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Subverting Justice: Socio-Legal Determinants of Impunity for Violence against Women in Guatemala





High levels of violence against women and impunity in Guatemala have reached crisis proportions and have received increased international attention in recent years. The phenomenon of feminicide (e.g., killings of women in the context of state impunity), is widespread in Latin America and particularly acute in Guatemala. Many (if not the majority) are rooted in violence that becomes concentrated in the family. In this paper, we propose that both the structure and application of the laws in Guatemala contribute to widespread impunity. Police and judges use laws other than those created to address violence against women in order to justify lack of enforcement. For example, judges resist issuing restraining orders, and police refuse to apply them because this can violate perpetrators’ property rights. Judges also refuse to apply domestic violence laws because this violates the principle of equality under the law. Women refuse to use the legal system to seek justice because alimony laws will not be enforced and women are economically dependent. The discriminatory fashion in which these laws are applied leads to widespread impunity. Even though laws on the books could be applied otherwise, those who implement them privilege laws that conflict with violence against women laws. While much scholarship focuses on individual-level motives for violence, we instead analyze the socio-legal environment and existing legal codes that enable continued failure to respond adequately to violence against women. The legal framework and the legal code itself are deeply shaped by the context in which they are written—the structural, gender, symbolic, everyday and long arm of political violence that permeate all aspects of life in Guatemala and exacerbate women’s vulnerability, especially the poor. We argue that this broader legal context endangers the lives of women in Guatemala. We also extend the socio-legal scholarship to highlight failures for victim’s families and the disempowerment of women as they enter relationships.

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