The Centre for Gender Rights and Equality has described “gender-based violence” as violence against a person because of their gender. It includes acts which are threatening to the safety, freedom and autonomy of a person, especially women’s and girls’, since it violates human rights and prevents their full participation in society and prevents them from fulfilling their potential as human beings. One person who has been leading the charge in this area recently is Ms Heleni Manolas, an international relations student (with a minor in gender relations) and gender-based violence activist. Ms Manolas sat down with Loop News this week to discuss the status of gender-based violence in Panama and why a heated debate is taking place there now.
What’s happening in Panama?
The recent events in Panama leading up to the discussion is the “disappearance of 15 girls” and the lack of seriousness that appears to be attached to the issue, according to Manolas.
An example of this indifference is the reaction by Panama authorities implying recently that some of the women are not really missing but, instead, have gone off the radar because they are dealing with “relationship problems.”
According to Manolas, this reaction by Panama officials speaks to the status of gender-based violence in Panama and how its manifestation is not acknowledged or taken seriously in Panama.
Manifestation of gender-based violence in Panama
In terms of manifestation, gender-based violence can take many forms, including domestic violence, exploitation of young women and femicide. In the case of Panama, Manolas says that domestic violence is one of the biggest issues (the most impacted, in some cases, being indigenous women in Panama).
The problem, according to Manolas, is that, while some legislation is in place to protect women and girls, the legislation is not enforced. Such enforcement appears to be absent for many reasons, including to reportedly protect some offenders who are high ranking members or society. Manolas gave an example of this happening in real time, in the form of an incident reported recently in Panama involving an official and young girl.
Recently, a police officer was reportedly caught with a 16 year-old in a hotel room and the authorities referred to it as a “complex incident”… well, it is not complex because the law says that someone less than 18 years old cannot consent.
Referring to the incident as “complex” in this event may be a way for authorities and some in the media to “downplay” the seriousness of the issue or, put another way, to “turn a blind eye” to what is actually a questionable set of circumstances.
Adding to this “complexity” is the situation some women experience when they actually make it as far as the court room to defend a case like this. Accounts suggest that some women in this situation are “looked down upon” by male judges or “blamed” for being in the situation as the women somehow “contributed” to the series of events leading up to a violent event, either based on how the women were dressed or misinterpreted signals that they “gave” to unwanted males.
The other issue, in Manolas’ view, is that, generally speaking, gender-based violence is not taken seriously by society as a whole, the outcome of which is that the reports of women and girls are either not believed or women and girls are deemed contributors to the set of circumstances or otherwise judged by family members rather than assisted by family members.
Also impacting society’s stance on gender-based violence is the acceptance of sexism as a norm in Latin America.
“Latin America is sexist a place and we have to be honest about it if we are going to resolve the issue,” Manolas said.
Appreciating the combination of these societal, cultural and legal issues (which are all in play at the same time), the resolutions to the gender based violence issue is much more of a challenge than Manolas may have calculated.
One of the reasons for this is the lack of women in the parliament of Panama who can contribute to the discussion of gender-based violence and the need for more enforcement. In fact, Panama’s progress in this area when measured against the UN Sustainable Goals is slim as the UN yardstick shows that Panama’s parliament is only made up of 22 per cent of women.
While this percentage of female representation should be higher, Manolas aptly pointed out that “women in parliament are not just there to address women’s issues,” however.
In making this comment, Manolas brought attention to an interesting point that, while women in politics may add some colour to gender-based violence and other issues affecting women, either because of their direct experiences or experiences of family or friends, women are also in parliament to contribute to a variety of other issues that are materially important to the country and which are in the best interests of the country. So, notwithstanding that increased female parliamentary representation is desired by many people, the assumption by some people that female parliamentarians will “mainly or solely discuss women’s issues” is misplaced and uninformed.
In connection with the way forward, Manolas offered some suggestions, one of which is “the provision of sensitivity training” and “workshops” for as many people as possible, especially laypersons.
The outcomes of such training, according to Manolas, would include raising public awareness of the issues surrounding gender-based violence, how to identify it, report and prevent it. It may also improve the environment for some women who wish to talk about the issue but who are afraid of being judged for being a victim of gender-based violence.
Manolas is hopeful that positive discussions will continue and action will be taken sooner rather than later by Panama authorities.