CARACAS, Mar 6 (IPS) - Fed up with her partner's beatings late one night, Josefina decided to leave. But where could she go at that time of night, when she lived in such a dangerous area? Her neighbourhood, a shanty town in the Venezuelan capital, is effectively controlled by gangs that resort to shootouts to settle their differences.
"I made my way as best I could to a friendly neighbour's house," she said, before seeking help from official bodies, as she could not turn to her family. Josefina has been the victim of violence from childhood; her mother and brothers beat her. Her father left home, and her partner, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, routinely punched and kicked her, as he did that last night, she told IPS.
At a seminar to learn about Spain’s experience with shelters for battered women, Manuel Rodríguez, the head of the police force victim assistance unit in El Hatillo, a partly rural area in the southeast of Caracas, told IPS: "I was once involved in the case of a terrified woman who refused to go home because her husband was going to kill her with a machete."
"Where could I take her? The only thing I could do was turn to Negra Hipólita, where they took her in, but only for a few days," said the police officer. Negra Hipólita is a government care programme that provides temporary shelter for the homeless.
The magnitude of the problem is reflected in the number of calls to the helpline set up by the government's National Institute for Women. "Four months ago it became a 24/7 service, and we went from receiving an average of 11 calls a day to 300 calls a day," said Florángel Parodi, the head of the Institute.
Although only a portion of the 34,000 calls received so far by the helpline involved domestic violence, the overall volume of demand on the 24-hour service "gives an idea of the magnitude and impact of this problem in Venezuela," a country of 28 million, Parodi said.
In 2005, NGOs carried out a study which documented 36,777 official complaints of violence against women. Behind each reported case, the NGOs say, there are another nine that go unreported.
The human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) said in a report last year that on average, in Venezuela, a woman is abused by her partner or ex partner every 15 minutes.
The AI report said that complaints have increased many times over under the Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence, enacted in 2007, but also underlined that the title of its report, "Existe la ley, toca aplicarla" (The law is there, let's use it) is pertinent to eradicating violence against women in Venezuela.
This was the view expressed by Ugandan expert Winnie Byanyima, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) gender team, who visited Caracas during the first week of March. Venezuela has advanced laws, but the law must be enforced in order to avoid impunity, she told journalists.
The judicial system must change, because there is a duty not only to punish the offender, but to rehabilitate the victim, Byanyima said. She referred to the challenge of offering services to the survivors of violence, such as counselling and shelters, and to prevent violence from occurring in the first place, which means mobilising men as well, and changing attitudes.
The seminar in Caracas, organised by United Nations agencies and the Spanish International Cooperation Agency, took place in the context of an international campaign which will commemorate International Women's Day this Mar. 8 under the slogan "Women and men united to end violence against women and girls."
"There is a sort of social permission for aggressors granted by persons who do not themselves exercise violence, but who through their actions or omissions behave as the guardians of patriarchy," Rafael Soto, of the Association of Men for Gender Equality (AHIGE) based in Málaga, Spain, said at the seminar.
"Working with men accused of violence is an urgent task. The most urgent thing is to stop the violence, but commitment to equality is important, because role models for egalitarian behaviour are few and far between and may be ideologically a long way away from many men," Soto said.
"In Spain there is a three-tier system of care: emergency centres for women who arrive in the middle of the night fleeing from their homes; shelters, where they receive integrated care for an average of four months; and warden-assisted flats, where they live for longer periods," said Ana Alcázar, the coordinator of these services for the regional government of Andalusia.
Spain, with a population of over 40 million people, has 31 emergency centres, 149 shelters and 289 warden-assisted flats. One-third of the women who use these services are foreigners.
Shelters in the blueprint stage
Venezuelan law stipulates at least one shelter or safe house in each of the country's 23 states and the capital district, but only two have been established - one in the Caracas metropolitan area and another in the adjacent state of Aragua.
"The Aragua house is being closed because of serious operational problems, and the Caracas house, which is sheltering more than 30 families, is practically in a state of collapse," a Caracas municipal employee told IPS under condition of anonymity.
"Creating these centres is expensive, it is not easy, neither is their upkeep, but we are going to develop at least another 10 in the medium term," Parodi said.
The shelters "are doubly necessary in situations where women will not, or cannot, ask for help from their family," Alcázar said.
A 2007 report by the National Institute for Women showed that 13 percent of cases of violence against women were perpetrated by someone outside the family, while 87 percent were cases of domestic violence.
"The basis of domestic violence is psychological, because in addition to the beatings, the second weapon the aggressor has is the victim’s silence, which is why support is necessary," psychologist Yurbin Aguilar of the Institute for Women told IPS.
According to Aguilar, economic and social factors can keep women trapped for years in a violent situation. "Often a woman will not have worked for years, and the man manages to isolate her from her environment." But the strongest factor is "fear of further aggression," she said.
Josefina remained in her mother's home, in spite of the physical and verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of her family, even when she was living with her partner and had a child who is now seven years old. This circumstance locked her into dependence which made her helpless to find somewhere else to live, or a job.
She has been seeing specialists to help her regain control of her life, hold down a job and establish financial independence, and get back her son, who is still living with his grandmother in a different part of the country.
Your life is important, and you could lose it by staying in a violent situation. You must get over it, and you will go on living, said Byanyima as her message to women living with violence. Often the main step is to simply leave your abuser and realise that without him, there is a whole new life ahead of you, she said.