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Judge at New El Salvador Women's Courts Ready to Tackle Gender Violence

FILE - A woman's shoes lie on a street in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, July 2, 2013. Central America encompasses some of the countries with the world's highest rates of femicide.

As an experienced judge who has taken on organized crime in El Salvador, one of the world's deadliest nations, Glenda Baires is ready to tackle an equally formidable enemy — a culture legitimizing the rape and murder of women.

With nearly 15 years as a judge under her belt, Baires believes she can boost convictions for violent crimes against women in her new role, presiding over special women's courts that are about to start work in the Central American nation.

"My hope is that ... the women who today will be our initial users can convey to their daughters that there's no longer a culture of enduring violence," she told Reuters as she prepares to start receiving cases next month.

"There will no longer exist a culture in which they won't be heard," she said in an interview.

El Salvador follows the example set by countries like Guatemala, Nepal, Liberia and Spain, where specialized courts dealing with domestic and sexual violence cases have shown "positive results," according to U.N. Women.

FILE - Members of a gang sit behind bars at a court that deals with gender-based crimes in Guatemala City, July 3, 2013.
FILE - Members of a gang sit behind bars at a court that deals with gender-based crimes in Guatemala City, July 3, 2013.

Two women's courts have been created to deal exclusively with violent crimes against women, although they have yet to start work, and another four should be running by the end of 2017, Baires said.

Baires is one of two female judges appointed so far to preside over women's courts, as recruitment continues as part of government efforts to combat gender-based violence.

High rates of femicide

Most violent crimes go unpunished in El Salvador, which has one of the world's highest rates of femicide — defined as the killing of a woman or girl by a man because of her gender.

Nearly four in every five cases of femicide, often carried out by current or former partners, go unpunished in the country, the United Nations estimates.

"Our society has clearly been patriarchal and machista, our behavior, attitudes show contempt toward women that have become very naturalized," Baires said.

The country with a population of 6 million is one of the world's most dangerous, with 5,280 murders recorded in 2016.

Baires estimates one in five of these were femicides.

El Salvador has passed laws since 2012 to protect women from violence, including making femicide a specific crime with a sentence of up to 50 years in jail.

Condoning violence

But society — and the courts — often condone violence against women, leading to low prosecution rates and weak sentences for crimes like domestic violence and sexual harassment, Baires said.

Experts say women's courts with female judges who have been specially trained in gender violence and law are likely to be more supportive of victims, which could strengthen prosecution.

Baires said women have been blamed in courtrooms for the violence inflicted on them because they went out at night or their husbands were angry that "lunch wasn't prepared on time."

Baires hopes handing down more convictions for violence against women will "send a message" that such crimes are unacceptable and abusers will be punished, as well as giving women faith in the justice system.

"It's being part of a change so that women can have a life free of violence and give confidence to citizens that these types of behavior have to change," she said.