When Institutions Fail to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

SANTIAGO – According to data from the Chilean network against violence toward women, 10 women have been femicide victims so far this year. In 2020, 1.1 women were killed every week due to domestic violence in the country, and although figures are lower than the rest of South America, the legal system and police sometimes fail to safeguard victims. 

Chilean law defines a femicide as “the murder of a woman by someone who is or has been her spouse or domestic partner,” and sentences for those who are found guilty of femicide range from 15 years to life imprisonment. The law stems from the fact that 80 percent of domestic violence victims in the country are women, and, in 80 percent of cases, the perpetrators are men. Enforcement, however, has been problematic with institutions like the police, the prosecution service, and even the state’s Women’s and Equal Rights Ministry that cannot cope with the high number of cases.

The Argentinian Ni Una Menos (not one [woman] less) movement that spread to Chile in 2016 prompted demonstrations against gender-based violence, but lawmaking has been slow, too, and state agencies have failed to address the issue and offer the right support to victims.

Victims of domestic violence can report incidents to police or the prosecution service, and the government has a helpline to support victims, but victims sometimes find hurdles in the process, where their accounts of events are dismissed by police officers, with their attackers roaming free and able to assault them all over again; in some cases, help from authorities comes too little too late, and the victim is killed. In May 2019, news emerged about a woman who tried to report her husband to the police in Puente Alto, and was told by a police officer “to listen to him (her husband)” and questioned for refusing “to work on their relationship.”

Also read:

Femicide in Chile: These ten women were killed in 2019

A study by the Chilean network against violence toward women indicated that 81 percent of women had a negative perception of police when they tried to report domestic violence. Among their findings, one the respondents said, “It took me two years to report it, since I feared my ex-partner, I only did it recently because he tried to get in touch with me again. The response from the police was: ‘why did you take so long? Well, and if you wanted to do something you should have done it before … block him, that way you can avoid getting in touch with him.’ ” The investigation also suggests that these situations with police happen regardless of the gender of the officers, with policewomen showing the same level of apathy as their male colleagues.

Flaws in the Legal System

Once police have processed a domestic abuse complaint, family court tribunals in Chile will often issue a restraining order against the perpetrator. However, with limited resources, police do not always check on victims. In March 2019, Mónica Paillacar was strangled by her ex in Calbuco, despite a restraining order against him. According to official figures, one-third of femicide victims in 2018 had reported domestic violence to the authorities.

Moreover, legislation in Chile offers protection to current and previous spouses or partners, and only extends to ex-boyfriends when the couple have had children. The law also covers physical, verbal, sexual and economic abuse. Nonetheless, victims sometimes fear they will not be heard, causing them not to report it.

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