Gender and Health in Latin America: Interview, Violence Against Women (Uruguay)
Violence against women may take place within families as well as in settings outside of the domestic environment. Policy makers, academics, and activists have long sought to identify root causes of violence. These efforts have included strategies to help the victims of violence and to terminate violent behavior. Police stations staffed by women have been innovative testing grounds in some Latin American countries, thereby allowing women to report violent acts to female members of the force. While it seems plausible that female victims of violence might find it easier to talk to women about their experiences, this approach isolates the issues from main-stream police work and does not do enough to prompt long-term solutions.
In the following interview, an experienced self-help activist from Uruguay offers interpretations that might inspire the search for additional strategies. As the director of SOS Mujer, a sanctuary for women affected by violence, Lady Elizabeth Repetto gained firsthand insights into the horrors of everyday violence against women in Montevideo and she draws conclusions about the causes of such violence.
This source is a part of the Gender and Health in Latin America, 1980-2010 teaching module.
Lady Elizabeth Repetto (Uruguay)
Women against violence against women
When I read the name of your centre, SOS Mujer, over the entrance ,I was reminded of women’s refuges and emergency numbers with the same name in Europe, that work with battered women like you do. Is SOS Mujer founded in cooperation with feminists abroad?
No, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, because the name comes directly from the Spanish language and from our experiences here. SOS Mujer is a pun: on the one hand it means the well-known emergency S.O.S.; on the other hand, ‘sos’ comes from the verb ‘ser.’ (‘to be’) which in Uruguayan Spanish means ‘you are’. So SOS Mujer also means ‘you are a woman, be self-aware!’ It’s very important for battered women with little self-respect to grasp this. Our key task here at the centre is to try and instill self-awareness In the women. When a woman comes here and explains her problems, she’s obviously suffering from the beatings but she also feels guilty and worried about her children and even her husband; should she report him or get a divorce? Then he’d be alone without domestic support. What would become of him and his work? She always sees herself as the very last person to worry about. Women don’t dare think about themselves at all. We tell them: ‘You know, there are solutions and ways out. Above all, you yourself have a right to be happy. No one has the right to beat you or to hurt you.’ But this unsettles the women. They stress that they’re really not complaining and they’re doing all right, that it’s a question of protecting the happiness of the children. They don’t recognise that it’s important they should be happy in themselves. So I ask: ‘When did you last look in the mirror? When did you last wear make-up?’ and I sense confusion in the women: what kind of a question is that? A woman doesn’t have a right to that sort of thing. Even when she is sick, her husband comes and drags her out of bed to make him a meal.
How do women pluck up the courage to come to SOS Mujer?
Well, word’s got around that this centre exists. But clearly to come here is a giant step. Few women manage this step on their own, maybe none completely on their own. The more avenues of help, the better. In general they’re sent by a doctor, or by a neighbour, a social worker in a hospital, or they’ve heard about SOS Mujer on the radio. We don’t make any visits ourselves because when we did go into hospitals or visit women at home, we realised that after that the women didn’t dare take the step of coming to us. The fact that a woman actually comes into the centre shows that she at least wants to get out of her current situation.
I’d like to say something else to you about the term, ‘battered woman’. In our opinion ‘battered’ isn’t only related to physical blows. Battered women may have suffered all possible kinds of violence: mental, sexual and, strange as it may sound, economic violence. As the economic situation is very difficult in this country, men’s violence against women is often expressed through money. A woman with five children, for example, is in no position to work outside the home because she’s got nowhere to take the children. This woman is regarded as unemployed. Housework, washing, cooking, ironing, looking after the children, taking them to school, aren’t considered as ‘work’. So the only one who ‘works’ in the family is the husband. As a result he thinks he’s the only one who has rights and gives her 1,000 pesos to look after the children when she really needs at least 10,000 pesos. That’s violence, because the woman has to buy things on credit, borrow money elsewhere, or even skip meals. And as she doesn’t earn any money herself, she can’t buy herself any shoes or clothes, she can’t go to the hairdresser’s. She’s the maid in her own home, so to speak, without any rights of her own. That’s very very common. There are women who don’t know how much their husbands earn. They haven’t the slightest idea because they’ve never caught sight of one of his pay slips. If that’s not violence...
When was SOS Mujer founded?
We’ve been working since 1987 and were making plans and inquiries a year before that. We started off working with prostitutes who’d noticed how much their everyday life was affected by violence. The violence which came on the one hand from the men who sought their services and demanded God knows what from them, and on the other, from the pimps who stripped the money from their pockets. And then on top of that there was the violence they had to endure from the police. In our group we had a clear understanding of the violence prostitutes are exposed to, but we also began to realise that basically every woman can be exposed to this form of violence. We had a lot of discussions, made inquiries, visited hospitals. It quickly became clear that the problem was far more serious than we’d previously thought. And what was equally serious was that there wasn’t a single institution in the whole country that worked with battered women or was concerned with the issue of violence against women. As a result of this, those directly affected organised themselves and founded the Asociación de Meretrices Públicas Uruguayas (Uruguayan Prostitute’s Association), a sort of union. And we also started a working group focused on the issue of violence against women in general. We then got the chance to attend a series of lectures, given by people from the university of Buenos Aires which were sponsored by the Ministry of Public Culture and Education. We made contact with them and went to Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata to attend a meeting of forty women’s refuges. In Argentina they’ve had more experience of working in this area. Since Argentina and Uruguay are very similar when it comes to violence, we were able to adopt the same structure as they have, with individual advice for women, self-help groups, work with the children of battered wives, for our own work here.
So that’s how SOS Mujer was founded. When we first set it up we had no idea what we’d taken on. Some days we advise as many as six or seven women. And we know very well they’re only the tip of the iceberg. In November 1989, a woman who’d come to us for advice and help was murdered on the corner here. The attacker was her husband. The woman, Flor, lived here in this house. I must add, of course, that our centre here isn’t a women’s refuge.
What normally happens when a woman comes to you?
First we have preliminary interviews where we try to shed some light on her specific problems from as many viewpoints as possible. Some aspects are common to almost all cases. For example, in 95 per cent of cases the wife beater is the son of a wife beater, in other words, these men have already internalised beating as a form of expression. There’s, actually a typical profile of a wife beater. From the outside he’s a thoroughly nice man; he’s a good neighbour, a good work colleague, an excellent friend, a friendly, lovable person with charming manners. But he’s barely in the door before he starts harassing his wife. The only person he beats is his wife. We try to find out more details, such as whether there’s any alcoholism involved. There are lots of assumptions made about this. Many people believe a man beats his wife because he’s an alcoholic. That’s not true. A man beats his wife because he’s a violent person. Alcohol can be a trigger. But just look at how many alcoholics aren’t wife beaters and how many wife beaters aren’t alcoholics. We hear of many wife beaters who are thought of as nice chaps. Neighbours say he was always on his best behaviour, always ready to help at any given moment. Even the solicitors describe their clients like that.
Recently we hired a female solicitor for a woman who came to our centre. This solicitor was completely stunned. She had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. She neither knew that our institution existed nor that violence against women existed. ‘What worries me,’ she said, ‘is that the husband is such an exceptional person, so sweet-tempered, so gentle, so friendly...’ We showed her the documents we’d compiled against him. This was a man who was a wife beater and he came from a family in which there are other wife beaters. He was extremely aggressive. The solicitor’s eyes grew rounder and rounder. She couldn’t believe that the man who’d visited her and convinced her of his harmlessness and his exceptionally big heart was the same man we were discussing. This type of man can surprise even the likes of us, in spite of our experience.
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What happens after the preliminary interview?
It doesn’t stop at one interview. The SOS worker who held the initial conversation continues to see the woman once a week or once a fortnight. Parallel to that she encourages the woman to join in a self-help group. That’s our most important service because through the groups the women discover that they’re not alone and that other women have similar experiences. Through conversations and advice the women begin to help each other. Some want to take courses in handicrafts to make ends meet. We can also offer legal advice through a solicitor who works with us. If women want to instigate proceedings against their husbands with her help, then it’s almost free. This solicitor is an exception. In their training here solicitors aren’t usually prepared for the issue of ‘violence against women’ at all. At the university of Buenos Aires there’s an additional training course for law students on violence in the family. For the coming academic year we’ve made arrangements with the people from Buenos Aires for the introduction of a two-year course here at the university of Montevideo.
Very few people in Uruguay who meet battered wives in the course of their professional work - solicitors, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists - have any real grasp of the problem. They look down on the women. So we’ve come to the conclusion that the preliminary interviews with women who’ve come to us shouldn’t be conducted by these experts, as we initially thought. It turned out to be much better when a woman from our own group offered her services instead. The very first thing the women need is an atmosphere of sympathy and warmth. First of all, everything that’s oppressed the woman has to come out in the open without some analytical brain immediately sifting and ordering it all. They simply need someone to listen, believe them and give them sympathy. The experts haven’t been prepared for that in their training. From our past experiences we realised there were a lot of women who got stuck along the way and who didn’t come here anymore because they weren’t able to build up a relationship with the person who’d first advised them.
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Do you think official figures for abuse accurately reflect reality?
No, we reckon they only represent ten per cent of actual cases. Women don’t usually file a report and if they end up in hospital they don’t say exactly how they got hurt. They tend to go straight back to their old environment. And it seems that the police stations don’t keep records on the number of reports. They are only registered at the one station staffed by women which is in Montevideo.
Isn’t it a major step forward to have a police station staffed by women?
No, we’re really not very happy about it. Firstly, there’s only the one station which is right in the city centre and so it’s only used by a very small number of women. Most incidents occur in the outlying districts and late at night or at the weekend when the station is closed. It was set up about three years ago. I don’t know much about its background but the decision to have it was certainly not a particularly democratic one. CONAMU (National Women’s Council), the women’s group of the right-wing Colorado Party, which was the ruling party until the last elections, managed to persuade the minister for the interior to support their initiative. Those of us who’ve been involved with the issue of violence against women for four or five years now don’t believe a station like that is much use. … the women police officers at the station haven’t been trained at all for their special task. They’re just policewomen who work there and during the dictatorship some of them tortured and body-searched women whose husbands had been arrested.
Do you have any suggestions as to how this police station might be changed or what alternatives there might be?
In our experience there have to be people at every police station who’ve been specially trained to deal with abused women in the appropriate manner. If it’s policewomen, all the better, but I wouldn’t rule out men.
What’s Uruguayan legislation like in this regard?
The legislation has a lot of shortcomings. For example, violence against women is not a legal concept. In other words, it’s not a crime to hit a woman. So you always have to get round it by using related punishable offences. Family judges, some of whom are now women, have recently become more sensitive to the issue, but they still leave a great deal to be desired. One thing we’ve learnt is that there’s no solidarity among women. We women don’t simply feel solidarity towards each other just like that. A female judge doesn’t feel sympathetic per se towards a battered wife. It’s just the same with a female solicitor. She may even defend a wife beater at the expense of his wife. We’re simply victims of an upbringing which prevents solidarity. I don’t know if that’s the case in all countries. Groups like ours which work with women are still a relatively new concept here. We’ve realised we often have problems when we try to work together that men don’t have. It’s clear that group work is better with men than with women. I think it’s got something to do with upbringing. The little boy goes outside to play ball with his friends and lets others have a go too; when a little girl wants to go outside with her doll, her mother gives her strict instructions not to let it out of her hands and not to let anyone take it away from her. So we women are certainly more self-centred. In the Spanish-speaking world we’re always called ‘queen’, ‘queen of the home’, ‘queen of the kitchen, of washing, ironing’, whatever’s relevant. When we turn to less conventional tasks, we lack the ability for solidarity, tolerance and understanding. We still have a lot to learn in this respect. Incidentally, we aren’t the only ones to have these problems. You’ll find it’s the same for all women’s groups. That’s why they’re just as unstable as us. We women still have to learn to socialise with one another and develop a sense of solidarity between us.
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What effect has the economic crisis of the past few years had on violence against women?
We thought you’d somehow got more of a grip on the problem in the industrialised countries. But when for example, we talk to visitors from Sweden we realise the problem there is exactly the same and that the only difference is that there’s a better infrastructure in Sweden for women to use. So the crisis has exacerbated the lack of amenities rather than increased the actual number of acts of violence. Medical and psychological care is completely inadequate. Time and time again we’re asked; what actually happens to the offenders? There’s certainly not a single institution here which treats these men either psychologically or in any other way. In other countries, in Argentina, for example, there’s experience in this kind of work and a good track record in things like self-help groups. We’ve heard that in Sweden men are given a prison sentence with psychiatric care, but when they come out of prison they go on beating their wives just as before. We know the cycle of violence is difficult to break; from mounting aggression, verbal attacks and finally physical blows, to promises never to hit her again, followed by renewed aggression. The only solution is separation. Naturally we don’t directly advise the women to separate from their husbands, they have to come to this decision on their own. But often the women think they should stay with their husbands because of the children, whereas they’re damaging the children by staying. They’re presenting them with a behavioural model which will encourage their sons to become wife beaters themselves in the future and their daughters battered wives.
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Does SOS Mujer see itself as part of the feminist movement?
No, for quite valid reasons we don’t describe ourselves as feminists because the feminist movement still gets attacked in Uruguay. It’s quite common for movements to start off on a very radical footing with no attempt to water down their message. I’m not criticising that at all, just accepting it as a sociological fact. The other thing about the feminist movements is that they’ve been imported. A lot of people were in exile and when they returned from Switzerland, Sweden, Germany or from Mexico they wanted to bring their experience of these different countries back with them, to a country whose society is predominantly influenced by machismo and by our sexist upbringing and a macho control over the nature of relationships between men and women. In this environment feminist ideas are bound to be rejected.
We’re concerned here with violence against women. We work with battered wives, with women who’ve become the victims of their husbands or male members of the family. But we haven’t met all our objectives just by being a safe haven after the acts of violence have occurred. Instead, we want to change public awareness of this problem and assist in the process of enlightenment. There shouldn’t be any more battered women in this society. Our work is directed at society as a whole. It’s no use just changing the women, the other half of society has to be changed as well. So it’s important that our work is also directed at men. It’s precisely for this reason that we don’t define our group as feminist. On the other hand, any member of the group can obviously describe herself as a feminist if she wants to.
Violence is a very serious problem here. That’s why we have to proceed very cautiously. We have to be careful we don’t expose ourselves to attack through carelessness. So when we speak to the press or give lectures, we always make it clear that were not against men, we’re for society as a whole, for both sexes. We always have to play this up a bit and be flexible in our approach to the sensitive issue of men’s violence. We establish one thing right at the start of every radio broadcast and every event: Dear people, it’s not a question of feminism or machismo but a question of violence. That usually manages to break the ice.
Repetto, Lady E.. “Women against violence against women.” In Compañeras: Voices from the Latin American Women’s Movement. Edited by Gaby Keippers. Latin America Bureau; London, 1992.