Latin American Feminists Rising Up Against Violence. The International Community Should Join Them.

In February, Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved an increase in prison sentences for gender-based killings and sexual abuse of minors.

The legislation follows intense protests after the gruesome murders of Ingrid Escamilla and Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett weeks earlier.

Participant at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Riviera Maya, Mexico 2015.(World Economic Forum / Creative Commons)

While the bill is a welcome step to curb the rising tide of gender-based killings in Mexico and across Latin America, governments must do more to fulfill their obligations under international law.

The murders of Escamilla and Aldrighett are exemplary of the brutality and dehumanization of femicide—the killing of women on the basis of their gender. Ingrid was stabbed, skinned and disemboweled, while Fatima was mutilated then wrapped in plastic and dumped near a construction site. 

Femicide is not merely a codification of all female murder victims. Rather, it is limited to those that show signs of gendered violence—such as those who suffered sexual assault or had a personal relationship with the perpetrator.

If the victim was chosen because of the gender roles women are perceived or expected to inhabit, it should be understood as femicide.

Since 2007, at least 18 Latin American countries, including Mexico, have amended their penal codes to specifically criminalize gender-based killings. Despite these formal legal prohibitions, in practice, femicides are still committed with impunity and are on the rise in many countries.

More than 50 femicides were reported in Latin America within the first two weeks of 2020 alone.

Criminalization without changes to prevention and punishment efforts on the ground is insufficient for countries to meet their obligations under international law.

The committee for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—an international treaty—has explicitly stated that gender-based violence, including femicide, is an extreme form of discrimination that is prohibited under CEDAW. Countries have a responsibility to prohibit and eliminate discrimination. This can come in the form of both disparate treatment and disparate impact. In other words, failure to adequately investigate or prosecute femicide, as well as unequal justice and accountability for women, both constitute discrimination under international law.

Femicide also constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of life in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) because discrimination is inherently arbitrary. ICCPR also places obligations on countries to ensure equal protection of the law. Gender-based killings that, by their nature, occur only against women must not be subject to limitations in legal and judicial systems that do not apply in similar cases against men.

In cases where the means are particularly brutal, causing “severe pain or suffering,” femicide can meet the international definition of torture. Torture is distinguished from other acts intentionally causing suffering by the requirement of a specific unlawful purpose. The Convention Against Torture identifies discrimination as one such purpose.

Latin American countries have almost universally ratified the relevant treaties and are thus bound to uphold their obligations.

National governments must not only refrain from violating the rights to non-discrimination, life and freedom from torture. They must also take all reasonable and effective measures to prevent non-state actors from doing so.

International law has defined this due diligence to include legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures. It requires the effective investigation and prosecution of these acts, as well as equitable sentencing. 

Feminists in Mexico accuse the police of failing to prioritize violence against women. In the particular case of Ingrid’s murder, protesters expressed outrage that the grisly images of her body were leaked to news outlets. Some in the region have reported an inadequate gathering of evidence in cases of gender-based violence. The failure of the judicial system to provide justice to these victims is embodied in one statistic shared by Alejandro Hope, a political science professor: Only 1 in 10 cases of homicides of women result in a guilty verdict.

In addition to being a substantive form of discrimination, violence against women is also a symptom of broader structural inequalities. To meaningfully address the spike in femicides, countries must also tackle socioeconomic disparity, barriers to political participation, and cultural attitudes. 

Latina feminist activists have poured onto the streets to challenge government and police officials for their failure to protect women from this lethal discrimination. Pointing to the misogynist and machismo institutions, they have made clear that their inaction is complicity.

The international community must lift these voices and hold governments accountable to their obligations to protect the rights to life, equality and freedom from torture.


Danielle Hites is the Staff Attorney at the Global Justice Center. She previously worked with the Alliance for Rule of Law Promotion and Alternative Dispute Resolution, the International Justice Resource Center, Lawyers for Human Rights and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. Danielle received her J.D. with a concentration in international law from Boston University and holds a B.A. in Psychology from Suffolk University.