Legislative reform and the struggle to eradicate violence against women in the Dominican Republic.

Author:Perez, Mercedes


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. (16) The Dominican Republic must move beyond the simple codification of a normative regime toward ensuring that regime's realization in practice.

For example, in Canada, the spousal homicide rate for women decreased by more than half between 1974 and 2002, dropping from 16.5 victims per million married women in 1974 to 8.1 victims per million married women in 2002. (17) The decrease has been credited in part to increased gender equality, more sophisticated police and court policies addressing violence against women, effective implementation of spousal abuse charging and prosecution policies, resort to treatment programs for abusive spouses, and increased access to specialized services, such as domestic violence courts and emergency shelters for abused women. (18)

The Dominican Republic faces additional cultural challenges. The State will need to foster a massive shift in the perception of women and violence against women through public education campaigns. (19) The mere codification of laws will not, on its own, change cultural values. There is also an urgent need to train law enforcement professionals and judges, as well as lawyers, about the changes introduced by Law 24-97, and a further need to coordinate efforts across different public sectors, especially the health care sector and the law enforcement sector. (20) Finally, the state's ability to respond to violence against women is linked to the broader need for continued reform of judicial and political institutions and for reform initiatives designed to uproot economic inequities.


The present study analyzes the impact of Law 24-97 on the Dominican state's qualitative response to violence against women. Part I critiques laws and procedures available to combat violence against women before 1997. Part II explains the legislative changes implemented through the enactment of Law 24-97 in 1997. Part III details the impact of Law 2497 and outlines recommendations for change.

This study was hampered by a lack of research and data documenting incidents of violence against women. Until the 1980s, systematic studies on women and gender were virtually non-existent in the Dominican Republic. (21) One reason for this academic and statistical neglect was the predominance of a patriarchal and sexist discourse in academia which tended to dictate topics of inquiry. This problem was exacerbated by the dearth of female academics and a prevailing assumption that gender issues (if they existed at all) did not comprise a serious enough topic for academic research. (22)

In the 1980s, non-governmental organizations began to fill the statistical gap with exploratory studies. (23) For example, in 1982, the Centro de Investigacion para la Accion Femenina ("CIPAF") conducted one of the first studies regarding the frequency with which cases of rape were reported to police. (24) Comprehensive studies, however, do not exist. (25) Even today, as will be discussed in Part III below, reliable statistics and research are difficult to find.

The deficiency in data is not surprising and is characteristic of other countries as well. It was not until 1980 that the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women provided the first national estimates of the rate of spousal abuse in Canada, revealing that one in ten Canadian women who were married or in a common-law relationship were battered by their partners. (26)

Widespread underreporting of cases by women, their families, and friends also obscures a violent reality. Studies conducted in several Latin American countries reveal that only an estimated fifteen to twenty percent of cases of family violence against adult women are reported to police. (27) The true dimensions of the problem of violence against women, especially violence occurring within the family, tend to remain inaccessible for several reasons. These include the belief that family violence is a "private matter" comprised of isolated, deviant acts and the belief that acts of violence within the family are part of the normal dynamic of family life. (28) Popular attitudes are telling. There is a common Dominican expression that is often used to explain away domestic violence: "Esos son pleitos entre marido y mujer," (29) or, "Those are disputes between husband and wife."

In addition, victims often blame themselves for provoking the violence that they endure, an attitude that is reinforced by cultural and societal perceptions. (30) Finally, many victims believe that there are no legal or social services available to them, or that existing services are inadequate and perhaps even detrimental to their interests. (31)

The present study relies on an analysis of pre-1997 Criminal Code provisions, changes introduced by Law 24-97, and information gathered by non-governmental organizations and international organizations. This analysis has been supplemented with personal interviews conducted with past and present lawyers and staff at the Centro de Servicios Legales para la Mujer, Inc. ("CENSEL"), a Dominican non-profit, non-governmental organization that has been working on behalf of victims of violence since 1987. In addition, a survey was conducted with police officers and hospital emergency room physicians, residents, and nurses in the cities of Santo Domingo and Bani over the course of three months--November 2001 to January 2002. (32) The survey was designed to test the knowledge of these professionals with respect to the substantive criminal provisions introduced by Law 24-97. The survey was also designed to reveal the extent to which gender-related myths and stereotypes continue to impede a just application of Law 24-97.


    1. Lack of Constitutionally Guaranteed Equality Rights

      The ideal of equal application of the law, regardless of personal characteristics such as gender, was not expressly included in the 1994 Constitucion Politica de la Republica Dominicana, (33) despite the requirement in CEDAW that all...

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