On 21 May 2004 Alexandra Hidalgo was kidnapped after leaving work at the Central Bank of Venezuela in Caracas. As she drove out of the car park, two men emerged from a van blocking the street and approached her car, banging on the windows with guns. They forced Hidalgo into the van, where a group of six men raped her for several hours. Among them was her ex-husband, Ivan Sosa Rivero. Afterwards, the men left her on a deserted street. "In the beginning I was struggling, but by the end I had no strength left," she says.
Five years later, Hidalgo is still fighting to bring her ex-husband to justice. In 2004 he was charged with assault, but was released after four months and has since gone into hiding. In 2005 an arrest warrant was issued, but the police have never tried to recapture him. In cases of rape or domestic violence, justice is not easily won in Venezuela, a country where violence against women is widespread: last year the Venezuelan daily newspaper Diario Vea reported that five women are killed each week in gender-related violent incidents, and it is estimated that every 15 minutes at least one Venezuelan woman is attacked.
In March 2007, the government's Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence came into effect; it defines 19 forms of violence against women, including psychological abuse. The law has won praise from women's rights campaigners, but they say that the government has not provided enough resources for implementing it. According to data taken from the Venezuelan Observatory for the Human Rights of Women, only 4 per cent of cases of violence against women have been prosecuted since the law was passed.
Even in the event of prosecution, women rarely receive justice. The man who tortured and raped Linda Loaiza over a period of four months in 2001 is already walking free. Loaiza was kidnapped by Luis Carrera Almoina - son of the president of the Central University of Venezuela. The violence she suffered left her in need of surgery, and she can no longer have children. Loaiza was rescued from Almoina's apartment and he was brought into custody.
But 59 judges declined to take the case. When Almoina was finally convicted in 2004, he was charged with deprivation of liberty and severe assault, rather than the original charges of rape, torture and attempted homicide. Sentenced to six years, Almoina served only two because
he was in custody for four years beforehand. Venezuela's poor record on violence against women is not exceptional in the region: up to 40 per cent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean are physically or sexually abused at some point during their lifetime. But what sets Venezuela apart is that its leader is a self-proclaimed feminist.
Hugo Chávez calls for the empowerment of women through his socialist political project the Bolivarian Revolution. At the World Social Forum in January he announced that "true socialism is feminist". But women's rights groups say that the government is dragging its feet on the issue of violence against women. “If the president is really feminist, he should be investing in improving the system for women to access justice," says Sonia Obregón from the UN Development Fund in Venezuela.
A huge problem is the lack of training for police; domestic violence is not taken seriously because it is viewed as a private matter between husband and wife. "When we tell women to go to the police they often say, 'For what? If I go to the police my husband will know that and he will hit me again in a worse way,'" explains María Sierra from Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
Only 10 per cent of women report cases of domestic violence, according to local NGOs. Women often live with their abusers; even if the police follow up their complaint, there is nowhere for them to go. The law calls for a women's shelter in each of Venezuela's 23 states and the capital district, but there are only two in the entire country. Florangel Parodi, the director of women's shelters for the government-funded National Institute of Women, Inamujer, says that they are in the process of creating two more shelters, but the dates for completion have not been finalised. "If they want to build new shelters it is not only getting the building, you need to train people to work in them. There are not enough human resources," says Sierra. "PDVSA [the state oil company] offered to build them ten new shelters, but they can't afford to find the staff for them."
Overall, violence in Venezuela has reached unprecedented levels. The country has the highest homicide rate in Latin America, with more than 14,700 murders committed last year, and an estimated 19,000 expected by the end of 2009, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, an academic think tank. “Violence against women has increased, and the reason is simple," says Roberto Briceño León, the group's head. "There is an increase in violent behaviour in general, and a lack of respect for laws and norms fostered by the government itself. Violence has become a legitimate way of solving conflicts."
“All kinds of violence are getting worse," agrees Tamara Adrián, a prominent law professor at the Central University of Venezuela. "Something wrong is happening in Venezuela, in our society." The good news is that the government is working to make it easier for women to bring cases against violent men. Up to 29 new courts specialising in gender-based violence have been created since January, and Inamujer is focusing its efforts on training police and prosecutors.
In June 2009, Belén Vallenilla's ex-husband, Carlos Rodríguez, was convicted of domestic violence and sentenced to seven months in prison. It was the first domestic violence case in Venezuela to result in imprisonment, according to the trial judge; Rodríguez is, however, appealing and the case is not yet public. Slowly, changes are happening. But how many will be failed by the system before the government gets serious about tackling violence against women?
“A lot of my friends said, 'You must be happy,'" says Vallenilla. "I don't feel happy . . . I just feel that justice has finally been served."
Amy Stillman is a freelance journalist based in Caracas