These social messages tend to reinforce the double standard that Mexican batterers often expect (Carrillo and Goubaud-Reyna 1998). Though the values of machismo emphasize positive aspects such as loyalty, respectability, integrity, courage, and responsibility to family, the social role likewise provides Mexican men with a rationale to engage in behaviors that demonstrate their authority and dominance within the family (Carrillo and Goubaud-Reyna 1998). This translates into the use of violence as a legitimate means for Mexican batterers to maintain command, respect, and obedience from family members. For women who are in such abusive families, family expectations shaped by cultural and religious beliefs ensure that most will succumb to such abuse.
Evidence of these dynamics of family violence in Mexican culture was found in a 2004 study in Mexico conducted by Collado (2005). Collado sought to examine the dynamics of domestic violence in rural areas of Mexico. This type of research is fairly important for two reasons. First, the rural parts of Mexico tend to be the areas where old patriarchal values are most strongly adhered to, thus exacerbating power dynamics associated with domestic violence. Second, it is in the rural parts of Mexico that domestic violence is less frequently reported to (and thus detected by) Mexican police. This study investigated three different rural communities and sought to determine the means by which social control was used with women (Collado 2005). It examined other corollary factors such as coping strategies, the availability and use of social support, and other forms of adaptation used by women who are involved in violent intimate relationships (Collado 2005). This study confirmed that these communities maintain very strict and traditional gender roles that hinge on the division of labor in and out of the home. According to Collado, the main factors associated with domestic violence were alcoholism, community gossip, the male partner’s infidelity, lack of economic resources, and the failure of women to fulfill expectations associated with traditional general roles.
Legal Reforms in Costa Rica
It should be noted that there are legal and judicial reforms occurring throughout various countries in Latin America. Due to substantial civil unrest and corresponding sexual violence toward women by various guerilla factions, media attention is increasingly focused on violence against women in these regions. Further still, there is a slow movement toward acknowledging the rights of women in many Latin American countries. For example, in Costa Rica, the Law against Domestic Violence, passed in 1996, provides for protective measures that are enforced without the need for full criminal or civil proceedings (Creel 2001). This law targets anyone who inflicts psychological, physical, or sexual violence on any relative. The perpetrator may be ordered out of the home and restricted from having access to the victim (Creel 2001). The perpetrator is also banned from caring for or raising children and is not allowed to possess weapons. Additionally, he may be ordered to pay for family support despite his mandated separation from the family. In 1996 alone, over 7,000 legal cases involving domestic violence were reported (Creel 2001). Further, Costa Rica has created a forum known as the National Plan to Treat and Prevent Intra- Family Violence (Creel 2001). This initiative seeks to provide for an integrated set of services and interventions available to victims of domestic violence. This initiative has succeeded in raising public awareness and sensitivity to domestic violence issues and has provided for numerous shelters and crisis hotline services (Creel 2001). Training of professionals and conducting research on domestic violence are also included in this initiative (Creel 2001).
Latino nations have many common connections among their cultural dynamics. Among these connections, a history of Spanish colonization, Roman Catholicism, family codes of loyalty, and gender role expectations seem most pronounced. Each of these common aspects serves as a potential explanation for much of the domestic violence that occurs against women within these cultures. On one hand, these norms and mores hold many positive functions within these societies. On the other hand, and in a paradoxical sense, these cultural belief systems elevate one half of the society while potentially subjugating the other half through a system of patriarchy that can entrap women in abusive family relationships. The social changes that many developing Latino cultures experience have led to an increased awareness of women’s rights in this region. Though many countries in Latin America have laws against domestic violence, and social reforms are still in the beginning stages, it is nevertheless encouraging to see that cultural change is directed toward the ultimate eradication of domestic violence. These changes reflect the growing global sentiments as the rights of women and children are brought into primary focus around the world.
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