By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, July 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Bolivia, which has one of South America's highest rates of women being killed because of their gender, has declared femicide a national priority and will step up efforts to tackle growing violence, a top government rights official said on Tuesday.
Since January authorities have recorded 73 femicides — the killing of a woman by a man due to her gender — in the highest toll since 2013. The murders amount to one woman killed every two days.
"In terms of the femicide rate, Bolivia is in the top rankings," said Tania Sanchez, head of the Plurinational Service for Women and Ending Patriarchy at Bolivia's justice ministry, despite legal protections being in place.
A 2013 law defined femicide as a specific crime and provided tougher sentences for convicted offenders.
"We are not indifferent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The national priority is the lives of women, of all ages, and for that reason the president has raised this issue of femicide as the most extreme form (of violence)," Sanchez said.
The latest femicide victim was 26-year-old mother Mery Vila, killed last week by her partner who beat her on the head with a hammer.
This week, the government announced a 10-point "emergency plan."
Worldwide, a third of all women experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, according to the UN.
In Bolivia, violence against women is driven by entrenched machismo culture, which tends to blame victims and even condones it.
According to a 2016 national government survey, seven of every 10 women in Bolivia said they had suffered some type of violence inflicted by a partner.
Sanchez said the new plan "takes into account prevention, as well as care to victims and punishing violence, macho violence."
A commission will also look at increasing government spending on gender violence and prevention, and evaluate various initiatives' success.
"Funding is insufficient. There's a great need in the regions," Sanchez said.
Other measures include obligatory training courses for civil servants and public sector employees on gender violence and prevention.
School and university teachers will also receive training about "the psychological, sexual and physical violence" women and girls face.
The commission will also consider if femicide should be regarded as a crime of lesser humanity.
WIDESPREAD GENDER VIOLENCE
Latin America and the Caribbean have the world's highest rates of femicide, according to the United Nations.
Some 15 other countries in the region have introduced laws against femicide in recent years.
Victims of femicides in Bolivia and across the region often die at the hands of current or former boyfriends and husbands with a history of domestic abuse, experts say.
"We believe that this increase (in femicides) is related to a patriarchal system that appropriates the bodies and lives of women," said Violeta Dominguez, head of UN Women in Bolivia.
Femicide cases in Bolivia often go unpunished, with victims' families struggling for justice, Sanchez said.
Of 627 cases recorded since 2013, 288 remain open without a conviction, which Sanchez called "alarming."
Bolivian President Evo Morales posted on Twitter on Monday "It's time to end impunity, and tackle problems as a society."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)