Gender-based violence (GBV) is a pervasive violation of women’s rights that predominantly occurs at the hands of men and represents a growing public health crisis. While intimate partner violence and sexual coercion are prevalent types of GBV, femicide is by far the most severe. Latin America (LATAM) has gained the unfortunate distinction of being the deadliest region for women, hosting eight of the top ten countries with the highest femicide rates in the world. This piece examines femicide in LATAM through a biosocial lens with the aim to explore potential root causes and highlight areas of opportunity to prevent femicides and GBV for the women in this region.
Why a Biosocial Approach?
A biosocial approach to femicide analysis considers the complex interactions between biology, society, and culture. This approach recognizes that femicide is not solely driven by gender but also by intersecting factors such as socioeconomic inequality, political economy, and sociocultural norms. By utilizing a biosocial lens, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of femicide and work towards creating a safer and more equitable society for all.
Root Causes: Being a Woman in Latin America
Gender roles deeply ingrained in LATAM’s culture contribute significantly to intimate partner violence, which can ultimately lead to femicide. This is a complex issue that requires a biosocial approach to understand fully. These traditional roles expect men to be dominant and “macho”, while women are expected to be submissive and nurturing, creating a power dynamic that allows for violence against women. This power dynamic, often enforced with guns, has normalized GBV and led to high femicide rates. Furthermore, legal systems in the region often fail to convict femicide perpetrators, resulting in unpunished femicides committed by intimate or ex-partners.
In addition to the high incidence of intimate partner violence, drug-related gang violence, is another important contributor to femicides in LATAM. The biosocial approach helps understand the intersection of these issues. In contrast to other parts of the world, a significant proportion of femicides in this region are committed by armed perpetrators with drug affiliations. El Salvador, which has the highest femicide rate in LATAM and the world at 13.8 women killed per 100,000 females in 2023, sees most of these murders committed by heavily armed perpetrators. Similarly, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, an area dominated by drug trafficking and violence, over 2,400 women have been murdered and hundreds have gone missing since records have been kept in this city of 1.5 million inhabitants.
Whether staying with acquaintances within their social circle or encountering unknown individuals, Latin American women’s lives are at risk every day due to these intersecting issues. Moreover, the situation is worsening, with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reporting a 9.4% increase in femicide rates in 2021 compared to the previous year. Despite this, these women have become increasingly outraged with the constant threats they face, creating an extraordinarily resilient and ferocious alliance that will not accept the status quo.
Areas of Opportunity: Preventing Femicides
Global health actors can prevent femicides in LATAM by taking a multi-pronged approach that addresses both the underlying social and biological factors that contribute to violence against women. One of the key steps in addressing femicides in this area is to prevent GBV, particularly intimate partner violence, from happening in the first place. Accomplishing such an objective requires addressing the entrenched macho culture that has enabled such violence for too long. By supporting national action plans that focus on challenging gender roles, promoting women’s empowerment, and ending the normalization of violence, global health actors can help reduce the prevalence of GBV in the region.
While several institutions have supported intimate partner violence survivors, a greater effort is needed to stop the violence before it occurs. While national educational action plans have been established in numerous places throughout LATAM to prevent GBV, they have not yet yielded significant improvements. Nevertheless, early educational interventions have successfully reduced GBV in other regions of the world, highlighting the potential for this intervention to be effective in LATAM in the future. This presents a critical opportunity for global health actors to assist governments and organizations in developing effective educational campaigns to prevent GBV and femicides.
Furthermore, controlling the illegal trafficking of arms in Latin America is crucial in reducing femicides related to drug-related gang violence. By dismantling the power structures of these violent gangs, policymakers can make LATAM safer for women. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, for example, can provide a platform for global health actors to collaborate with other stakeholders in addressing this issue. Additionally, addressing the root causes of socioeconomic inequality that drive people towards joining these groups is also necessary. Researchers in Mexico have shown that decreasing income inequality by just one point on the Gini coefficient scale can prevent ten drug-related murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
Acknowledging that targeted interventions using a biosocial lens can stop rising femicide rates in LATAM will shift the unacceptable status quo. In the end, Latin American women make up a one-of-a-kind society: powerful and fearless. They are tired of violence, bloodshed, and impunity from authorities. Their silent movement has grown into a relentless force determined to take action with its own hands. As drivers of transformation, it is important to use the tools and platforms available to help improve these women’s lives. The question is, what will you do about it?
About the authors:
Diana D. del Valle, MD, MPH is a Mexican-trained doctor and Research Fellow in the Program in Global Surgery & Social Change at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Her research focuses on the effects of gender-based violence, particularly intimate partner violence, and the macroeconomic burden of trauma in low- and middle-income countries.
Rashi Jhunjhunwala, MD, MA is a general surgery resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Chief Fellow at the Program in Global Surgery & Social Change at HMS. Her work focuses on health ethics and social justice in global surgical access, including research on the economic and demographic impact of gun violence and trauma systems research.
Letícia Campos is a 5th-year medical student from Brazil and Research Collaborator at the Program in Global Surgery & Social Change at HMS. She is interested in global surgery, gender equity, clinical epidemiology, and research integrity, and has served as the Latin America Regional Representative for the Medical Student Committee of the Association of Women Surgeons.
Mayte Bryce-Alberti, MD is a Medical Doctor from Peru and Research Collaborator at the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at HMS. She previously worked with the Gender Equity Initiative in Global Surgery, advocating for underrepresented genders in surgery, and aspires to be an academic surgeon focusing on strengthening health systems.
Lina Roa MD, MPH is a Colombian-born obstetrician and gynecologist currently pursuing a fellowship in Pelvic Reconstructive Surgery at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on improving the quality of surgical care and increasing access to obstetric and gynecologic care worldwide.
Mehreen Zaigham, MBBS, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Lund University and a specialist in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Skåne University Hospital, Sweden. She is a Research Fellow at the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at HMS and focuses on the quality of maternal healthcare services and the strengthening of Obstetric and Gynecological healthcare systems.
Carolina Torres Pérez-Iglesias, MD is a Peruvian general surgery resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a second-year fellow at HMS’ Program in Global Surgery and Social Change. She leads the Anti-Racism Curriculum, promoting inclusion and equity in healthcare and research.
Tarsicio Uribe-Leitz, MD, MPH is a Mexican-born Instructor in Surgery at HMS, Lead Faculty for Latin America in the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change and scientist in the Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. His research interests include global surgery, surgical epidemiology, and trauma systems.
Stephen Hargarten, MD, MPH is Professor of Emergency Medicine and Senior Injury & Policy Advisor at the Comprehensive Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, (MCW). He was the Founding President of the National Society for the Advancement of Violence and Injury (SAVIR) and the Founding Dean of Global Health at MCW. His current research focuses on examining the ballistics of bullets from rifles and handguns. He also supports the Research Network for the Prevention of Gun Violence in the Americas.
Competing interests: None
Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui