LIMA, Perú — Three weeks and six surgeries after being doused with gasoline and set alight by a former coworker unable to accept her rejection of his advances, Eyvi Agreda remains in intensive care in Lima’s Almenara Hospital, strips of pigskin covering the second and third degree burns on 60 percent of her body.
Having moved from her native Andean region of Cajamarca, the sociable 22-year-old had been working hard here in the Peruvian capital, studying international business while also paying her bills by doing shifts in a call center.
All that came to a juddering halt on April 24 when Carlos Javier Hualpa, a 37-year-old restaurant worker, launched his horrific attack on an unsuspecting Agreda on a bus in the upmarket neighborhood of Miraflores.
The incident has shocked Peru and shone a light on the issue of misogynistic violence and femicide — the act of killing a woman simply because she is a woman — that plagues both this Andean nation and, more generally, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Reliable statistics for sexual assault, domestic battery and other forms of violence against women are in short supply, experts say, in part because of official disinterest and victims’ fear of coming forward. But the few numbers that do exist point to an epidemic of gender-based physical attacks on women and girls in the region. According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, 10 of the 25 nations with the highest recorded rates of femicides are in Latin America with another four in the Caribbean.
That is partly attributable to the region’s high overall levels of violence including its well documented status as being, statistically, the world’s most homicidal. But many also blame it on a deeply ingrained culture of “machismo”, which has generated what activists call a continuum of patriarchal behavior that runs from mundane everyday acts of condescension, disdain and exclusion towards women and girls, through to its most extreme expressions, rape and femicide.
Indeed, it is only 20 years since the concept of femicide even became an issue in Latin America, following the notorious wave of unresolved killings of women in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city on the U.S. border, in the 1990s.
While the United States is having its “me too” moment regarding harassment principally in the workplace, Latin America lags several steps behind, with femicides from Mexico to Argentina periodically triggering protests from the “ni una más" (“not one more”) and the more recent "ni una menos" movement in Perú.
Arrested just the day after his unspeakable attack on Agreda, Hualpa, seeking to play down his culpability, told prosecutors: “I wanted her face to be scarred, but not her body. It all went out of control.”
María Ysabel Cedano García, head of Demus, a Lima-based women’s rights nonprofit, says: “Those who commit femicides, or attempted femicides, claim they are being disrespected or cheated on. They are not able to accept being rejected because they believe they have a right, a right over women’s bodies. Femicides typically involve cruelty. There is a level of viciousness and planning. The objective is to punish.”
Responding to the attack on Agreda, psychoanalyst Eduardo Gastelumendi, meanwhile, has warned that machismo harms the well-being of men as well as women.
“Boys raised in macho homes end up being adults who are really like big children: emotionally infantile, dependent, spoilt, violent, demanding and impulsive,” he wrote in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio.
“Girls who grow up in these homes are treated in a more demanding way and tend to be devalued for being women, which leads them to struggle with feelings of guilt and an absurd and socially cruel handicapping.”
For activists like Cedano García, extreme attacks such as that on Agreda need to be seen in the context of a full spectrum of violations of women’s rights, from teenage pregnancies and rape to murder, while frequent disinterest from law enforcement feeds a climate of impunity.
She says the National Police of Peru (PNP) open four new rape investigations every hour. “But those are just the ones that are reported. What is the real figure? Sexual violence and harassment don’t seem to worry the police. They just don’t see it as part of public safety, part of their job.”
That view of the disinterest in — and even downright hostility to — victims of misogynistic violence has been crystallized in Peru by the high-profile case of Arlette Contreras, a young lawyer beaten up by her boyfriend, Adriano Pozo, in a hotel in the mountain city of Ayacucho in 2016.
Part of the attack, including a naked and enraged Pozo dragging Contreras by the hair, was caught on the hotel’s closed circuit television. Yet a local court absolved him, supposedly for lack of evidence, and is now threatening Contreras with a year behind bars, allegedly for including false information in a CV.
The refusal to take femicide seriously— and women’s rights more generally — also comes straight from some of the most powerful players in Peruvian society.
Last year, Maritza García, a member of the hard-right Fujimorista party, was forced to step down as president of the Congressional committee on women’s rights after suggesting that “sometimes, without thinking, women give the opportunity to men” to kill them.
Meanwhile, Lima’s ultra-conservative Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani has dismissed the notion that minors who become pregnant might be victims of sexual abuse. “The statistics tell us that girls have abortions, but it is not because they have abused these girls, but because, often, the woman puts herself [on display] like in a shop window, provoking” the men, he said in 2016.
Peru’s last two governments have attempted to address the ingrained cultural sexism by including issues of equality in the national curriculum. However, the education ministry has been forced to back down after a sustained series of protests, led in part by Cipriani, against what conservative activists have attacked as “gender ideology.”
No wonder, perhaps, that Peru also has one of Latin America’s highest rates of domestic violence. One report found that 39.5 percent of Peruvian women had experienced physical or sexual violence from their partner, including 14.9 percent in the past 12 months, levels second only to Colombia and Bolivia.
Other Latin American countries have been more successful, however, at addressing the problem within their education systems. In 2015, Colombia passed a law that now sees schoolchildren studying how gender impacts society.
Several other nations in the region have also seen new legislation, sometimes involving novel solutions, aimed at prevention. That includes a project in Uruguay in which women deemed at high risk are given electronic beepers that send a signal to the police should their abusers, who wear electronic bands, draw too close to them.
Yet much remains to be done, starting with better quantifying the problem to allow policy solutions to more effectively target it.
Kathleen Taylor, an expert on violence against women with the Latin American and Caribbean office of UN Women, the United Nations agency that addresses women’s rights, adds: “We just don’t know the full impact [of misogynistic violence] because of the underreporting and misreporting.”
“Many murders are not classified as femicides even though they are. For example, if a woman disappears, it is not categorized as femicide. Mexico has some very high levels of women going missing and a lot of them could be femicides. But we just don’t know.”
As for Agreda, she has at least now been able to wake from an induced coma, reportedly crying and asking her family to take her home to Cajamarca, an impossible wish for her right now.
She faces an agonizing rehabilitation expected to take another six months, including several more surgeries to allow doctors to place strips of her own skin taken from her back and grown in the lab, on her extensive burns.