Legislative Reform and the Struggle to Eradicate Violence against Women in the Dominican Republic

By Perez, Mercedes | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Legislative Reform and the Struggle to Eradicate Violence against Women in the Dominican Republic


Perez, Mercedes, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


INTRODUCTION

In 1997, the National Congress of the Dominican Republic approved Law 24-97 Against Domestic Violence in a bid to alter the state's response to violence against women. (1) Law 24-97 introduced important changes to the country's Criminal Code, criminalizing violent and discriminatory conduct in an effort to guarantee women equal protection and equal benefit of the law. (2) The need for state action was urgent. A letter submitted to the Senate in 1996 in support of the draft bill that would later become Law 24-97 noted that murder was the sixth most common cause of death among Dominican women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five, that one in six Dominican homes experienced some type of violence, and that eighty percent of women who sought health care did so as a result of domestic violence. (3)

Prior to 1997, the Dominican Criminal Code was in dire need of reform. Substantive provisions in the Code dated back to the introduction of the Codigo de Instruccion Criminal y Codigo Penal (1826), modeled on the Napoleonic Codes and introduced following the Haitian occupation of 1821. (4) Although the Code was modified after Dominican independence in 1844, for the most part it remained antiquated. (5) To eliminate remnants of an authoritarian and patrimonial past, legislative reform, especially in the area of criminal law and criminal procedure, was deemed crucial to democratic reform. (6) As one commentator has noted, criminal law reform signifies "la muestra de la renovacion democratica latinoamericana," or "proof of the renewal of Latin American democracy." (7)

From the perspective of violence against women, domestic and international forces combined to catalyze the radical legislative transformation that culminated in the approval of Law 24-97. Within the Dominican Republic, an organized feminist movement emerged in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, agitating for change within universities, in the courts and the legislature, and through the media. (8) Civil society organizations specializing in gender issues also appeared at the same time, pressing for change, providing services to women that had not been publicly available, and reaching outside the country for international support. (9)

Several highly publicized cases of violence against women engaged the public conscience when it became shockingly clear that women fleeing their assailants were routinely turned away by police and denied access to judicial institutions for protection and redress, often with deadly results. (10) One case in particular sparked a public debate, questioning the established view that violence against women, especially violence within the family, was a "private affair." (11) Press reports told the story of a woman who had repeatedly pleaded with police for protection from her abusive husband but was ignored. Her husband subsequently locked the woman and her two children into a bedroom and set fire to the family home, burning them alive. (12)

There was also growing pressure from abroad. The Dominican Republic ratified several international conventions requiring member states to institute measures combating violence against women. In 1982, the Dominican Republic ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ("CEDAW"), (13) and in 1996 it ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women ("Convention of Belem do Patti"). (14) The Preamble to Law 24-97 mentions both of these international human rights instruments. (15)

With Law 24-97, the Dominican Republic succeeded in criminalizing most forms of violence against women. This was the first, and perhaps easiest, step in the state's battle to eradicate violence against women. However, there remains an urgent need to promote the safety and security of survivors of violence and to foster public confidence in the administration of justice. …

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