Sunday, August 31, 2008

Trouble in Paradise: Domestic Violence in Costa Rica

Globally, as women mobilize to fight gender-based violence they garner support and protection even in extremely hostile and difficult circumstances to overcome violence. Sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and stalking are only a few of the forms of gender-based violence that women are subjected to around the world. Some gender-based violence reflects patriarchal notions that view women as male’s property, less valued and therefore inferior to males. Other causes of gender based violence point to global capitalism’s commodification of the bodies and labor of women and children. Worldwide, flourishing markets in adult entertainment and pornography exploit women and children’s bodies, thus appropriating them for the pleasure of mostly male clientele. Additionally, culturally specific forms of violence victimize women and include some of the following: female circumcision in Africa and the Middle East; honor killings most frequently in India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Iraq and Iran; trokosi in Ghana, dowry deaths in India and rape in the United States, England and South Africa.
Globally, women and their male allies have been working to name these acts of violence against women as criminal acts, punishable by law. In some instances they have accomplished the difficult task of elevating gender-based violence from an “individual” problem to a “social problem,” thus bringing it out of the purview of the private sector into the public arena. These 1997 statistics speak to both the successes and the tenuous progress in overcoming this social problem:
• Legal protection against violence against women has occurred in only ¼ of all counties in the world
• Only 44 countries world wide have laws against violence toward women
• Only 27 countries have laws against sexual harassment
• Only 17 countries have marital rape laws

Gender-based violence restricts women’s contributions and their abilities to live full and productive lives, thus negatively impacting their familial, societal and economic development. Additionally, gender-based violence often leads to the disintegration of families, medical problems, inability to fulfill employment obligations and even loss of life. For the purpose of this paper gender based violence is defined as follows:
any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. Violence against women shall be understood to encompass but not be limited to: physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and in the community, including battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence, violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the State.

Domestic Violence in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, domestic violence, prostitution and sex trafficking constitute the most egregious human rights violations against women.
The Costa Rican government identified domestic violence against women and children as a serious societal problem. The National Institute for Women (INAMU), an autonomous institution created in 1998, and dedicated to gender equality, received 63,990 calls on its domestic abuse hot line from January through October. During this same period, INAMU counseled 4,097 female victims of abuse in its San Jose office (the capital of Costa Rica) and accepted 194 women in INAMU-run shelters. INAMU maintained 41 offices in municipalities around the country and had trained personnel working in 32 of the country’s 81 cantons. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Domestic Violence and Sexual Crimes prosecuted 448 cases related to domestic violence during the year, compared with 456 cases in 2001. INAMU reported that 24 women were killed in incidents of domestic violence during the year, compared with 11 in 2001.

Public Policy Legislation in Costa Rica
The 1996 Law Against Domestic Violence established precautionary measures to help victims of domestic violence. The Legislative Assembly enacted a Bill to Qualify Violence Against Women as a Crime, which classified certain acts of domestic violence as crimes and mandated their prosecution whether or not the victim pursued charges against the perpetrator. The authorities incorporated training on handling domestic violence cases into the basic training course for new police personnel. The domestic violence law now requires public hospitals to report cases of domestic violence against women. It also denies the perpetrator possession of the family home in favor of the victim. Television coverage of this issue increased in news reporting, public service announcements, and feature programs. Reports of violence against women increased, possibly reflecting a greater willingness of victims to report abuses rather than an actual increase in instances of violence against women.

As an African American female, I am interested in the affects of domestic violence and what if any services are available to women in Limon, a town where the largest population of AfroCaribbeans reside, in addition to the nearby town of Puerto Viejo. In 1996 the black population of the province of Limon was 62,094. The total population of Costa Rica is 3,202,440. Males comprise 1,604,305 and females, 1,598,135. While no accurate statistics are available on the black population, statistics from 1984 estimated them at 58,666 or 1.9% of the total population.

How this Issue Informs My Ministry
Much of my life and now my ministry have been informed by my advocacy to eliminate violence against women and children. I was personally motivated to understand family violence, an issue that affected my own family, as it does so many others. Thus, I use my personal and professional experiences in my ministry of interfaith social justice to challenge the pervasive silence that continues to exist around societal violence.

Afro Costa Ricans
As an African American womanist theologian, I seek to understand the plight of oppressed peoples and how to minister to them using an integrated approach combining my pastoral, social justice and prophetic voice.
My research in Costa Rica indicates that Limon is the home to the majority of the country’s 100,000 Afro Costa Ricans that are located on the Caribbean Coast. These English speaking descendants of 19th century Black Jamaican immigrant workers came voluntarily to Limon to work on the construction of the railroad. This was in contrast to their descendents that were brought to Jamaica as slaves primarily from Ghana during the 19th century. While Afro Costa Ricans enjoy full rights of citizenship, including the protection of laws against racial discrimination, as racial minorities they are often underserved and under represented in all spheres of society. Oppressed peoples lives are often invisible to the majority and certainly to mainstream researchers. Using postcolonial feminist theory I ask not only who is missing in the research but I assume that certain power dynamics exist that impact the lives of historically marginalized peoples. Evidence of such inequities are confirmed in the person of the previous President of Costa Rica, Miguel Angel Rodriguez. Rodriquez publicly apologized at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa held August 31-September 7, 201 for past injustices committed against AfroCosta Ricans (as well as to the 64,000 indigenous peoples and the 8,000 Chinese in Costa Rica). Some critics assert these injustices continue today.
My preliminary research findings indicate that there is little mention in the literature about domestic violence among Afro-Caribbean women in Costa Rica. However, a review of Afro-Caribbeans reveals a vicious cycle with limited access to goods, services, and opportunities. Low education and labor market discrimination have resulted in high unemployment and further marginalization. One can draw conclusions from research findings on child abuse such as that conducted with 50 children in Limon and 50 in San Jose:
The majority of the young people come from poor homes characterized by family violence. Their rights have been violated since their earliest childhood, especially
those relating to parental protection and care, protection against all forms of abuse
and protection against the use of drugs and illegal substances. In addition, the lack
of government interventions exacerbates the problem.

The limited criminal justice capacity in Costa Rica makes it even more unlikely that
instances of domestic violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Many judges retain traditional notions of family patriarchy and therefore are unwilling to intervene in domestic violence cases. A a result, only 20% of requests made for protection nationally are resolved in favor of the applicant. Many of the women murdered in the past have had protective orders.
AfroCaribbean women’s oppression in Costa Rica is not merely limited to stereotypes
and discrimination but they also represent the poorest of the poor. Thus, the feminization of poverty is particularly evident among AfroCaribbean women in Limon. We can intuit that these same women suffer from the violence reflected in the larger society that is so prominent in poor segments of the population whether we have research to substantiate it or not. Extrapolating from information is sometimes a beginning. Of four countries recently surveyed, Australia, Mozambique, Costa Rica and Switzerland, Costa Rica had the highest lifetime levels of overall domestic violence and the highest levels of sexual violence. More than 90% of the women reported being raped by their husbands.
Epsy Campbell Barr, founder and director of Afro-Costa Rican Women Organization founded in 1995 contends that since the time of the trans-Atlanta slave trade, Afro descendants in the Americas have been subjected to various forms of exclusion and racism. Women of African descent have also faced sexism that has prevented them from accessing the technical and political tools necessary to develop personally and as effective leaders of their communities.
This research allowed me to identify some of the barriers to safety such as poverty, social marginalization, deterioration of public facilities and to tap the voices of women like Barr that are working with women to shift the tide of violence and discrimination.

During our visit to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica my daughter, Kaleema contacted a local attorney that has been doing some human rights work. See below the pictures I took when I accompanied Kaleema to Angie's office.

Local Attorney, Angie

Kaleema meeting with Angie to talk about what is going on in the area and her involvement.

L-R Angie and Kaleema

L-R Qiyamah and Angie

1 comment:

zakia said...

Peace Qiyamah! I found your blog post when doing some research about Afro-Costa Rican women. I'm a Black feminist poet studying poetry and literary translation in graduate school, and I'll be traveling to Costa Rica in two weeks with my partner. Among other things, I'd love to connect with some Black women in Puerto Limon, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo. My attempts at finding the Afro-Costa Rican Women's network/org have been fruitless. I'd love to talk with you (or email!) about your experience in Costa Rica, if you have some time. I know its short notice, but please let me know if you can spare the time or at least pass along some contacts at your earliest convenience. I'm at 917.561.8642/ All the best!