After five unsuccessful previous attempts, the Legislative Assembly finally approved in second and final debate the Law to Penalize Violence against Women. The controversial bill passed its final test April 12 when 45 of 46 legislators present voted in favor.
The bill, which will become law as soon as it is published in the official government daily La Gaceta, increases punishments for crimes against women by their partners, defined as anyone with whom she has “a relationship of marriage or de facto union, declared or not.”
In effect, the punishments therefore apply to any couple that lives together. The law calls for 20-35 years in jail for any man convicted of murdering his partner – nearly double the 12-18 years now applied to homicide convictions – and six months to two years for a man convicted of “repeatedly and in a public or private manner, insulting, devaluing, ridiculing, shaming or terrorizing” his partner.
In addition, the law makes it a crime to oblige a woman to watch pornography, endure pain during sex or have sex with third parties, as well as to destroy a partner’s goods. It establishes up to six years in jail for a man who forces his partner to maintain him financially, and jail terms for men who violate their restraining orders.
The law also calls for 12-18 years in jail for convicted rapists.
The law was first proposed in 1999, amid a rising wave of violence against women, with an average of 29 women killed each year by their husband, boyfriend or ex-lover.
Eighty percent of those women had restraining orders or other protective measures against the aggressors, but violation of such orders drew little response from police.
In January 2004, when nine domestic violence-related slayings took place in a single month, then-President Abel Pacheco said of Costa Rica, “We have embarrassed ourselves before the world and before God.” In one of that month’s cases, a man who had been arrested three times on the same day a few weeks prior for violence against his family, but released each time, returned to shoot and kill three of his children, injure a fourth and shoot his pregnant companion in the abdomen (TT, Jan. 30, 2004).
Earlier that month, the country’s domestic violence problems attracted international attention when a 30-year-old Tica was granted asylum in the United States after she successfully argued that the Costa Rican government was unable to protect her from years of abuse. Over a 10-year period, her lawyer said, the woman’s partner had violated the restraining order against him on nearly a dozen occasions, sending the woman to the hospital several times before she fled to the United States with her two young children in 2003 (TT, Jan. 9, 2004).
Meanwhile, the bill to protect women was approved five times in first debate over the years. However, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) returned the bill to the assembly each time because of alleged procedural violations and other problems (TT, Dec. 17, 2004). During one constitutional review, the chamber ruled that the bill’s application of penalties to crimes committed against women in “relationships of power” was too vague, prompting legislators to adopt the current definition of “marital relationships, declared or not.”
This time around, Libertarian Movement legislator Luis Antonio Barrantes, who this week was elected as his party’s legislative faction head, told The Tico Times he tried unsuccessfully to ensure another highcourt review. After the legislation was approved in first debate April 9, Barrantes and other Libertarians did their best to collect the 10 signatures necessary to submit the bill to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) for review, but obtained only six.
Barrantes, who voted against the law, maintains it violates the Constitution because it distinguishes between men’s and women’s rights, and will be difficult to properly enforce. In particular, the wording related to obliging a woman to do something against her will is too vague, he claims.
“A man could oblige a woman to turn down the volume on the TV,” he said. “It’s an indeterminate term.”
Jeanette Carrillo, president of the National Women’s Institute (INAMU) and one of the many who celebrated last week’s final approval, told the daily La Nación she’s dissatisfied with the law, too – but for an entirely different reason. She believes it doesn’t go far enough.
“I think it fell short considering the initial proposals and the magnitude of the conflict,” she said. However, she also said the law is an important step forward for Costa Rica.
“The death of women is a social problem,” she said, asked why the law focuses on violence against women rather than any citizen. “The murder of a man is equally serious, but it is an individual problem, not a social problem.”
As the bill has made its long trek through the assembly, multiple marches, women’s events and studies have highlighted the wide-spread nature of violence against women. A 2003 University of Costa Rica (UCR) study found that 58% of women over age 16 have suffered physical or sexual abuse at least once in their lifetime (TT, Nov. 26, 2004).
The assembly’s most recent vote was prompted in part by a slew of shootings of women by their partners at the end of last month.