By Kristiana Carden
She was seven months pregnant and just 19 years old. The men performed a crude cesarean section and killed her, then took the baby. Her body was burned to conceal her identity.
The most horrendous part, though, is that the authorities in Guatelama didn’t seem to care.
The faceless young woman was a victim of femicide – the killing of women, just because they are women, by men. The practice often includes cutting out women’s wombs, removing their breasts and raping them before death, Norma Cruz, an internationally known human rights activist, said last week at VCU.
“The man who puts one finger on a woman is going to prison; we are going to bring him to justice,” she said at a lecture titled “Stop Femicide Now!”
Cruz is the cofounder and director of the Survivor’s Foundation in Guatemala. She investigates cases of femicide and works with women who have been attacked or abused. In 2009, Cruz was Guatemala’s Person of the Year and received an International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Femicide is most prevalent in Latin America, Cruz said. Sometimes husbands are the aggressors, but often, the murders result from random kidnappings.
Cruz said judges usually dismiss the deaths of women in party outfits as sex-work-related. One law student’s rape case was not thoroughly prosecuted because she had a navel piercing. Authorities often assume that women with tattoos have been in gangs.
“If you don’t come home, you might be called – and this is the nice word – a prostitute, because you were wearing nail polish,”said Karen Smith Rotabi, an assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work.
Violence against women is disturbingly common: 5,000 women in Guatemala have been killed in the past decade. Newspapers often print tally boxes in the corner of a page to keep count of the femicide casualties each day.
Only 2 or 3 percent of criminals are ever brought to any sort of justice for their offenses, because judges rarely side with women, Cruz said.
She described one case in which a woman was shot 16 times; the judge said it was better than just being shot once or twice because the victim was certain to be dead.
In another case Cruz handled, a woman’s husband attempted to stab her, but the judge said the victim had to pay her husband’s bail in order to keep him from getting angry. The husband returned six months later to kill the woman and their children.
The chain of violence continues in part because survivors rarely speak up. Cruz said she and her team recently tracked down two serial rapists, one of whom had raped more than 700 women. Only 12 of the victims had filed reports.
Social work student Priscilla Witwer reminded the audience of the scale of this situation.
“If in this moment, you feel uncomfortable, disturbed, saddened, outraged – good,” she said.
Many of Cruz’s examples were disturbing indeed. She cited a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped on her way to the store. The teenager was forced into prostitution for 85 days, with a minimum quota of seven men per day. During this time, she contracted three sexually transmitted diseases.
Cruz has put her own life in danger trying to stop the violence. Her house is secured by armed guards, and she frequently receives telephone death threats.
“This is the unfortunate reality of human rights workers around the world,” said Ann Nichols-Casebolt, dean of the VCU School of Social Work
Cruz spoke at the Pace Center, a campus ministry program at VCU. Her lecture was sponsored by La Milpa: Guatemala Interest Group, the Highland Support Project Club and VCU’s Institute for Women’s Health, School of Social Work and Office of International Education.
For more information about Norma Cruz and femicide, see: